Auburn University

Faculty Resources || Active Learning Center

Research suggests that a typical college student’s attention span during lectures begins to wane after approximately 10 minutes (Prince, 2004). The addition of active learning activities to your content delivery helps to consistently encourage student engagement with material. Students experience deeper learning when they are able to practice their knowledge and skills in class with immediate access to and feedback from faculty.

As faculty begin to incorporate active learning activities in the classroom, be sure to communicate with students and set expectations. Talking to students about their learning helps build a supportive classroom environment and develops metacognitive skills.

Teaching in an active learning classroom can be different from teaching in a traditional classroom. The information below will help faculty navigate the moveable furniture, technology, and other unique features in an active learning classroom.

Teaching an EASL Class

Auburn’s investment in active learning classrooms, (ALCs) began in 2011 when a team of forty administrators and faculty came together to plan a new classroom building in response to a 2009 university-wide needs assessment of classroom spaces. In 2017 the Mell Classroom Building, Auburn’s first fully active learning building, opened.
Early in the process, Auburn’s ALCs were branded with the acronym EASL which stands for Engaged and Active Student Learning (Scott Simkins, a Senior Lecturer in the English Department is credited with coming up with the acronym).
In Fall 2022, the new ACLC building will hold its first classes. This will be the second largest instructional space on campus after the Haley Center and will increase the number of EASL (Engaged Active Student Learning) classrooms by 40%.
EASL classrooms feature flexible, collaborative learning features and enhanced technology tools to provide an abundance of options for making classes accessible, inclusive, collaborative, active, and engaging. EASL Classrooms enhance learning when the instructor Integrates their Pedagogy with the Technology and Space of the classroom. There are different features in the EASL spaces across campus and different designations which can help instructors understand and prepare.
The full story of Auburn University’s institutional shift from traditional classroom infrastructure to active learning classrooms and corresponding faculty development efforts to support the shift, can be found in the 2021 case-study, “Successful at Scale: 500 faculty, 39 classrooms, 6 years: A case study” published in The Journal of Learning Spaces and co-authored by a team of Auburn faculty developers, facilities employees, and faculty members.

Active Learning is the pedagogical approach recommended for EASL classrooms and labs.
Active Learning Defined
"Active learning is an interactive and engaging process for students that may be implemented through the employment of strategies that involve metacognition, discussion, group work, formative assessment, practicing core competencies, live-action visuals, conceptual class design, worksheets, and/or games." (Driessen et al., 2020)
Active Learning is a catch-all term that essentially refers to the instructional strategy of creating opportunities for students to act on the new information they are learning in a class. It is often misunderstood as being antithetical or opposite to the instructional strategy of lecturing. This is not the case.
Active learning, as we will refer to it in this course, describes an approach to teaching that emphasizes three elements in and outside of class:
  1. Introduction to new content
  2. Opportunities to practice and receive feedback
  3. Opportunities to reflect and revisit new learning to ensure that it sticks.
Active learning can be as simple as pausing a lecture for one-minute and inviting students to reflect on what you just said. It can be as complex as a semester long inquiry-based researched project. Designing a course for active learning means that student action is intentionally incorporated into the design of each day’s lesson plan. The action could be silently thinking orwriting, solving a problem, answering a clicker question, taking a quiz—but it must require the student to retrieve information from their own brain. By this definition, simply listening and taking notes are not active learning.
The DNA of active learning is the bi-directionality of information: information goes to the student, and information comes from the student. The type, amount, and frequency of opportunities for the student to retrieve new learning is where the importance of thoughtful, integrated design comes in. When instructors have access to EASL classrooms, there are far more tools to support this bi-directional flow of information to and from students.
Research on Active Learning Reviews of the literature (Freeman et. al, 2014; Prince, 2004; Michael, 2006) show extensive empirical support for active learning.
Freeman et al.'s (2014) meta-analysis of 225 studies comparing active learning approaches with traditional lecturing showed improved exam scores and decreased failure rates for active learning. The authors write, “If the experiments analyzed here had been conducted as randomized controlled trials of medical interventions, they may have been stopped for benefit—meaning that enrolling patients in the control condition might be discontinued because the treatment being tested was clearly more beneficial."
Several research studies demonstrate the positive impact active learning can have upon students' learning outcomes:
  • Increased content knowledge, critical thinking and problem-solving abilities, and positive attitudes towards learning in comparison to traditional lecture-based delivery (Anderson et al, 2005)
  • Increased enthusiasm for learning in both students and instructors (Thaman et al., 2013)
  • Development of graduate capabilities such as critical and creative thinking, problem-solving, adaptability, communication and interpersonal skills (Kember & Leung, 2005)
  • Improved student perceptions and attitudes towards information literacy (Deltor et al., 2012)
  • Check out the latest research on active learning featured in Active Learning in Higher Education journal.
Despite the wide range of positive benefits listed above, Michael (2006) articulates an important point: “active learning doesn’t just happen; it occurs in the classroom when the teacher creates a learning environment that makes it more likely to occur”. The importance of faculty development and support to the successful implementation of active learning in EASL classrooms has been well documented in the literature

Using the space and technology effectively will require changes in your course, and you probably won't get it right the first time. Often it is not an easy, seamless conversion to teach effectively in an EASL space. It takes time, support, and experience to truly consider your curriculum and how to redesign it to effectively teach and maximize student learning. Creating and preparing course material (lectures and in-class activities) for the semester in advance will make the transition to this teaching style less stressful.
Course planning
Preparing to teach in an EASL classroom requires instructors to integrate their pedagogy with the technology and space to maximize learning. The process is simple, but not easy. Rather than starting with the material that you want to cover during the semester, begin planning your course with your desired outcomes in mind.
Key questions to ask:
  • What do I want my students to know and be able to do as a result of this class?
  • What are the assignments thatwould allow me to see that my students have achieved the outcome?
  • What do I have to do in and out of class to prepare students to achieve the goals?
  • How can I use the space and technology to help achieve learning objectives?
Planning activities
Finding abalance between the length of an activity for a potentially complex concept and achieving learning outcomes can be challenging. The length of the activity should be proportional to the length of the class itself.
Activities that work in an ALC are ones that:
  • Support the lecture
  • Can be completed relatively quickly
  • Provide detailed written instructions with time limits clearly indicated
  • Require students to work together and be accountable to each other (i.e., cannot easily be completed by an individual)
  • Are able to be broken down so that students can work on pieces and then integrate them
  • Require students to take different perspectives or come up with alternative approaches
  • Take slower students into account in estimating length of time
  • Use technologies to enhance the activity rather than complicate it or add no value

While the success of all learning environments depends upon a number of variables, inside and outside of the instructor’s control, research on student learning in active learning classrooms (ALCs) report the following benefits:
  • Increased class attendance (typically > 90%)
  • Improved student performance when instructors move to active, student-centered teaching methods
  • Increased conceptual understanding when compared to lecture/laboratory classes
  • Drastically reduced failure rates, especially for women and minorities
  • Provided opportunities to strengthen student-faculty relationships
  • Provided opportunities that strengthen student-to-student relationships, which benefits collaborative project outcomes
  • Were found by students to be effective for teamwork and collaborative projects
  • Encouraged discussion by helping students feel active and engaged
  • Perceived positively by both students and instructors
Deeper Learning Principles
More than 15 years ago, Collen Carmean and Jeremy Haefner (2002), scholars from the western United States, suggested that curriculum and instruction in the21st century will be characterized by five properties that they refer to as deeper learning principles that appear to be associated with students who more clearly understand the curriculum and who are more able to transfer the skills and knowledge they learn to different situations.
According to Carmean and Haefner (2002), deeper learning occurs when learner tasks are:
  • Social - Social learning occurs when students and teachers interact, and feedback is given in a timely manner.
  • Active - Active learning occurs when the problems arise from real-world situations and are solved through effort by the learner.
  • Contextual - Learning is contextual when it builds upon students’ prior knowledge and experiences and includes demonstration of new understanding.
  • Engaging - Learning is engaging when it respects differences, arises from students’ curiosity, and is challenging but not threatening.
  • Student - Centered-Student-centered learning includes time for reflection, and encourages students to think about their thinking and to take an active role in planning their learning.
To align classroom with these principles, educators must adopt new practices of preparing and planning curriculum and instruction. Educator tasks will be dynamic and will recognize new roles for technology in classrooms.

Preparing to teach in an EASL room requires a thoughtful consideration of how the technology and space will impact your approach to teaching and the student experience. It is important to explore the space and test the technology tools so you feel comfortable before the course begins.
Completing the activities in this course will help you redesign a course for an EASL classroom or lab, but it's important to think through the challenges and issues that might arise as they will likely be different than those of a traditional classroom. Here are some common issues that pop up in EASL rooms and suggestions for dealing with them.
Room Issues
In most classes, there will be times when students need to focus on you. Because of their arrangement—round tables spread throughout the room—EASL rooms lack a central visual focus compared to more traditional classrooms, making it difficult for you to know where to stand when you want to be seen by all the students. In addition, wherever you stand in an EASL room, some students will be facing away from you. To overcome these problems, designate a focal point in the room such as the podium or the main screen. Develop a cue for getting students’ attention so that they will know to turn toward this focal point when necessary.
Advancing Presentation Slides
Being unable to move around the room defeats some of the advantages of the EASL space. To solve this, you might consider purchasing a wireless remote control device that allows you to advance slides away from the computer if one is not provided.
Large Tables
The tables in the EASL rooms in ACLC are circular and accommodate nine students. Groups this size are typically too large for effective collaborative learning, both because students across the table may have trouble seeing and hearing each other and because large groups encourage some students to sit back and “hitchhike” on the work of others. Further, some tables have a raised console that can make discussion across the table somewhat challenging.To address these issues, you may want to consider splitting students at a table into sub-groups of three to work on activities. (Note that in some EASLs, tables are modular and can be pulled apart to form smaller working surfaces that can easily accommodate sub-groups.) Develop assignments to take advantage of the design of the tables. Such an assignment might consist of two parts: The first part of a problem-solving activity is to be completed by the smaller groups, and the second is a whole-table discussion in which each sub-group shares its findings with the entire table.
Identifying Who is Speaking
Ask students to always use the microphones (when provided) and begin their question or comment by indicating their table number. You should be prepared to insist on this for the first few weeks until studentsbecome habituated to the process.If you circulate throughout the room during student activities and wish to make a comment to the entire class, you will be facing away from some students, making it very difficult for them to hear you without amplification. Make sure you carry and use the wireless microphone.
Noise and Distractions
Active and collaborative learning necessarily results in a great deal of student talk, leading to noisy classrooms. Combine that with the potential visual cues from multiple screens installed on the walls of the EASL rooms and you have an environment that can be overwhelming to some students and can easily lead to distractions and off-task behavior in others. These distractions can be minimized by making sure that student tasksare carefully planned and well structured and by holding students accountable for completing those tasks.
It’s important to remember that noise in and of itself is not an indicator of a classroom problem—noise often indicates student engagement. Besure to establish a cue or signal that lets students know that you need their attention and that they should stop talking. This might involve dimming the lights or a key phrase spoken over the microphone. Modulating between the uncontrolled chaos of groupwork and the more controlled atmosphere of whole class discussions can be difficult, and helping students know that you need their cooperation with this can help with the issue.
Staying on Task
With any active learning strategy there is a risk that students will get off task and talk about things other than solving the intended problem or discussing the issue at hand. To prevent this, try circulating through the room so that you can monitor student work. Make sure that the activities you have assigned arechallenging and take the full amount of time you have allotted to complete them. Hold students accountable for satisfactory completion of tasks by calling on groups randomly to report or assigning points to the activity. Clickers are useful in this regard. If students realize they are accountable for high quality work, they will be less likely to breeze through the activity and spend the balance of the time socializing.
Digital Distractions
If you suspect that students are becoming distracted by their devices, you can limit the number of laptops at a table or ask students to close the lids of their laptops when appropriate to help ensure that their attention is on you. If you choose to allow students to use their laptops, consider incorporating structured tasks to keep students on track. Some instructors provide students with “gapped handouts” (lecture outlines that contain spaces for note-taking) to encourage student engagement with the content. Others incorporate frequent questioning during didactic portions of the class period.
EASL Rooms Aren't Right for All Students
Be alert to the possibility that some students might find this learning environment over-stimulating or difficult to navigate socially. As you would in any course, talk to students who seem to be struggling with the course and decide what accommodations, if any, might be appropriate.

One of the biggest mistakes faculty who are new to EASL teaching often make is not preparing their students for learning in an EASL room.
Be Explicit About the Value and Challenge of Active Learning & Your Expectations
Students new to EASL and active learning need explicit instruction on what is expected of them and why. It is important to emphasize both the value of active learning and the challenges they may experience.
This article is a great first-day read for students in your EASL class: "Students who engage in active learning learn more - but feel like they learn less - than peers in more lecture-oriented classrooms. That's in part because active learning is harder than more passive learning, according to a new study in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences."
Six Tips to Prepare Students for Group Work
EASL rooms were designed specifically to support student group work.However, it’s important to remember that the arrangement of rooms—round tables with students facing each other—will not, by itself, lead to effective student collaboration. In order to make best use of the affordances offered by the EASL rooms, instructors must design assignments and activities with group work in mind, while students must be taught how to work effectively together.
  1. The more intentional you are, the better student groups will function. Provide students with clear expectations on collaborative work as well as resources on collaboration and teamwork, including roles and responsibilities in the team and strategies for how to work with challenging personalities and cultural considerations.
  2. Create student groups purposefully. Students do better problem solving in heterogeneous groups. Students can be assigned to groups randomly or they can be intentionally grouped for differences in expertise, e.g., experience with technology, and other variables such as age, gender, or year in school.
  3. Take advantage of the table organization. When photocopying handouts for everyone, provide only one copy per (small) group of students. This strategy forces individuals to collaborate and is a good way to improve group cohesion. Likewise, you might require small groups of students to share a single laptop computer during class; sharing laptops has the added benefit of minimizing the distractions of technology by discouraging off-task behavior such as web surfing or viewing social networking sites.
  4. Have student groups review difficult lecture material immediately after it is presented. In a Biology class, for example, one professor discusses a number of cell biology experiments and then has the students work in their groups to diagram the experiments and teach each other about the methods used and main findings. This kind of activity offers an opportunity for students to identify confusing parts and ask questions about the harder ideas they can’t resolve in their groups. Be ready for challenging questions.
  5. Grade on both individual performance and group performance. For example, students might first take an online exam individually and then retake the exam or a portion of the exam as a group during class. Individual scores can be raised by a predetermined percentage or number of points by the group exam score.
  6. Teach students how to work in groups effectively. Instructors too often provide little or no guidance to students on how to work together. Knowing how to work effectively in a team is not something that comes naturally to anyone. It is hard work, and it is especially essential in a collaborative process. Besides attention to the recommendations above, have students reflect together on the quality of their team work regularly and provide feedback on how well they are doing as a team. Learning effective team work is a process, not a one-time experience.

A key part of making EASL rooms work is making sure that students are engaged in what is going on in the classroom. Below are some tips from experienced EASL instructors.
Establish a comfortable atmosphere
  • Ask students to wear name tags during class at the beginning of the term. It helps you and the students learn everyone's name and makes for a friendlier environment. Make them easier to distribute by having different color tags for each table.
  • Find ways to have fun in the space, like playing music or educational videos as students enter the classroom. Help make it more engaging to students by giving them a say in what you play as an incentive. Consider a pre-class poll about the upcoming material or something in the news.
  • Take advantage of the fact that the other students at a table will often listen to conversations between you and a student. Sometimes you can initiate a table-wide conversation by simply consulting with one student.
Help students take ownership for their own learning
  • While you don't want to give students the answers to all of their questions, only asking them more questions in order to lead them to the answer will frustrate them. This will discourage them from asking any questions at all. Look for the middle ground in answering student questions.
  • Take advantage of students' tendency to listen to their peers more critically. Ask that students explain things rather than you doing so.
  • At the end of an activity, have students pass their notes to the person beside them to summarize the purpose of the activity and then return the notes. Have students read the best summaries. This gives students an opportunity for reflection and compels them to share what they think were the main ideas. It’s also feedback for you to see if they learned what you intended for the day.
  • After groups have completed an activity, ask students what they learned and add their responses to the lecture slides. This helps demonstrate to students that their contributions are an important part of the class.
Hold students accountable both as individuals and as a group member
  • Randomly call on students so that they all need to always be prepared. If student tables are numbered, you can use a random number generator to pick a table to respond.
  • Give weekly quizzes so students can assess what they have learned.
  • Make sure students are aware how much time remains for an activity by projecting a timer. This also helps make class time more efficient.
  • Begin visiting groups immediately to make sure that students don't delay starting an activity.

One of the features that makes EASL rooms special is the ability to project not only from the instructor station, but also from student devices, to the whole room or to the table's dedicated monitor. Although we may not think of them as "technology," the abundance of glass boards in EASL rooms also offers critical teaching and learning opportunities. It takes some practice and planning to make good use of these features.
  1. Call on student groups to project the outcomes of their work. For example, answers to questions, resources they havefound, or collaborative writing. This will increase student participation and engagement. It will also allow you to assess how students are progressing and places student work at the center of your teaching.
  2. Project particularly good work so that the whole class can see it. This can be done as you move around the room, talking with groups as they work. Or, if a group has encountered a specific problem that others are likely to encounter as well, project it so you (or they) can work through it with the class.
  3. Ask teams to use the glass boards to brainstorm a process before committing to it. For example, to create a quick mind map, or to work through a math problem. Invite students to rotate to their neighbor’s boards to view how another group worked with thematerial or solved a problem.


Scheduling an EASL Class

The Biggio Center invites all interested faculty and graduate students to teach in EASL spaces. To qualify for scheduling, instructors must attend a professional development event that guides them to adopt their course and teaching to effectively utilize the EASL features. Contact the Biggio Center to register for the next EASL Academy, Course (Re)Design, and other opportunities to gain the necessary credential to qualify.

Additional Support

The Biggio Center for the Enhancement of Teaching and Learning supports faculty in all facets of engaged and active student learning. Each summer, the Biggio Center hosts seminars to help faculty develop innovative methods and approaches to teaching in active learning spaces. Faculty can also schedule consultations with Biggio Center staff to explore innovative instructional technologies, active learning strategies, and more.