Top practical strategies to improve your teaching in an active learning classroom

What are practical techniques that other instructors have implemented to address common teaching challenges when teaching and facilitiating in an active learning classroom? This review of Chapter 06 in Active Learning Spaces summarizes published tips as well as tips from TEAL (technology enhanced active learning) community of practice

We don't normally have "homework" for our weekly webinars (slides for the webinar are attached below - if you're interested in joining our community of practice, submit this quick form to register - all are welcome!), but this week we read:

The author acknowledge what most instructors flag right from the get go: the difficulty in transitioning to active learning classrooms (ALCs) from traditional classrooms. The chapter offers practical strategies for overcoming common teaching challenges, dovetailing these easily implementable tips (many of which simply reflect good teaching practice), with the most commonly identified challenges for teaching in ALC. I used the folder tip (use folders to distribute and collect work, instead of trying to haphazardly collect everything in a rush) in seminar last week and it reminded that that sometimes the small changes are still effective changes - and that we have so much to learn from each other.

Two Major Categories of Challenge

These "big" challenges are divided into two main buckets:
  1. Challenges due to the physical space (ex. lack of focal point, distractions, and technology)
  2. Changes in expectations (for both instructors and students) as a result of this change of arrangement (ex. instructor is no longer the focal point, nowhere to hide and potential loss of wider community)

How did we use this chapter as a the foundation of an activity during the webinar?

Petersen and Gorman interviewed and consolidated the responses of several instructors. These suggestions were collected into a table, which was shared during the webinar. We reviewed the suggestions as published and then added our own suggestions in a new column. The suggestions in the last column are more specific to U of T as an institution, versus being general recommendations.

Challenges due to the physical arrangement of the room:
Common Challenges High Level Details of Issue Practical Solutions from Book Chapter Practical Solutions from TEAL COP
No focal point Some students must physically turn to view a board/screen, which makes notetaking difficult; cannot see the instructor at all times

Use a document camera to write but project on all screens

Use ipad to walk and project

Use AirMedia wireless connection to move freely around the room

Use device camera to share student content in real time


Multiple Distractions Noisy conversation, seeing other students’ screens and devices, instructors have to keep moving to see and make eye contact; students arriving late
Reinforce action with verbal cues (ex. “Now I’d like to direct your attention to…”
Ask students (strategically) to close or put down their devices
Ask for silence, if needed
Use folders to alleviate distributing and collecting work
Leverage ability to move to identify engaged or distracted students

Use first minutes of class as a "team regroup" - if they are late, it effects their peers

Set punctuality expectations early; possibly tie to participation mark

Overwhelming Technology Not familiar; pressure to learn to use, often, and well; some resent technology, some think it if it not used, it’s wasteful
Decide upfront what tech you will and won’t use (before start of semester)
Observe another instructor
Practice in ALC
Tell students what you will be using, won’t be using, and why

Leverage existing Faculty supports (ex. EdTech Office, TEAL COP) for consultation and training

Scaffold technology use (either as semester passes or term by term)

Teach as a team - TA can assist in "driving" the technology

Changes in expectations about teaching as a result of the physical arrangement:
Common Challenges High Level Details of Issue Practical Solutions from Book Chapter Practical Solutions from TEAL COP
Instructor is no longer the focal point Can be uncomfortable/difficult for instructor who is used to students looking to them, not each other, for answers; loss of control in turning over class time to student group work, don’t know exactly how it's going to go; students push back (prefer to be passive and expect instructors to have the answers)
Reframe teaching style as closer to interaction with students during office hours or 1-1
Re-design course activities incrementally, then assess what is working and what isn’t
Insert small formative assessments to gauge material coverage and understanding
Have groups work on example problems together, versus the instructor going over them
Ask questions to the large group, but have each smaller group come up with answer
Articulate roles for both yourself and students in the ALC (and tell them why); put this info in your syllabus
Reiterate that you’ll be listening to their feedback
Be aware that they might have had negative experiences in the past

Get ready to roll with the punches; you might blank on a question (and this is ok!)

Model the type of interaction you'd like to see from the students

Students can't hide Students working in groups report higher satisfaction with learning and learn better than students working as individuals (Johnson, Johnson, and Smith 2007)
Assign students to groups (that last longer than one class)
Set expectations on interaction; preferably on the first day; Answer: Should student raise their hands? Should students use microphone/etc?
Have student collectively author discussion guidelines
Example: Use a random name generator, but allow the table (where the student is sitting) to work together to answer the question (keeps everyone on task, knowing they could be called on)
Positive reinforcement; nothing anyone says is “bad” or “wrong”
Provide safe zone to unlearn something in order to learn it properly
Provide multiple modes and methods to engage in the course (ex. reflection)
Able and willing to be flexible to accommodate different moods and energy levels
Support students with TAs who actively engage; lead them on a discovery
Loss of wider community Small groups are beneficial, but sometimes miss hearing from the full class; hard to have a full class discussion in the space
Set aside time for large discussion to build community throughout the room
Maximize large group discussion by building on the small group discussion; don’t repeat it (ex. If groups identify patterns in graph, don’t ask about the process, ask questions where there’s a divergence of opinion or experience)
Introduce activities that require moving from table to table (ex. jigsaw); if doing so, indicate how long they will remain in their new groups
Redistribute groups a few times during the semester (but let students know you'll be doing this)
Students do not value active learning Students turn to instructors for answers; do not see the value in the experiences and insight of their peers   Change what is important; use the currency of the classroom to motivate students (align participation with assessments)

This is by no means a comprehensive (it was just one book chapter!) review of all of the issues that have been reported. But, it packed a lot into a short chapter and served to foster a lot of discussion. We see this table as growing and would love your thoughts and contributions. If you have a few of your own, please add them!

Summary of Major Chapter Themes

  • Embrace the space as it’s not designed to support “transmission modes of teaching” (p. 64); but redesign incrementally
  • Design activities that meet your learning outcomes but take advantage of the space
  • Use active, group based teaching approaches
  • Ask students for feedback early and often; then explain why you are (and aren’t) able to implement it
  • Explain your rationale to your students; perhaps include it in the syllabus

Summary of Recommendations for Teaching in ALCs

Table 6.1 (p. 70)
Before Class Starts First Day of Class During Class Sections
Design activities that meet your learning outcomes and take advantage of the space. Communicate your philosophy about teacher and student roles. Direct student attention during class.
Decide what technology you will and won't use. Articulate expectations for student-instructor and student-student interaction. Set aside time for large group interaction.
Take an incremental approach to changes in teaching Inform students that you will solicit their feedback. Ask for student feedback early in the semester.










While a few of these resonated with the group, Prof. Tihanyi aptly brought our attention to "take an incremental approach to changes in teaching." It's tempting to overhaul a course, but, instead, the idea of making small changes, evaluating those changes, and seeing what works and what doesn't work.

Possible Questions to Solicit Student Feedback

The chapter ends with methods for using student feedback to address challenges (which, since early and frequent feedback was identified as key, is critical). Questions used by other instructors, and which might be useful to you as is (or with modification), include (from p. 69):
  1. What do you think of this space given the kind of class this is?
  2. What about this classroom helps your learning?
  3. What about this classroom hinders your learning?
  4. What change to this classroom would benefit your learning?

Prof. Norval flagged that these questions work well to evaluate active learning in any teaching space - not necessarily just active learning classrooms. We are spending a lot of time thinking about the rooms in Myhal, but, we can also think about changes to be made to all classrooms (ex. better lighting of boards in Bahen). If there's one thing talking about active learning classes has done is bring to forefront that space is an important aspect of learning. It's tempting to spend our time thinking about the technology (the typical definition of technology), for example, but we should also be considering the physical aspects (ex. furniture) of the room.