This article was originally published in the Almanac, volume 61, No. 10, on 10/21/2014. It can be viewed here in its original form

Alain Plante

What are the elements needed to move from conventional, lecture-based teaching to active, student-centric learning? What kind of an environment is needed to make such a transition? Can the room we teach in really affect how we teach? While I had expected the answer to the final question to be “yes” when I jumped at the opportunity to be one of the first to teach in the new Bass Family Collaborative Classroom built in the Van Pelt Library, the experience proved to be far more enriching than I expected.

In a typical classroom, students are equally spaced, sitting in rows facing the front board or screen, promoting (or at least assuming) a one-to-many delivery of course content from the professor to the students. And this is how I had been teaching GEOL 421, a small, upper-level undergraduate course designed for Earth Science and Environmental Studies majors. The course content examines the processes and factors controlling the biogeochemical cycling of carbon and nutrient elements through global Earth systems (hydrosphere, lithosphere, atmosphere and biosphere), and how humans have impacted these cycles. Class sessions were structured into three 80-minute meeting times per week, consisting mostly of in-class lectures based on a textbook, with some short discussion sessions based on readings of the primary literature. One session per week consisted of a series of computer-based laboratory exercises involving modeling the principles learned from our readings using the STELLA modeling software. The STELLA modeling environment software allows students to build and run models of global elemental cycles and perform ‘what-if’ scenarios without the need to learn any programming and with only minimal understanding of the math behind the calculations. Students are required to bring a laptop with the software installed to class. In the conventional classroom, I had worked with John McDermott from SAS Computing to identify and implement specialized software that connected the students’ laptops to server software installed on the classroom computer, which allowed me to project a student’s screen to the class. The system was capable of switching from student to student or displaying several screens at one time. This was the extent to which I promoted peer learning in the conventional offering of the course. Students were able to see their peers’ progress in the modeling exercises and I was able to highlight results or make corrections.

The system and the course worked well, but either I felt constrained in my ability to implement a workshop-like environment for student learning, or thinking back, perhaps the room itself did not provide the inspiration for how such an environment could be created within its confines. The Google-provided definitions for “workshop” are: 1) a room or building in which goods are manufactured or repaired and 2) a meeting at which a group of people engage in intensive discussion and activity on a particular subject or project. While the latter definition might be more appropriate in the context of University teaching and learning, I would also argue that replacing the abstract term “meeting” with the physical space implied by the former definition is enlightening. My experience of having taught the same course in a conventional classroom and then in the new Collaborative Classroom in the Van Pelt Library in the Spring of 2014 demonstrated to me just how much a room can matter.

The Collaborative Classroom is designed with round tables seating up to six students, with each table having its own projector. The projector controls allow for the display of the instructor’s computer to any and all projectors or the display of any given group’s computer on any and all projectors. In addition to having a wider variety of content projected, the students were now physically closer to the projected content. This became an immense boost to creating a workshop atmosphere of active, peer learning during the modeling sessions.

The class structure remained essentially the same: one lecture based on the textbook, one discussion based on primary literature and one modeling session, per week. As before, I used PowerPoint slides to highlight important points and figures from the week’s textbook or paper reading to promote student comprehension of the content. However, because the room’s projectors were now displaying on a large, continuous whiteboard wall, I began creating incomplete slides where content was either masked or missing. During several short bursts interspersed during the lecture, students would be asked to go to the board in their table-based groups and complete the slide content using dry erase markers. In some cases, they were to label a diagram, in others cases they needed to generate a bulleted list of items. I had anticipated a certain amount of student reluctance to go and write on the whiteboard, and so for the first session had set out a jar of chocolates next to the container holding the dry-erase markers. As students entered the room, they were told to take a chocolate and a marker. Whether it was the chocolate or not, the students took to using the whiteboard much better than I had anticipated. During the activities, I would circulate among the groups to provide feedback, answer questions and prompt students to dig deeper or in different directions. At the end of the activity, each table-group commented on their contributions to the rest of the class, and I provided a final reflection. The written material on the whiteboard was occasionally captured using smartphones and uploaded to Canvas for future consultation. This is, fundamentally, the functioning of “structured, active, in-class learning” (SAIL). Similar exercises were done during the class sessions that were originally designated as “discussion,” but the distinctions between what was a lecture and what was discussion became increasingly blurred as the semester passed. I had, in essence, stopped lecturing and was now circulating among the groups promoting and ensuring active learning.

The design of the Collaborative Classroom promoted active learning by facilitating interactions among the students at the table groups, interactions between table groups during certain exercises and interactions between the students and the projected lecture content. It also allowed students to work actively on their laptops using internet resources when needed. While many of the activities I did could be performed in a conventional classroom, the Collaborative Classroom made them much simpler and more natural to execute, and I am convinced that teaching in the Collaborative Classroom inspired and challenged me to incorporate a greater number and variety of active learning elements that I might not otherwise have.

The temptation is to fall back on conventional teaching techniques when in a conventional room, particularly in a large lecture hall. However, coming out of the experience knowing that I will teach again in a conventional room has inspired me to seek how I can make the conventional classroom environment work as best as it can as a workshop to promote active learning. While the room may matter, and we need many more rooms like the Collaborative Classroom, it may be just as important to transcend the room to promote active, student-centric learning.

Instructors who are interested in teaching in one of Penn's active learning classrooms 
can find more about requesting one of the rooms at 
https://sasupenn.qualtrics.com/SE/?SID=SV_8065xcy1qXnVZsx

Alain Plante is associate professor and undergraduate chair of earth & environmental science.