Active Learning Classroom Designs

Active Learning Classroom at McGill Faculty of Education

Active Learning Classroom at McGill Faculty of Education

This photograph was taken at the Faculty of Education, McGill University. It shows one of the university’s early Active Learning classroom designs. It conforms in many respects to the SCALE-UP model popularized by Bob Beichner at North Carolina State University.

We can learn a great deal by examining some of the features of this room. First of all, the tables are round and large, 7 feet in diameter, as per the SCALE-UP model. They seat 9 students. This poses an immediate question:  how many students do you want sitting together? In SCALE-UP the idea is that students work in groups of 3 and so, 3 groups per table. Some college teachers find this unappealing. They want one small group, say 4 students, per table. Such tables might be 5 feet in diameter.

It is not too late to mention that teacher involvement in the design of the space is crucial. Other important players include Education Advisors, Facilities Manager, IT Manager, and “Money” Manager.

Furniture in Classroom Designs

The ideal Active Learning space would probably be square so that students could be located at an equal distance from the teacher’s podium at the center of the room. It seems that there are few spaces in educational institutions that meet this criterion. At Champlain Saint-Lambert we have found that oval-shaped tables work well in long rectangular rooms. There are other possibilities including petal-shaped tables which can be combined to accommodate groups of different sizes. The key principle is that students be able to work comfortably in teams and, ideally, in a variety of groupings.

Chairs are very important. The chairs shown above are of high quality. There is no other option. Cheap seats will start to squeak or simply break in no time. Chairs on wheels are essential in Active Learning classrooms.

It goes without saying that furniture placement must leave a comfortable space for students to work and for teachers to circulate easily.

IT in Classroom Designs

No matter what electronic devices students will be using it is highly desirable to have power outlets at each table. We have tried using vertical poles to drop the wires down from the ceiling. This is very unattractive and alternatives should be considered. In fact, we have subsequently found it feasible to drill through the concrete floor in upper story rooms and feed power up from the ceiling space below. In the case of a first floor classroom we were able to cut slits in the concrete floor and run conduits from the walls to the tables.

Active Learning classrooms can be designed around fixed or moveable furniture. In this latter case a greater variety of table shapes becomes possible and often the tables are designed to be placed together in different ways to accommodate different group sizes and classroom formats. Equipping a room with this type of furniture will likely be a bit more expensive than the fixed format. This is because the moveable tables often come from name brand furniture designers whereas the fixed type can be crafted by local furniture makers.

A decision to be made early on is whether the room will have a single use or whether it might also be usable as a computer lab, for example. This will affect decisions about IT. Since student collaboration is a regular component of Active Learning activities it is often held that there should only be only one computer (or tablet) per group. This is to discourage students trying to solve problems on their own. A good Active Learning task usually requires the resources of a team.

Some institutions have adopted the BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) approach to the use of computers in the Active Learning classroom. Decision-making here may ultimately revolve around the extent of IT resources available. Supporting a multiple-device environment may create significant demands for IT support. At this date it may be simpler and safer to provide a standard device, either for each group or for each student and deal with the BYOD issue later. Seneca College in Toronto has adopted the BYOD approach.

Shared viewing is often a challenge. Active Learning teachers frequently want to show work to the entire class, whether from their own computer or from that of one of the students. In addition, student groups often want to project work from one of their computers so that other group members can see it. This is a complicated problem.

If each group is to have its own shared display, what device will be used? Will it be a wall-mounted flat screen or some sort of interactive whiteboard (Smart board)? What becomes challenging now is finding a switcher mechanism to allow different group computers to display on the shared medium. This is where it might be desirable to have just one computer per group: no switcher required.

But this still leaves the question of displays by the teacher. If the teacher cannot use the group display screens to “show all” then strategically placed projectors and screens or interactive whiteboards will be required specifically for her use.

Introducing mobile devices into the picture still leaves some of these issues unresolved.

Here are a few observations from our experience at Champlain Saint-Lambert:

  • in our Active Learning classroom for Computer Science we did it all; each group has its own flat screen which can display from any member’s computer; the teacher can display from any student’s computer to all flat screens in the room; the switching system was not available off-the-shelf and was not cheap
  • some experience suggests that a group-shared display is not always well utilized by students; this might be different where an interactive whiteboard is used instead of a flat screen
  • one of the best values for an Active Learning classroom is the installation of ordinary whiteboards; they are inexpensive and are an excellent tool for student collaboration and, particularly, for peer instruction; even small portable whiteboards can be used by students working around a desktop; students quickly discover that they can use their mobile device camera to take a picture of the whiteboard contents and email it to team members and the teacher
  • short-throw projectors are the best solution when projecting on conventional screens or interactive whiteboards; regular ceiling-mounted projectors project the image directly on the teacher
  • Apple TV is a useful tool when teachers or students want to project from their mobile devices


Every institution will likely produce unique results since room space, budgets, and priorities will be different. Here are some tips:

  1. Involve all the relevant players in the design: teachers, faculty development advisors, IT, buildings management, and signing authority. Don’t forget to check for the availability of grant funding.
  2. The architectural and pedagogical impact of the room revolves mainly around the seating. Sizes of groups and sizes of tables are early questions to be answered early on. Chairs must have wheels and tables with wheels offer more flexibility.
  3. To keep it simple, leave some of the group display problems discussed above, until later.
  4. Take full advantage of ordinary whiteboards.
  5. Many teachers will be enthralled by the new room. This will not necessarily result  in a change of teaching methods. Consider making room use conditional upon a teacher’s desire to test something specific and to report the results. The commitment could also include participation in a local community of practice.
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