Every Fall, I follow along as Derek Bruff @derekbruff tweets out inspiring stories from the open classroom event his Center for Teaching runs at Vanderbilt. Course instructors from across campus volunteer to open their classrooms and welcome their peers to come observe. While we may have 25, 60, 300, or more students in our classrooms, it’s rare to have a colleague, and open classroom events provide an opportunity for all the educators in the room – the ones at the front and the ones at the back – to share some formative feedback.
We hosted our first Open Classroom Week at UBC Okanagan October 1-5, 2018. Twelve course instructors from across the campus, across disciplines, and from 1st-year to 4th-year invited their peers into their classrooms.
Opening your classroom to your colleagues takes courage and confidence and demonstrates educational leadership. So, I wanted to thank those twelve course instructors. Sure, I could send SW-S, RT, RP, WSM, CL, RF, GD, TE, TF, NL, CS, and AK a letter (or a letter to their Department Heads) on Centre letterhead, formally thanking them for participating in the event. But I wanted something they could put on the shelf in their office so remind them, and any visitors, that they did something valuable. Combine that with my obsessi–, er, interest in pop-up cards and you get this:
Do it yourself
Want to make one for your Center? Here’s the PPT file I used to create the card, plus a set of directions for editing the text, printing the card, and making it. I think the instructions are clear but by the time I wrote them, I’d already made 5 prototypes and then the dozen cards I gave to my UBC Okanagan colleagues so I could pretty well do it in my sleep. If you get stuck, feel free to tweet me at @polarisdotca. And then send me a picture of your finished card (and permission to share it)!
As class size increases, instructors face an increasingly difficult challenge. There is clear evidence that more students are more successful in classes with active learning. Yet the work required to facilitate active learning – logistics, providing feedback, supporting and interacting with individual students – increases with class size. And despite the importance of the design of learning spaces, large classrooms often impede student-student and student-instructor interactions.
At UBC’s Okanagan campus, I was invited to advise the architects and campus planners on the design a new 400-seat classroom.
Design Principle: Eliminate everything that hinders student-student collaboration and student-instructor interaction.
My poster uses a giant 6-page “book” (you can see it drooping slightly in the center of the poster in the picture above) to highlight different features and characteristics of the design:
Student flow: Main entrances to the classroom are at the middle of the room. Students flow in and downhill toward the front. Sitting at the back takes deliberate effort. Students can discretely enter and exit without disrupting the class or the instructor.
Accessible seating: Fully 20% of seating – roughly 90 locations – are accessible to students using wheelchairs. They can sit in groups with their peers at prime locations, instead of being isolated or confined to designated seats.
Network of aisles: A network of aisles throughout the classroom allows instructors and teaching assistants to get face-to-face or within arm’s reach of every student. Wireless presentation system allows instructors to teach from any location and project any student’s device.
Group work with whiteboards: Students on narrower front desks swivel around to work with their peers on wider desks. With 150 whiteboards scattered throughout the room, groups can be collaborating within seconds of their instructor saying, “Grab a whiteboard and…”
Lighting: Separate front, middle, back lights create smaller classrooms for 250 and 100 students.
Prep room: Prep room is accessible from outside the classroom so instructors can prepare before and after class. Includes sink, glassware drying rack, storage cabinets, lockable flammable solvent cabinet, fume hood, chemical resistant countertops, first aid kit, demo cart.
Design Features Promote Collaboration and Interaction
The classroom is gently tiered so students farther back can see the front. There are 2 desks on each tier. The front desk is wide enough to hold a notebook and laptop. The rear desk is nearly twice as wide, allowing the front student to swivel around and work with their peers in the rear desk.
Swivel chairs on wheels allow students to easily move and work with others around them.
The front desk on each tier has a modesty screen. There are deliberately NOT modesty screens on the rear desks, allowing students on the front desk to swivel around to the rear desk without smashing their knees or having to sit awkwardly.
There are power outlets for every student under the desktop, leaving the work surface unbroken and smooth for notebooks, laptops, and whiteboards.
When the instructor or teaching assistant stands in the aisle in front of the front desk, they can speak face-to-face with the 1st row of students, and are within arm’s reach of the 2nd row. From the aisle on the back of this set of four rows of desks, the instructor or teaching assistant is face-to-face with students in the 4th row and within arm’s reach of the 3rd row.
Optimizing Visibility of the Screen
A slightly curved screen at the front of the classroom is large enough to display two standard inputs. A third projector can display a single image across the screen. The screen is about 7 or 8 feet above the floor, so the instructor at the front does not cast a shadow on the screen or look directly into the projectors (housed in a 2nd floor projection room at the back of the classroom.) The size and curvature of the screen ensure all but the very front-left and front-right seats have views of the screen within UBC’s guidelines.
Does the Design Enhance Learning?
We are studying the impact of the design by comparing data collected before and after course instructors teach their courses in the 400-seat classroom, including
distributions of final grades and grades on in-class activities like peer instruction (“clicker”) questions and group work sheet
drop, fail, withdrawal (DFW) rates
locations of the course instructor and teaching assistants at 2-minute intervals throughout the class period
what the instructor is doing (lecturing, writing, posing questions,…) and what the students are doing (listening, discussing peer instruction questions, asking questions,…) using the Classroom Observation Protocol for Undergraduate STEM (COPUS)3,4
My thanks to Dora Anderson, Heather Berringer, Deborah Buszard, Rob Einarson, W. Stephen McNeil, Carol Phillips, Jodi Scott, and Todd Zimmerman for the opportunity to help design to this learning space.
Freeman, S., Eddy, S. L., McDonough, M., Smith, M. K., Okoroafor, N., Jordt, H., & Wenderoth, M. P. (2014). Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 111(23), 8410-8415. doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1319030111
Beichner, R., Saul, J., Abbott, D., Morse, J., Deardorff, D., Allain, R., … & Risley, J. (2007). The Student-Centered Activities for Large Enrollment Undergraduate Programs (SCALE-UP) project, a peer reviewed chapter of Research-Based Reform of University Physics. College Park, MD: Am Assoc of Physics Teachers.
Stains, M., Harshman, J., Barker, M. K., Chasteen, S. V., Cole, R., DeChenne-Peters, S. E., … & Levis-Fitzgerald, M. (2018). Anatomy of STEM teaching in North American universities. Science, 359(6383), 1468-1470. doi.org/10.1126/science.aap8892
Smith, M. K., Jones, F. H., Gilbert, S. L., & Wieman, C. E. (2013). The Classroom Observation Protocol for Undergraduate STEM (COPUS): a new instrument to characterize university STEM classroom practices. CBE-Life Sciences Education, 12(4), 618-627. doi.org/10.1187/cbe.13-08-0154
the right to make mistakes and revise one’s thinking
the right to speak, listen, and be heard
the right to write, do, and represent what makes sense to you
Robert’s particular take on these rights is how the physical learning space can promote (but more often, restrict) these rights. Simple example: in classrooms where the seats have built-in tablets, left-handed people have to sit in special lefty-seats, usually along an aisle or against the wall. They can’t sit with their peers and can’t choose to be inconspicuous in the middle of a big block of seats.
Robert gave another example that caught a lot of conference attendees’ attention: despite a course instructor’s pleas to their student to come to office hours, faculty offices are rarely welcoming spaces for students. If a student can overcome the apprehension and anxiety of the clutter and the feeling like they’re invading their instructor’s living room, the typical office does not permit active, collaborative learning. The instructor sits in a big chair on one side of a barrier — their big ol’ desk — and talks at the student sitting on the other side of the desk in a crappy chair.
He teased us with some new office designs and furniture that create a welcoming, collaborative learning space. I mean, who wouldn’t want an office like this, right?
A number of UBC Okanagan faculty spoke to me after the conference, wondering how they could renovate their offices. All it would take, it seems, is a few $1000. But who has that kind of money to spare – certainly not the instructors, themselves.
I’m on an learning spaces advisory committee and I pitched an idea: a competitive grant program where each year, say, 5 faculty members could receive up to $3000 to renovate their office. Let’s call it a FOALS grant:
The advisory committee said, sure, take it to Deans’ Council and see what they say. Whew, passed the first hurdle. Or keeping with the horsey theme, cleared the first jump.
Fast forward 2 weeks.
The meeting went something like this:
Ha ha ha ha! Nope.
No, seriously, this is a great group of people to work with and they give me some good feedback and legit reasons why they were laughing:
It’s hard to justify an expense that doesn’t have a clear connection to the core teaching and learning mission of the university.
This would introduce even more inequity into an culture that’s steeped in seniority, status, who has a window, and whose office is next to the washroom.
What happens when someone move offices? Is the new furniture theirs to move? Does it stay with the room (which is probably would if the reno includes big whiteboards.)
So, while FOALS won’t be coming to UBC Okanagan any time soon, it sparked some ideas that might:
Deans could bring this idea into conversations with new faculty members when they’re talking about start up funding and opportunities.
focus on shared spaces like atriums, foyers, open spaces at the ends of hallways: if those spaces had whiteboards, work surfaces, wall-mounted monitors the instructor and students to jack into, comfortable task seating,… course instructors could hold “office” hours there with groups of students
there might be some smaller, affordable items faculty could purchase on their own – if only someone would source good stuff at good prices. (Psst – I think I’ve got a line on Steelcase’s awesome verb whiteboards.)