collaborative learning spaces

What do collaborative classrooms really look like on campus?

University of Arizona creates new Collaborative Learning Space (CLS); emphasizes mobile furniture and tabletop whiteboards for a Gen Z learning environment.

Learning spaces change the way faculty teach and the way students learn. Tables and chairs are no longer seen as only places to sit or a surface to write on. They are used as learning tools. This shift in thinking has ignited a culture change across campus in support of collaborative learning.

“I am trying new ideas in the Collaborative Learning Space that I have never tried in my 10 years of teaching. It has been fun for me. The classroom has become a ‘partner’ in the learning process,” said Richard Harper who teaches in the School of Government and Public Policy at the University of Arizona (UA). The campus has begun to transform the way educators and students view the physical classroom space.

The Case for Collaborative Learning

Research, such as that done at the US Military Academy at West Point, shows that collaboration improves student learning and outdated lectures conducted from the front of the room while students sit in rows of seats do little to support the 21st century student. Students today are different from those of 20, 10 or even five years ago. They are digital natives and the job environment they will graduate into is focused on collaboration and creativity. As educators, we made a commitment to support this and our pilot project took flight.

Course redesigns, a major component of the Association of American Universities (AAU) grant we received, motivated faculty to investigate evidence-based teaching and adopt new pedagogy.

To support the growing interest in evidence-based instruction, many of the faculty who are new to collaborative instruction participate in Faculty Learning Communities (FLC) to gain new insights. We’ve grown into a network of educators committed to better learning. The participation in the FLCs has grown dramatically–there were 3 facilitators and 30 members in 2014. We now have 9 FLCs, 13 facilitators and 90 members from across campus each semester.

Copyright: University of Arizona.

(Next page: Implementation of the collaborative learning space; seeing tangible results)

The Collaborative Learning Space (CLS)

As faculty redesigned lessons to include shorter lectures, movement, and activities to promote higher-order thinking, it became clear old lecture halls did not support this style.

As a solution, we built a large Collaborative Learning Space (CLS). Its emphasis on high quality mobile furniture and integration of tabletop whiteboards created an environment where students could more easily interact with each other.

Re-energized, faculty across campus began seeking out opportunities to teach in our CSL. They tried new strategies they had never been able to successfully implement. They found new joy in teaching which in turn ignited students with a passion for learning. This change in culture has helped build campus-wide enthusiasm.

Throughout this evolution, assessment has been essential. Evidence from a 1998 study on classroom learning and assessment shows that students who receive frequent and prompt feedback learn better. We provide support and guidance for faculty about ways to conduct effective assessments throughout their courses. These provide the evidence we use to evaluate the impact of change.

They also allow faculty to contribute to the evidence-based teaching and learning knowledge base. As they become comfortable and see results, they become vocal advocates of evidence-based teaching.

Seeing Results

Faculty interest in evidence-based learning continues to grow on our campus. Educators are excited to teach in active learning spaces and collaborate with like-minded colleagues in FLCs. They hope for better student outcomes and the chance to use new pedagogy that was not well-supported when they were teaching in a traditional classroom space. There is momentum around our evidence-based learning initiative that promises to be transformative.

During the CLS’ first year, it saw 10,000+ enrollments and 80 different faculty from 40 departments benefitted from teaching in the space. As a result, we made a commitment to shift our culture from one that accepts lecture-based teaching as the norm to one that embraces collaborative learning.

By Fall 2017, twenty CLSs, ranging in size from 24 students to 264 students, are serving 210 faculty from sixty departments.

We’re thankful to the AAU who awarded UA and seven other universities a grant to improve undergraduate STEM Education. In the following year, UA was one of 12 schools awarded an active learning classroom through the Steelcase Education Active Learning Center (ALC) program. There is no doubt that these awards spurred our campus-wide innovation.

Our leadership team, often referred to as the “coalition of the willing,” established a vision for change. They eliminated barriers that might discourage the adoption of change and inspired a broad and diverse group of faculty members to embrace change and help institutionalize new strategies. Our culture is evolving and we look forward to the positive impact this movement will continue to have on student learning.

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