Space Matters: Active Learning Classrooms at Berkeley

August 12, 2018

This fall, along with the usual excitement and apprehension that accompanies the start of a new academic year at Berkeley, nine faculty members and more than 700 students will help launch the first large general-assignment active learning classroom (ALC) on campus. Wheeler 212, which can accommodate 120 students, is a scaled-up version of the smaller ALCs that have been supporting teaching and learning on campus for the past several years. These flexible learning spaces are designed to support more interactive, student-centered pedagogical approaches and feature moveable furniture, whiteboards, huddleboards, display screens, and other integrated technologies. To learn more about the history and usage of ALCs on campus, check out these videos featuring Berkeley faculty and students. You can also learn more about active learning on the CTL website or read this blog post on Setting the Stage for Active Learning

Active learning classrooms have received considerable attention among educators in recent years as schools and universities have become more interested in the vital role physical space plays in supporting teaching and learning. Educause identified ALCs as the top strategic technological investment among colleges and universities in 2017. In their book on teaching in an ALC, Baepler et al. (2016) argue that, while physical spaces do not determine the way people interact, they can serve as “mediators and moderators of instructor and student behavior” and help shape the way individuals “think about, interact with, and use a space,” (p. 18). The authors also point out that certain aspects of a classroom – such as fixed tiered seating versus small groupings of tables and chairs – imbue certain expectations for how a space is meant to be used. With their flexible furniture and features, the ALCs at Berkeley are designed to support a wide range of pedagogical approaches, and allow faculty and students to easily transition from one activity to the next.

What are Berkeley faculty saying about the active learning classrooms?

First off, it’s important to point out that active learning is happening in every corner of campus, whether the students are in an active learning classroom or not. This may be technology-enhanced dynamic lecturing in a class of 700 students, a course where small teams of students are engaged in innovative design projects throughout the semester or an advanced seminar where community engagement or fieldwork are a central feature, just to name a few. At the same time, it’s helpful to learn about the experiences of faculty teaching in the active learning classrooms so we can better serve faculty and students in these spaces. We received feedback from 12 instructors who taught in an ALC during spring semester 2018 through a brief online questionnaire.

When asked why she wanted to teach in an active learning classroom, a Sociology professor stated, “I wanted to do more engaged, hands-on work in the classroom than is possible in a standard lecture classroom.” For a faculty member in Public Health, “small group discussions are an integral part” of her course design and “the space is important to support this.” Another faculty member in Sociology said that he wanted to teach in these flexible spaces “to create a more inclusive and equitable classroom to improve student learning and success.”

“The moveable furniture and monitors allow for group and individual work time, and student-centered project work,” which is essential according to a College Writing Programs faculty member whose classes are project and inquiry based. Additionally, she commented that her students use all of the classroom features and “It really depends on the project and the students.  Some loved using the whiteboards for group assignments.  Others like to hook up computers and work on a document together.”

Nearly all of the respondents (90%) reported that students in their classes were engaged in small group and whole class discussions more than half the time, and everyone agreed that the classroom space made it easier to incorporate small group interactions during class. Nearly all of the instructors also agreed that the classroom space allowed them to “incorporate new activities and teaching approaches” into their course, and “encouraged active participation of students in activities.” Finally, all of the instructors agreed that these spaces “enriched [their] students’ learning experiences” and "influenced the way [they] approached teaching course content.”

“I wish there were more active learning classrooms on campus and that they were the norm,” said one faculty member in Near Eastern Studies. “Students are always excited to be in the AL classroom... As an instructor, I am much more creative in my teaching and am able to test out activities I never would have imagined in a regular classroom at Berkeley.”

Are you interested in teaching in an active learning classroom?

 The general assignment active learning classrooms are designed to support a diverse range of instructors and courses from across campus. As general assignment classrooms, the Office of the Registrar handles the scheduling of ALCs on campus. If you think one of these classrooms might be a good fit for your course, complete a brief, one-time application to join the priority pool for scheduling in an ALC. Then, talk to your department scheduler and be sure to request an ALC for your course. You can also request individual support and consultation by reaching out to Brit Toven-Lindsey, Active Learning Specialist in the Center for Teaching Learning (