Post-occupancy study reveals model interactive classrooms enhance participation, engagement, and mood/energy among Heartland Community College users.
Research consistently shows that active/experiential learning enables students to retain more information and supports the development of workplace skills, most notably working with others. And yet, many higher education institutions continue to operate dated classrooms that impede active learning.
“Schools are slow to convert traditional classrooms into active learning settings for two key reasons,” said Michael Lundeen, director of higher education at Legat Architects. “First, there is the economic aspect, but a less obvious impediment to revamping classrooms is a reluctance among some seasoned instructors to embrace experiential teaching methods and the new technologies they require.”
Institutions worry that veteran faculty members might change remodeled classrooms back to a traditional setup. Thus, introducing active learning environments requires both a monetary and training investment.
Lundeen said that when colleges and universities delay this investment, they forego an opportunity to not only advance their students’ skills but also to show their commitment to progress.
“When students go from classroom to classroom and see the same old furniture lined up, they’re primed for the traditional lecture format,” said Dr. Wayne Bass, professor of humanities and religious studies at Heartland Community College in Normal, Illinois.
Bass’s colleagues Peter Betz (physics/engineering) and Dr. Janet Titus (psychology) agree that conventional classroom layouts hinder group work. “In typical classrooms, everyone is locked into a spot,” said Titus. “There’s not a lot of room, and it’s more awkward.”
In September 2020, Heartland and Legat set out to address this problem by transforming two standard classrooms into FOCUS (Fostering Opportunity, Collaboration, Understanding, and Scholarship) classrooms. Goals included giving students more choice over their environment, promoting active learning, and improving faculty-to-student and student-to-student interaction.
The setup and casualness of the Flexible classroom translate to more comfort and more participation.Dr. Janet Titus,
Professor of Psychology, Heartland Community College
Key to achieving these objectives were flexibility and mobility; according to The Literacy and Language Center, movement among students at least every 30 minutes enhances focus, memory, and retention.
“We wanted the FOCUS classrooms to support a wide range of learning methods from independent study and traditional lectures to whole-class discussions and group work,” said Legat interior designer and research team member Aileen Everitt. “Comfortable furniture that is easy to rearrange was at the top of our list.”
The cost-effective classroom makeovers occurred over two months and required minimal construction. Each room received new ergonomic furniture, technology, markerboards, flooring, power, and paint.
A select group of teachers began holding classes in the FOCUS classrooms starting in fall 2021. This spring, Legat conducted a post-occupancy study covering the five-semester trial period. The study included faculty and student surveys, as well as interviews with three teachers who have used the model classrooms for more than one semester. The resulting findings proved both compelling and surprising.
This article will explore the layouts and contents of the test classrooms, the research methodology, and survey/interview findings/interpretations including positive and negative outcomes of the FOCUS classrooms.
FOCUS Classrooms Overview: Active Learning and Flexible
The team, led by an academic administrator at Heartland, explored new teaching methods, researched active learning settings, and visited modernized classrooms at regional institutions.
This resulted in the creation of two FOCUS classrooms. The Active Learning classroom, also referred to as the “pods room,” is in Heartland’s ICN (Instructional Commons North). The carpeted room features five stations, or pods, around the perimeter. Each pod has a table and chairs on casters (i.e., wheels) as well as a wall-mounted monitor and markerboard. A central “tech spine” on each table provides power and ethernet connections. Students and teachers can disconnect tables from the spines to move the tables around the room.
The Flexible classroom in ICB (Instructional Commons Building) offers a more open plan layout. Casters and luxury vinyl tile (LVT) flooring enable easy movement of all furniture: standard and standing-height tables, chairs and stools, ottomans, and a height-adjustable teacher’s station. Even TV monitors sit on mobile stands. The Flexible classroom has two wall-mounted whiteboards and two projection screens. Additionally, students can take down personal markerboards hanging on one wall for use at their tables.
Low-tech and high-tech features and flexible furniture allow for easy shifting between lecture-style, learner-led, and teacher-guided lessons in both test rooms.
The post-occupancy surveys covered a sampling of teachers and students who used the FOCUS classrooms during the 2023 spring semester and one to five semesters total. The online surveys included multiple-choice questions, rating scales, Likert scales, and open-ended questions.
Faculty interviews were conducted in person at the college with three professors: Dr. Wayne Bass, professor of humanities and religious studies; Peter Betz, professor of physics and engineering; and Dr. Janet Titus, professor of psychology.
Research team members also observed three classes: one in each of the FOCUS classrooms and one in a standard classroom.
Improved Participation, Engagement, Mood/Energy
The surveys explored whether FOCUS classrooms improved the student experience in three key areas: participation, engagement, and mood/energy.
Sixty percent of students indicated they were more likely to participate in the FOCUS classrooms, and 57% of students agreed the rooms increased mental engagement and mood/energy. One hundred percent of teachers, however, agreed that the FOCUS classrooms led to improvements in all three categories.
The gap between student and teacher confidence in the test classrooms also showed in responses to a question asking if they would prefer to learn/teach in a FOCUS classroom instead of a standard classroom. Whereas 60.8% of students agreed (the rest were neutral), 100% of instructors agreed.
“I absolutely LOVE these classrooms,” said one teacher in a survey response. “They truly help me engage students in a different way than a traditional classroom. Students arrive to class eager to join their group and hop on a laptop — it’s hard to be a passive learner in these classrooms.”
“The FOCUS classroom encourages me to make lessons more hands-on and active,” said Titus. “I find that the students participate more. In a lesson on classical conditioning, for instance, they will be more willing to share real-life examples.”
In the survey, one student wrote, “I enjoy the mobility of the [Active Learning classroom]. It’s very easy and comfortable to go around to different parts of the room and work with other groups. The chairs are comfortable and move well over the carpeted floor.”
None of the faculty interviewees stated that the FOCUS classrooms had a noticeable impact on student grades.
“Grades aren’t what it boils down to,” said Bass. “What it boils down to is engagement. And as far as engagement goes, there’s no question: these classes are much easier to engage students and to get them invested in learning.”
Understanding the Intention and Breaking the Mindset
Bass relates the standard classroom to a movie theater. “In a theater, there’s a subconscious impulse to be quiet because the chairs are fixed and facing the same way. The content isn’t about you — it’s about what’s on the screen. Students have the same impulse in the traditional classroom when they see rows of chairs facing one way and an instructor facing them.”
He said that the FOCUS classrooms work against that impulse by putting the spotlight on the students. When students walk into the new classrooms, they “understand the intent,” according to Bass. Thus, students intuit that the model classrooms encourage activity and motion.
He uses the model classrooms for “full-blown workshops” that move away from instructor-centered learning and toward student-centered learning. Bass, who walks around the room and fields questions or offers direction, compares himself to a personal trainer at a gym instead of a movie star on a screen. If the students need him, he’s there.
“It’s so much easier to teach in the interactive classrooms because the spaces communicate to students what I want them to do,” said Bass, “whereas traditional classrooms communicate to them the exact opposite of what I want them to do.”
The Flexible classroom has also proven effective for Titus’s Intro to Psychology course in which groups of students belong to “houses,” each of which is named after a famous psychologist. Though she has only taught in the Flexible classroom, Titus expects that the Active Learning classroom’s pods setup would support human development and other courses.
“We tend not to do group work in regular classrooms because logistically it’s too hard,” said Titus. “The setup and casualness of the Flexible classroom translate to more comfort and more participation.”
Flexibility Essentials: Furniture and Technology
One surprising survey result was student preferences for different learning activities. Students reported valuing the traditional lecture format and solo work nearly equal to group work or whole-class discussions. This finding reinforces the importance of classroom flexibility.
While the standard classroom can accommodate most of the examples above, challenges arise when a teacher pivots to group work — that is where the flexibility of the FOCUS classrooms comes into play.
A classroom’s ability to support group work hinges partly on furniture maneuverability. While faculty survey results indicated difficulty in rearranging furniture in standard classrooms, students expressed neutrality. However, both groups concurred that moving furniture is significantly easier in FOCUS classrooms.
When Betz, a self-described “science and math guy,” told his FOCUS classroom students he could teach in a normal classroom without much difference, they disagreed. “They said, ‘Oh no. We want to be in here.’” When he asked why, Betz was amused by their response: “Because the chairs have wheels.”
The survey also asked students about their favorite type of furniture within both FOCUS classrooms. A clear front-runner emerged: 48% of students selected the group tables with TV monitors and whiteboards within the Active Learning classroom. The next-highest rated furniture (tall-height tables with plastic stools within the Flexible classroom) only received 22% of the votes.
Overall, 78% of students agreed that FOCUS classrooms have more comfortable furniture than standard classrooms and 70% believed the model classrooms offer enough furniture variety.
Another contributor to classroom flexibility is technology. Student and faculty surveys showed an uptick in technology accessibility within the FOCUS classrooms. The most significant technological enhancement to the model classrooms was the presentation screens. One hundred percent of teachers and 96% of students agreed there were enough screens in the FOCUS classrooms.
Bass shared that the multiple screens within the Active Learning classroom help make a “comfortable and relaxed atmosphere” where students do not need to look at the main projector. In the Flexible classroom, instructors can show slides on the main screen and on two movable screens to create a lounge-like setting.
Surveys and interviews also brought to light limitations of FOCUS classroom technologies. Titus, for example, has encountered delays when an individual accidentally turns off the power and everything has to reboot.
Betz divulged that because some instructors are slower to adopt new technologies, the interactive classrooms are not being used to their full potential — he said the success of the classrooms depends partly on teachers who are willing to push new technologies.
Survey comments and interviews showed that the test classrooms would profit with additional technology including printers, charging stations, and more USB ports.
The surveys also measured faculty and student preferences for whiteboards within the FOCUS classrooms. While teachers showed a 50/50 split between wall-mounted and personal-sized markerboards, 61% of student respondents opted for the latter.
Flooring and Colors
The study also investigated student and teacher reactions to FOCUS classroom flooring and colors. The Active Learning classroom offers carpet tiles with a calmer color scheme consisting of navy blue, yellow, and dark gray. The Flexible classroom has more energetic flooring: lighter gray luxury vinyl tile (LVT) accented with a sporadic pattern including dark blue, aqua, and orange.
The design team selected the model classroom colors based on research into the psychology of color. The blue, for instance, stems from research suggesting that blue supports intellectual endeavors. Theorists have proposed that orange, as seen in the Flexible classroom, enhances oxygen supply to the brain and therefore invigorates mental activity and inspires people to “get things done.”
“The intent of the Active Learning classroom flooring was to promote concentration and focus,” said Everitt. “We wanted the Flexible classroom flooring to encourage people to move around.”
Approximately half of both survey groups expressed a preference for the carpet tile, while the remainder split between hard tile and no preference.
Bass favored the Active Learning classroom’s carpet, calling it “soothing” and “conducive to settling in and working.” He said the more vibrant blue and orange of the Flexible classroom, along with its views of the campus quad, “makes me want to get up and go, even though it’s better than traditional flooring.”
Impact on Teaching: Depends on Subject Matter
One discussion that came about during instructor interviews was whether teaching in the FOCUS classrooms had any effect on pedagogy in the test classrooms and normal classrooms. Responses implied that the model classrooms are more adept at supporting the instructional delivery of certain subjects.
When asked if the test classrooms changed the way he teaches, Betz replied, “Yes … ish.” The hesitation stems from the traditional classrooms/labs offering better access to the science- and engineering-related equipment he uses to clarify concepts.
“If a student struggles to understand a concept,” he said, “in a physics lab I can open a cabinet, take something out, and say, ‘This is what’s happening.’ The test classrooms do not have that option.”
Therefore, Betz prefers to keep his physics and engineering students in the traditional classroom/lab, but “I’ve pulled some of the techniques I’ve adopted in the FOCUS classroom back into the standard classroom.”
Betz suggested a strong video inventory might overcome that limitation in the FOCUS classrooms.
Another concern that Betz shared entailed “broadcasting the written word” for his formula-driven lessons — the interactive classrooms do not offer the technology to cast his handwritten symbols and equations on a screen. Thus, in the test classrooms, he often resorts to using the whiteboards “like in a normal classroom.”
“The students like the FOCUS classrooms because the styling is different,” he said. “They feel different when they walk in the door. So yes, I do teach differently because the room is different.”
It’s so much easier to teach in the interactive classrooms because the spaces communicate to students what I want them to do, whereas traditional classrooms communicate to them the exact opposite of what I want them to do.Dr. Wayne Bass,
Professor of Humanities and Religious Studies, Heartland Community College
Bass maintains that the model classrooms influence teachers in the liberal arts and social sciences. “When instructors go into them, it changes the way they teach. If they’re put into a more traditional classroom after that, their teaching will be affected because they were in this new space.”
There is, according to Bass, a caveat to the test classrooms’ ability to influence teaching styles. “Those who’ve been lecturers for 25 years and see themselves as lecturers aren’t clamoring to be in the new spaces,” he said. “These classrooms are for the instructors who want to do new things.”
FOCUS Classroom Shortcomings
Interviews and survey comments unveiled several test classroom weaknesses. Teachers and students said the rooms would benefit from additional technologies such as laptop charging stations and printers. Titus, who often sets handouts next to the door, proposed that a separate table or staging area near the front of the FOCUS classrooms would be helpful.
Additionally, several respondents indicated that the Active Learning classroom lacked the flexibility of its counterpart. Interviewees reported that users in that space did not understand that each pod table, which is on casters, can be pulled away from its tech spine, a thin white platform that hovers above the tables and offers ethernet connections.
“Our conclusion was that the issue in the Active Learning classroom was less about a lack of flexibility and more about the tables’ movability not being intuitive,” said Everitt. “With that being said, if students move the tables away from the power spine, they do lose online access.”
Bass also noted that the five-pod structure of the Active Learning classroom limits individual study, plus the tables are not large enough for two teams — five teams is the max for that room. He recommended adding lounge space with soft seating to deformalize the setting and give students more options. Moreover, the study revealed that the Active Learning classroom would benefit from personal whiteboards to supplement its larger wall-mounted markerboards.
It Comes Down to Choice
When Peter Betz attended a recent high school concert, he noticed one band member could not sit still. Initially, he wondered why a teacher was not confronting the student.
But sometime during that performance, Betz’s perspective shifted. “I thought, he’s not interfering with any other student. He’s able to learn and play music, but he needs to move.”
This experience shifted Betz’s perspective on how students learn. “Students have to do different things to be successful,” he said. “I’m seeing that for activities that I have them do, and in the FOCUS classrooms, I’m starting to see how that’s connected to the physical space.”
One of the most important findings about the model classrooms comes not through the surveys but through the instructor interviews. Interviewees indicated that when students see the FOCUS classrooms, they understand and appreciate that Heartland Community College is taking steps to accommodate their preferred learning styles. Perhaps this is why 100% of surveyed teachers agreed that they would prefer to teach in FOCUS classrooms.
Edgar Dale’s Cone of Experience suggests that while people remember 20% of what they hear and only 10% of what they read, they remember 90% of what they do while performing a task. The Heartland Community College FOCUS classrooms were designed around this theory of experiential learning.
“The focus classrooms give students a choice,” said Betz. “It’s something to break down the barrier and make them feel a little more welcome, and maybe they’ll engage more because you tried to help them feel more comfortable.”
Contact us with your facilities challenges or comment below to share your thoughts on this post.