There is a fair amount of research into the impact of classroom design on student learning. Spaces flooded with natural light that allow for a variety of learning methods and activities, and spaces that let students feel a sense of ownership over the classroom, demonstrably affect how well students learn.

Active learning applies a similar principle, including minimizing institutional barriers like teacher lecterns, fixed and stagnant furniture, and limited student exposure to real-world experiences. Through active learning, the teacher gradually releases control to the students, encouraging them to become independent learners.

Four years ago, I became an inaugural recipient of a Steelcase Education Active Learning Center Grant. The renovated classroom and colorful mobile chairs and desks provided by the grant have literally transformed my practice, my seventh-grade language arts students, and their families. Test scores, homework completion, and grades have soared and parents who had never visited their student’s classroom now volunteer regularly. My research in our active learning classroom (ALC) over the past three years led me to discover seven elements critical to student success.

7 discoveries from an active learning classroom

1. Reflective practice is critical for continued growth.
In our ALC, continuous reflection is critical and expected of both teacher and students, and requires a laser focus on planning, implementation, and assessment. I have learned to look at multiple perspectives in any given situation and I model that practice for my students. We continually revisit our work, looking for connections to prior projects and lessons, hoping to improve the overall learning experience and its application to real-life situations. Through research, students make inferences and draw conclusions but are encouraged to look beyond the obvious from multiple perspectives focusing not only on what is known but what is possible. Failure is recognized, encouraged, and embraced as essential to learning as we all strive for personal improvement, academic tenacity, and success.

2. Social-emotional learning is a huge part of our learning process.
The increase in student absenteeism, bullying behaviors, disinterest in school, and violence has sparked the need for social-emotional learning in the classroom. Students enter my classroom with a plethora of emotional concerns that interfere with learning. Active learning environments provide a unique level of comfort for students, evident in my classroom. Our no-judgment zone encourages risk taking and failure becomes a catalyst for revision and improved design. Students feel free to move, communicate, and collaborate. Learning is a community experience.

About the Author:

Julie Marshall, Ed.D., is a National Board-certified teacher at Saluda Trail Middle School in South Carolina and a teaching adjunct at Winthrop University. She is a recipient of the Steelcase Education ALC Grant, SC Teacher of the Year finalist, and Global Teaching Fellow.


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