The term “active learning” has swept through academia over the past two decades—and it seems like it’s here to stay. Because there are so many approaches to active learning, the concept can get very muddied. At its core, active learning refers to engaging students actively in course material. 

This can be done over the course of a few minutes though it could also take place over multiple consecutive class sessions. For example, a literature professor might engage students by having small groups analyze a text and write themes on a glassboard and then share with the class, while a biology professor might rearrange the classroom furniture to create a game show setting and quiz students on concepts. A history teacher might have students role play various “characters” from history while a design teacher might have students build Gothic Cathedrals out of spaghetti and marshmallows. 

A group of people sitting around a table

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Image of Auburn University Active Learning Classroom, courtesy of Dr. Anna Ruth Gatlin

Active learning boils down to incorporating some type of student engagement in class, so that students aren’t passively listening to lectures the entire class period. 

That’s not to say that lectures are bad! In fact, most active learning classes incorporate lectures in some way, meaning that often the classroom must be able to quickly adapt from lecture-based learning to active learning without taking too much time. Some professors sprinkle short active learning strategies throughout a lecture to keep students engaged with the material and practicing new skills and knowledge. 

A chart of a lesson

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There are many benefits to incorporating active learning into higher ed courses—one of the very best reasons is that typically student learning outcomes and grades tend to be higher when classes are taught in active learning classrooms. Faculty who teach in active learning classrooms report better student engagement and often feel more excited about teaching in active learning classrooms than in traditional lecture-based classrooms. Students feel the same way—there are typically fewer absences in active learning classes and students report feeling more enthusiastic about attending classes. 

Active learning activities aren’t just fun—they challenge students to engage with higher order thinking skills than the traditional lecture 🡪 exam model does, allowing students to analyze, synthesize, and apply knowledge. This also means that students engage in deeper thinking and develop more skills that are transferrable to their post-academic life. 

Applause, Hinchada, Flexxy, ...

Image courtesy of OFS

While active learning strategies can be incorporated into any classroom setting, having a classroom designed to support activities in class can be a game-changer. 

When properly designed, active learning classrooms can flex with each class’s approach to learning and each discipline’s specific pedagogies; active learning spaces need a combination of three things to be successful: active learning pedagogies, relevant technology, and appropriate furnishings.

A diagram of active learning

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While lots of emphasis has been placed on active learning classrooms, learning happens everywhere. Approaching a project as an active learning ecosystem includes incorporating other areas outside the classroom that support active learning—this might be in the form of informal learning spaces, breakout rooms, in-between spaces,  cafeterias/dining halls, and even incorporating design features into large-scale (100+ person) lecture halls. 

What Is Active Learning?

Image of Alexandria Middle School, furniture provided by Interior Elements, photo courtesy of High5 Productions

Active learning doesn’t have to be radical: it can be as simple as allocating the last ten minutes of class for students to go to the glassboards and draw what they think the lecture was about. Engaging students actively doesn’t have to be hard, especially when the classroom and the surrounding ecosystem are designed to easily adapt to the needs of any type of learning activity.  

Image courtesy of Barton Academy, furniture provided by Interior Elements, photo courtesy of High5 Productions

For more information on active learning and design strategies to support all modes of learning or to be connected to Interior Elements, click here.


About the Author

What Is Active Learning?

Anna Ruth Gatlin, PhD, is an award-winning interior designer and design researcher. Currently an Assistant Professor of Interior Design at Auburn University, she transitioned to full-time academia after a career practicing institutional, commercial, healthcare, and educational design.