Why Active Learning Classrooms?

These photos of students in WPI lecture halls show that instructors can and do use active learning pedagogies in any classroom space. It’s certainly not optimal, however! And more importantly, recent quasi-experimental studies have shown that classrooms designed for active learning have measurable benefits. The design of ALCs seems to signal to both students and instructors that students are at the center of the learning process.

active learning in SL 115students working on stairs of Fuller Lower

Students in an active learning classroom outperformed expectations whereas students in a traditional classroom did not.  A group of researchers at the University of Minnesota studied student performance in a large enrollment introductory biology course (Cotner, Loper, Walker, & Brooks, 2013). The same instructor using the same course materials, pedagogical approaches, assignments, and exams taught two sections of the same course at the same time of day, but on different days of the week. The only systematic difference between sections was the classroom design: a fixed seat lecture hall vs. round tables with a whiteboard and monitor for each table. A previous study had shown that ACT scores were the only reliable predictor of student performance in this course. In this study, however, students in the active learning classroom earned significantly higher grades than their ACT scores predicted, whereas students in the traditional classroom did not.

Learning benefits can be achieved without expensive, high-tech features. A study at Bethel University (Soneral & Wyse, 2017) compared student performance in a high-tech active learning classroom (multiple sight lines, a monitor and plug-in capability for each pod, floor-to-ceiling writable walls) with that in a low-tech active learning classroom (one projection screen, single sight line, portable whiteboard for each pod). The same instructor, instructional methods, materials, and assessments were used in each classroom. Controlling for student variables, there was no significant difference in student learning between the two groups. The most important classroom attributes were collaborative table groups (pods), writable surfaces, and the ability for students to display their work to make their thinking visible.


Cotner, S., Loper, J., Walker, J.D., & Brooks, D.C. (2013). “It’s Not You, It’s the Room”–Are the High-Tech, Active Learning Classrooms Worth It?” Journal of College Science Teaching, 42(6), 82-88.

Soneral, P.A.G., & Wyse, S.A. (2017). Student Learning Gains in High- and Low-Tech Active-Learning Environments. CBE–Life Sciences Education, 16, 1-15.