Setting the desks free: How flexible classrooms impact learning, teaching

September 28, 2017
Written By:
Nicole Casal Moore

ANN ARBOR—For Tuesday’s class, round tables that seat 6-8 students can be arranged around the periphery of the room to give instructors a 360-degree view of groups at work and allow them to move from one team to another, offering help or checking for understanding of the day’s activity.

Thursday’s class is more of a content delivery day so a more formal lecture style is possible, with tables in rows. Yet even this configuration is different from the usual lecture hall. Monitors throughout the room allow students to engage more with the material, and the professor can wander through the space while writing on the screens from a tablet computer.

Tables on wheels, adjustable chairs and moveable white boards would allow faculty to configure the classroom however they feel will best spur group work and discussion.

These classrooms of the future are here now at the University of Michigan College of Engineering, and a U-M research team is studying how faculty and students use these flexible spaces.

With help from a $300,000 National Science Foundation Improving Undergraduate STEM Education Program grant, associate professor Cindy Finelli and research fellow Aaron Johnson are continuing research to study faculty who will transition from teaching in more traditional lecture halls to flexible classroom spaces. Finelli and Johnson are investigating how the flexible spaces make a difference in the ways students interact with one another and with faculty, and how they affect the way students learn. The researchers also are collecting faculty experiences to focus on how instructors adapt pedagogy using these spaces.

They plan to observe the courses in traditional lecture halls and in a flexible classroom, and they have begun preliminary analysis of feedback on the spaces from students and faculty alike.

“Students really love it, and they’ve asked for more classrooms that can be used by other faculty,” said Finelli, associate professor of electrical engineering and computer science and director of the college’s new Engineering Education Research Program.”The flexible classroom allows students to be more engaged, and it gives faculty a chance to use a wider variety of activities that include hands-on exercises, team-based learning, student group assignments, and study teams, among others.”

Lisa Grimble, a lecturer in technical communications, teaches in a flexible classroom. Image credit: Eric Bronson, Michigan PhotographyLisa Grimble, a lecturer in technical communications, teaches in a flexible classroom. Image credit: Eric Bronson, Michigan PhotographyThese observations are reflected in comments from students in Finelli’s class.

“I don’t know how other students learn, but the arrangement worked for me. It let me get to know the other students and work with them,” said Jason Hebert, a junior in electrical engineering. The non-traditional student, husband and father returned to school at age 34, after working as an electrician.

“It felt more personal. Instead of being just another number in a class of 200, this class makes you want to be a better learner.”

The idea behind designing learning spaces to encourage more student engagement is not new to academia, but the concept of a flexible classroom space that can be configured for a given purpose one day and then totally reconfigured the next day is just emerging, and little research has been done to find out how well such spaces work.

Johnson, a research fellow in electrical engineering and computer science, said use of flexible classroom spaces represents a cultural change for the faculty.

“The hope is in the future these rooms will encourage more instructors to use more active learning. It’s exciting to see how it continues to be used in the future,” he said.”When teaching in a traditional lecture hall, faculty often only get to interact with a few students. In these classrooms, though, they are able to interact with all students.”

Not only has Johnson seen this first-hand, he has data to back it up from a pilot study. Those preliminary findings include:

  • Faculty members made creative use the monitors throughout the room to show slides of the class material, have students work together on a Google Document, and collectively work through a problem.
  • Faculty felt the monitors throughout the room helped students focus on the task at hand and minimized distractions.
  • Faculty noted that in traditional lecture-based classrooms students tended to sit anywhere during class sessions with lecture, but in the flexible spaces gravitated toward their teammates. This was helpful in getting students to know each other better and build effective teams.
  • Faculty developed new activities that were specifically suited for the flexible classroom.


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