Wider Horizons

Four students huddle around the small whiteboard attached to the end of their shared table. active classroomThey’ve pulled their colourful rolling chairs close to work on a chemistry equation together. Just as their collaboration intensifies, their instructor pulls up a chair to join the discussion. It’s an ideal environment for active learning, and one that Lethbridge College hopes to replicate in the coming years as they work to facilitate this contemporary teaching and learning model.

Although a well-structured, inspiring lecture can make for a memorable learning experience, the most effective teaching doesn’t necessarily take place when a teacher stands and lectures at the front of a classroom. New research on the ways students learn best shows that other ways of structuring a classroom — including switching to learner-centred environments — can lead to learning that stays with students long after they’ve completed a class.

Trudi Mason, professional development consultant at Lethbridge College, says learners need to be active in what they’re doing to improve their ability to retain information. So with research to support its plans, Lethbridge College outfitted two new rooms on campus last semester. These 21st Century Classrooms are equipped with moveable furniture, easy access to whiteboards and group work tables, and appealing aesthetics. And in February, the College Leadership Council approved an Innovation Fund proposal that will bring the total number of 21st Century Classrooms on campus to 10 by the fall semester.

“This initiative builds upon the active learning classroom project already underway and integrates with other initiatives including the tablet project and the curriculum mapping to 21st century skills initiative,” says Stuart Cullum, vice president academic and chief operating officer. “The investment will optimize learning environments and reduce barriers to innovative practice. It will also provide a critical mass for research which will inform the college regarding future practice in teaching and learning.”

The classrooms are set up to evoke critical thinking, to encourage students to find solutions rather than the instructor providing all the answers. In contrast, Mason says that classrooms designed for traditional lectures can hinder active learning — sometimes by simply being too crowded. “Instructors are trying really hard to use active learning strategies,” she explains, “but when you have a classroom that’s jam-packed with desk and chairs, to move them is almost impossible.”

Jeff Hamilton, a College and University Preparation instructor, has been teaching in the active learning classrooms since they opened in fall 2012. He says he loves being able to adjust the space to each class’s learning needs and notes that his students seem quite at ease in the less-traditional spaces. “They naturally find groups with which to work and find it easy to move around and interact with each other,” he says. “As an instructor who likes to move around, the rooms are ideal. I can interact with each student easily and comfortably all at the same time.”

Jesika Knoop, one of Hamilton’s former chemistry students, liked the active learning classrooms because the furniture was easy to restructure and the room was lively and more positive. “When you offer movement and a brighter decor, you’re turning a learning experience, into a fun, social, welcoming experience,” she says.

Mason says the college’s Educational Enhancement Team will be working with instructors of all experiences and strengths to incorporate learner-focused learning strategies into their courses, whether they are naturals at that style of teaching or a bit more reluctant to embrace new teaching styles. “We want to continue spreading the ideas and concepts of active learning and send the message that active learning is the way many students learn,” she says.

Leanne Nemeth, a General Studies instructor, was originally hesitant to try the classrooms. “Honestly, when I first heard about how the ‘classrooms of the future’ were going to be, I thought I wouldn’t like them, and that it just wouldn’t work for my classes,” she says. “After teaching in this classroom, I would prefer to teach in these classrooms over the regular lined-up desks classroom.”

The Educational Enhancement Team regularly holds workshops about active learning. Instructors and students interested in discussing this topic and others related to teaching and learning can contact Trudi Mason at 403-320-3202 ext. 5797 or trudi.mason@lethbridgecollege.ca.

Wider Horizons
Megan Shapka
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