The Room Itself Is Active: How Classroom Design Impacts .

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Journal of Learning SpacesVolume 6, Number 1. 2017ISSN 21586195The Room Itself Is Active: How Classroom Design Impacts StudentEngagementMelissa L. RandsAnn M. Gansemer-TopfMinneapolis College of Art and DesignIowa State UniversityA responsive case study evaluation approach utilizing interviews and focus groups collectedstudent and faculty perspectives on examined how instructors and students utilized a newlyredesigned active learning space at Iowa State University and the relationship of this designwith environmental and behavioral factors of student engagement. The findingsdemonstrate how classroom design affords engagement through low-cost learning tools anda flexible, open, student-centered space afforded a variety of active learning strategies. Inaddition, this case study highlights the importance of conducting assessment on classroomredesign initiatives to justify and improve future classroom spaces.In the years since Chickering and Gamson’s (1987)influential article Seven Principles for Good Practice inUndergraduate Education, active learning has become anintegral part of the student learning experience (Kuh, Kinzie,Schuh, Whitt & Assoc., 2010).Changes in studentexpectations and attitudes, as well as researchdemonstrating the relationship between active engagementand student learning (Prince, 2004), have challengedinstitutions to reconsider their design of classroom spaces(Oblinger, 2006). The “traditional” college classroom, with afixed, lecture-style configuration, does not match what weknow about how students learn nor how students expect tolearn (Oblinger). As result, many colleges and universitiesaround the country are committing resources to redesignclassroom spaces to promote active, participatory,experiential learning (Harvey & Kenyon, 2013).Iowa State University (ISU) recently devoted resourcesfrom three campus departments (Center for Excellence inTeaching and Learning, Facilities Planning andManagement, and Instructional Technology Services) totransform one classroom into an active learning classroom(Rosacker, 2012). Although institutions have been workingto redesign their classroom spaces (Educause, 2010) fewinstitutions are engaging in assessment processes thatevaluate if the purposes of these redesigns are achieved.The purpose of this qualitative case study was toinvestigate how an active learning classroom (ALC) at ISUinfluenced student engagement. Using Barkley’s (2010)classroom-based model of student engagement, the findingsprovide insights on how classroom design affords studentMelissa L. Rands is the Assistant Director of Assessment at theMinneapolis College of Art and Design.Ann M. Gansemer-Topf is an Assistant Professor in HigherEducation in the School of Education at Iowa State University.engagement and offer suggestions for improving theredesign and implementation of active learning classrooms.In addition, this case study highlights the importance ofconducting assessment on classroom redesign initiatives.Review of LiteratureTo better understand this study, this section provides adefinition of active learning and highlights research on therelationship between classroom spaces and studentengagement.Active LearningBonwell and Eison (1991) defined active learning as anylearning strategy that involves “students doing things, andthinking about the things they are doing” (p. 2).Characteristics of active learning strategies include: studentsare involved in more than listening, are encouraged to sharethoughts and values, and are asked to engage in higherorder thinking such as analysis and synthesis rather thanmemorization (Bonwell & Eison). Instructional strategiesthat promote active learning include small group discussion,peer questioning, cooperative learning, problem-basedlearning, simulations, journal writing, and case-studyteaching, among others (Barkley, 2010; Prince, 2004).Edgerton (1997) refers to active learning strategies as“pedagogies of engagement” (p. 36); practices thatencourage greater understanding and transfer ofknowledge.Meta analyses of research studies from the learningsciences and educational psychology have demonstratedthat active learning approaches, in comparison to morepassive, teaching-center approaches, lead to greaterengagement that subsequently lead to increased studentlearning (see, for example: Freeman et al., 2014; Hake, 1997;Michael, 2006; Prince, 2004). Because classroom design is a26

THE ROOM ITSELF IS ACTIVE: HOW CLASSROOM DESIGN IMPACTS STUDENT ENGAGEMENTsignificant factor that can either hinder or promote thisengagement, this study examined the relationship ofclassroom design and engagement.Classroom Space and its Effect on EngagementMohanan (2002; 2000) refers to classroom design as “builtpedagogy”, or the design of the classroom space is a physicalmanifestation of educational theories, philosophies, andvalues.He states, “Given the premise that builtenvironments enable and constrain certain modes of socialaction and interaction, educational structures embodycurricula and values by design (2000; p. 1).”Within a classroom design, constructs known asaffordances are created that enable or constrain engagement.An affordance refers to the perceived and actual propertiesof objects or environments that determine how the object orenvironment could be used (Gibson, 1979; Norman, 2002).Affordances are resources within an environment to thosewho perceive and use them (Norman). For example,movable chairs afford students the ability to group closertogether for collaborative work or discussion. Within thecontext of this study, it is assumed that the designed,physical environment of the ALC provides affordances forlearning behaviors and pedagogical practices that supportstudent engagement in the learning process.Previous research has investigated classroom design andits relationship with student learning, including the effect ofopen learning spaces (Barber, 2006; Graetz & Goliber, 2002;Hunley and Schaller, 2006), flexible seating and writingsurfaces (Lombardi and Wall, 2006; Sanders, 2013), theintegration of technological learning tools (Brewe, Kramer,& O’Brien, 2009; Educause, 2012; Sidall, 2006; Whiteside &Fitzgerald, 2005), lighting (Sleeters, Molenaar, Galetzka, &van der Zanden, 2012), and aesthetics (Janowska & Atlay,2007). The richness of studies such as these illustrate howclassroom affordances can positively support classroompractices by enhancing student engagement in the learningprocess.Through the lens of a classroom-based model of studentengagement in one redesigned active learning classroom atISU, this study contributes to the literature by providingunderstanding of how the designed environment affordslearning behaviors and teaching practices that promotestudent engagement in learning.Theoretical FrameworkBarkley’s (2010) classroom-based model of studentengagement provides the theoretical framework for thisstudy. Barkley defines student engagement as “a processand a product that is experienced on a continuum andresults from the synergistic interaction between motivationand active learning” (p. 8). Barkley states classroomsenvironments create synergy between active learning andmotivation by (a) “creating a sense of classroomcommunity”, (b) “helping students work at their optimallevel of challenge”, and (c) “teaching so that students learnholistically” (pp. 24-38). Therefore, attention was paid tohow the classroom design affords behaviors and conditionsthat promote student engagement.MethodsThis qualitative case study assessment is a theoreticallybased, utilization-focused cross-sectional design thatcollected data on classroom use and perceived effectiveness(Fitzpatrick, Sanders, & Worthen, 2011). The study wasapproved by the Institutional Review Board.Figure 1: ALC Before and After. ALC prior to redesign (left) and after (right). In the redesigned classroom image, the movablechairs are arranged in small group format; portable white boards are placed on the chairs to be used as table tops for smallgroup work. Copyright 2014 Iowa State University. Reprinted with permission.Journal of Learning Spaces, 6(1), 2017.27

THE ROOM ITSELF IS ACTIVE: HOW CLASSROOM DESIGN IMPACTS STUDENT ENGAGEMENTFigure 2: Three Views of ALC. Three views of the redesigned ALC. Left image: the classroom in small group format, from front ofthe room. Middle image: small group format from the rear of the room. Right image: row seating format from the front of the room.Copyright 2014 Iowa State University. Reprinted with permission.The study focused on a classroom at ISU that wasredesigned from a ‘traditional’ classroom, with a fixedseating configuration and no classroom technology, into to aflexible layout and seating configurations and addedtechnology to enhance student learning. The ALC wasdesigned specifically for active, collaborative learningincluding portable white boards, supplemental computermonitors, and flexible seating to accommodate small group,large group, and individual work. The classroom has amaximum capacity of 36 students. Figure 1 shows theclassroom before and after redesign, and Figure 2 showsthree views of the new ALC.ParticipantsFaculty and students who had taught or taken at least onecourse in the ALC in spring 2013, fall 2013 and/or spring2014 semesters were participants. Four instructors and ninestudents participated in the study. Although the sample sizewas small, the participants represented a variety ofdisciplines which allowed for maximum variation: the goalwas to identify common patterns among diverse classroomexperiences (Marshall & Rossman, 1999).Data CollectionData was collected via focus groups. The social, semipublic nature of a focus group method allowed for multipleviews and perspectives aimed at gaining insight into theattitudes, feelings, and beliefs of classroom users (Morgan,1998). All participants were offered the opportunity forprivate interviews in lieu of participating in focus groups;one faculty member opted for an individual interview forthis reason.Data from faculty members were collected in one focusgroup and one individual interview. Faculty were askedJournal of Learning Spaces, 6(1), 2017.semi-structured interview questions regarding theirinteractions with students, to reflect upon specific examplesof incorporating the physical attributes of the classroom intheir lessons, and their perceptions on students’engagement. Data were collected from students via threefocus groups. Students were asked semi-structuredquestions regarding their interaction with others, with thephysical and technological attributes of the classroom, andtheir perceptions of their own motivation and engagement.All focus groups and interviews were recorded andtranscribed for analysis.Data AnalysisData from the transcripts were analyzed using a twocycle method of coding and analysis (Saldaña, 2009). In thefirst phase, descriptive codes were used to highlightconcepts or contents representing references to activelearning and motivation, reflection, and self-monitoring oflearning; attribute codes were used to identify data relatingto attributes of the classroom design, and descriptive codesidentified the affordances the space provided. Value codeshighlighted participants’ descriptions of participants’values, attitudes, and beliefs (Saldaña). In the second phase,clusters of data were formed around Barkley’s (2010)description of classroom conditions that promote studentengagement; these clusters included the descriptive,attribute, and value codes.Multiple strategies were used to ensure goodness andtrustworthiness (Merriam, 2002). Participants reviewedfocus group and interview transcripts to ensure theparticipants’ thoughts and beliefs were adequately captured(Merriam). Analytic memos and other documentation werekept as an account of the methodological procedures(Saldaña, 2009).Finally, descriptions of context andparticipant narratives provide illustrations of the themes for28

THE ROOM ITSELF IS ACTIVE: HOW CLASSROOM DESIGN IMPACTS STUDENT ENGAGEMENTthe reader to consider transferability to other contexts(Merriam).ResultsThe purpose of this study was to examine how thephysical design of the ALC impacted student engagement.Three themes emerged: (a) the classroom design created acommunity of learners, (b) classroom design helpedstudents work at their optimal level of challenge, and (c)classroom design helped students to learn holistically.Classroom Design Creates a Community of LearnersThe ALC is a flexible, open classroom design; studentseating is not fixed, and there are no stationary tables orwork spaces. These features afforded the classroom space tobe adapted to support different instructional strategies.Participants reported the flexibility of the design affords forstudents and instructors to move around the classroomenabling social interaction and collaboration. Students feltthat the classroom design “erased the line” betweeninstructors and students which encouraged interaction andled students to feel closer personal connections with theirinstructor and their peers, creating a sense of communityand enhancing student engagement.Open Space Affords Movement and Interaction. Theflexible, open design of the ALC afforded student andinstructor movement, and intellectual and social interaction,in the classroom. The mobile chairs/desks enabled studentsto interact with other students in order to ask questions andclear up misunderstandings. A student said, “Even if ourgroup didn't know [the answer to a question], we would likeswing around and join up with another group that reallyhelped, being able to open up a connection.” A facultymember illustrated how she felt the movable chairs in theALC helped students “hear each other” more.Shecontinued:These people will be here and these folks, and they're alltalking about the same thing, but these folks will hear[the discussion] and kind of respond to it becausethey're close there's this moment when [theknowledge] moved across the room which is

monitors, and flexible seating to accommodate small group, large group, and individual work. The classroom has a maximum capacity of 36 students. Figure 1 shows the classroom before and after redesign, and Figure 2 shows three views of the new ALC. Participants Faculty and students who had taught or taken at least one

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