Form meets function in a growing set of active learning classrooms at the University of South Carolina Upstate that gives instructors and students grouping options to enhance learning and collaboration skills.
With funds from a $2.2 million Title III grant from the U.S. Department of Education, the University has created four active learning classrooms featuring flexible room furnishings that allow faculty to easily change the learning environment to accommodate different lessons, or to reconfigure for small-group study that fosters student collaboration. The goal of the active learning classrooms is to create an engaging educational experience that helps students use a wide range of modern technologies to drive understanding and learning.
In the program’s brief history, 1,707 USC Upstate students have received instruction in the active learning classrooms. Sophomore Hiddle Nijland took University 101 in an active learning classroom, and said he felt it was a beneficial experience.
“It was quite surprising coming in and seeing all the technology that’s involved,” Nijland said of the experience. “It was University 101, so it was very interactive in the first place. Everyone was really excited to get to use all the TVs for presentations and sharing information.”
Maria Monteso, a Spanish instructor in the Department of Languages, Literature and Composition, said she’s noticed a marked changed in her students’ behavior in the ALC, compared to traditional classrooms.
“In my AL classes, students participate more and use Spanish more compared to traditional classes,” she said. “They feel more engaged and the relationship with me is closer and friendlier. The whole atmosphere makes it easier for them to use the language verbally and share knowledge among themselves.”
For Nijland, that ability to collaborate with his peers enriched the classroom experience.
In a traditional classroom setting, Nijland said, “you come in, you sit down, it’s a PowerPoint slide, and the professor talks about what we’re going to do, and we do some examples on the board, but every student does their own thing. They take their notes, they’re in their own little bubble where they do their own things.”
Students in active learning classrooms are less likely to be seated in rows, with all eyes facing forward, and more likely to work together or independently. The classrooms feature rolling tables or group pods with individual displays; portable, height-adjustable stools or chairs on casters; interactive whiteboard displays; and double-sided personal whiteboards that can be used from any workstation.
“Since the beginning of the semester, student responses – both verbal and written – have become much more developed and thoughtful,” said Tasha Thomas, a senior instructor in the Department of Languages, Literature and Composition, who recently taught a 400-level English course in an ALC. “Students ask more-meaningful questions and respond to one another with more care than they did in the beginning.”
The five-year grant, received in 2014, is designed to foster student retention and to improve graduation rates by engaging students through active learning, supporting student persistence through stronger academic advising, and reinforce measures to support student persistence and completion through enhanced financial support.
So far, the grant has funded three groups of Active Learning Faculty Fellows, who have used the ALCs for a full schedule of 102 classes across 15 disciplines. The Faculty Fellows have received extensive training, including the best practices in active learning. Currently, there are three groups of faculty using four active learning classrooms, with two additional rooms being redesigned for use this fall. An additional class of 18 Active Learning Faculty Fellows is also being added.
While the first ALC included rolling tables, café-height tables and stools, soft seating with laptop foldaway arms, and other innovative furnishings, subsequent classrooms have been modified based on feedback from earlier efforts.
One feature that has proven popular with both students and faculty are the double-sided personal whiteboards that students can use at their workstations.
“For writing, (students) used the small whiteboards or the clear boards, and I have seen them engaging with each other on a different level – a lot more motivated,” Monteso said.
Thomas said students in ALCs can actually help instructors add depth to the coursework.
“Active learning allows (students) to ‘drive the instruction’ so to speak,” Thomas explained. “If done in a meaningful way, Active learning provides students (with) a way to contribute to course material, to discover, create and share new knowledge, and collaborate to enhance one another’s understanding of course concepts.”
Thomas said that for active learning classrooms to work, it’s not as important for students to be familiar with all the technology as it is for them to be motivated.
“Students don’t have to be ‘well-versed’ in any specific tools, but they need to be willing to participate,” she said. “Participation and engagement are key. We don’t always rely on technology, as there are traditional whiteboards in the room and many activities include traditional pencil-and-paper skills. However, technology is increasingly relied on in nearly every job, and it definitely facilitates the objectives of the active learning classroom.”
The Title III grant also enabled USC Upstate to hire four additional advisers to help strengthen advisement and reinforce other student success measures already in place.
“Advisers at USC Upstate help students navigate through all aspects of college, including transitioning from high school to university life; understanding their choice of majors; utilizing resources available on campus; and exploring career paths,” said Tammy E. Whaley, assistant vice chancellor for university communications. “The new hires will enable us to advance from merely helping students register for classes to much-more-meaningful contact and individual mentoring.”