Nima L Yolmo, Department of Anthropology

The growing effectiveness of active learning pedagogical methods since the 1980s has concurrently drawn attention to classroom ambiance. Design aspects such as lighting and mobility influence student learning. Over the past decade, there has been a growing awareness among institutions to transition to Active Learning Classrooms (ALCs) that enhance student access and encourage group and collaborative learning. However, although many institutions have begun to invest in student-centric learning spaces, the substantial amount of resources required for the transition makes the process at best an ongoing one for most existing institutions. In this post, I draw from my experience as a graduate student teaching assistant in a public university. I focus on the situation where most classrooms are traditionally designed and instructors do not have much say in choosing classrooms.

My familiarity is with lower-division introductory courses in social sciences. These serve as general elective courses for around 400-500 students coming from various disciplines. The instructors use large lecture halls. Here, lectures, occasional films, and documentaries convey information. Additionally, students attend smaller discussion sections facilitated by teaching assistants. Classroom allotments for both the main lectures and discussion sections are based on class strength and seldom change once finalized. Given that it is often the smaller discussion sections that allow for a closer interaction with the students, how may we adapt active learning pedagogy in classrooms where chairs and tables are at times anchored to the ground, or in interim trailers with thin walls? I have found that it is helpful to take note of the following key points:

Assessing the classroom: determining primary and secondary activities

The first step is to identify and assess the assigned classroom. This helps align active learning methods to the course syllabus. For instance, if the chairs and desks are immovable, then methods like think-pair-share and reflection papers might be more conducive than larger group work. If there is limited mobility, then the primary activity should be more individual-driven with class presentation and feedback. A medium-sized lecture hall can allow for greater experimentation to set ambiance with nonintrusive background music during group work, which is not feasible in classrooms with thin walls.

Engaging students in the learning process

Active leaning techniques vary widely and are adaptable to different settings. A crucial aspect to emphasize is the integrated learning mode where students connect the discussions in class to their own life experiences and reflections. In seeing these connections, students often come up with interesting ideas and suggestions that can be folded into subsequent lessons.


Available research suggests that irrespective of traditional or active learning-enabled classrooms, active learning techniques tend to be effective in comparison to traditional lecture methods. In this, the most important ingredient for facilitating student learning is a positive welcoming ambiance that intrigues and engages them, making the coursework relevant to their life objectives and experiences.


The FLEXspace initiative (2018, October 2)

2018 NMC. Horizon Report (2018, August 16)

Stephanie Mcdaniel, Aia, Leed Ap. “5 Questions To Consider When Designing An Active Learning Classroom” (Sep 13, 2016)

Ann L. Brown. “Design Experiments: Theoretical and Methodological Challenges in Creating Complex Interventions in Classroom Settings”, The Journal of the Learning Sciences, 2:2, 141-178 (1992)

Matthew Mahavongtrakul edited this post on April 17th, 2019.