Creating an Active Learning Space

Elaine L. Demps, PhD.                                                      

Director of Instructional Design and Support Services

Texas A&M University Irma Lerma Rangel College of Pharmacy  

The Texas A&M University Irma Lerma Rangel College of Pharmacy is 10 years young. Even so, from early on, we began yearning for a space that was more conducive to teaching small groups. That space would nicely complement our three large lecture halls and would be used for our weekly integrated pharmacotherapy rounds and recitations. This desire became a reality in 2013 for our second campus in College Station where we planned to admit a first cohort of 30+ students in fall 2014.

We began the needs assessment by asking the faculty and students who were experiencing the integrated pharmacotherapy rounds and recitations in a large lecture hall at our first campus in Kingsville: What works? What doesn’t work? We also looked for exemplars and came across Indiana University’s collaborative learning studio, the SCALE-UP Project, and TILE. We even stumbled upon a then newly published special issue of New Directions for Teaching and Learning that was dedicated to active learning spaces.1 And we came across furniture makers who specialized in products that facilitated collaboration, e.g., Steelcase, Spectrum, and Teknion.

The pictures below show the before and after of the renovation. Each small-group station is a D-shaped table that seats seven students. We installed two 32” displays at the end of the table, four HDMI inputs for laptops, eight power plug outlets, seven data jacks, one camera, one gooseneck microphone controlled by four push-to-talk buttons, one ceiling speaker above each station, and seven headphone jacks with individual volume controls. Because our curriculum would be delivered to both campuses synchronously, each station had to be integrated into the videoconferencing system. But, by installing an audiovisual bridge, we planned to use the same equipment, e.g., the videoconference camera and microphone at a station, for web conferencing. That way, clinical faculty located anywhere in Texas could join a small group using Zoom or WebEx and facilitate that group’s work while the entire class was connected to our first campus by the Cisco TelePresence videoconferencing system. By the way, the headphone jacks were installed for that reason—to prevent cross talk when a small group was communicating with a distance facilitator.

The empty space in the center of the room was intentional. We needed this classroom to be dual purpose: to serve as a lecture-style room and as an active learning space. To serve that need, we purchased chairs equipped with work surface tablets that could be moved to the back when the chairs were placed at the stations or brought to the front when the chairs were placed in the center of the room.

We completed the renovation in fall 2015. During the 2015-16 academic year, we used it as an active learning space only. This year, now with three cohorts at our second campus, the room is also being used for lectures. So, what has been the feedback? As an active learning space, it indeed fulfills all the items on our initial wish list. The key point I took away from that special journal issue on active learning spaces was that spaces don’t dictate behavior but do influence it. I think that’s true. This room is indeed conducive for small-group teaching and learning. However, when configured for lectures, the room is less optimal. The primary reason seems to be because the equipment and electronics are ideal for small groups located at the stations. For example, for safety reasons, we chose not to install power outlets into floor cores in the middle of the room and now students don’t have a way to charge their laptops when the room is configured in lecture-style mode. Also, using the ceiling microphones, rather than the push-to-talk microphones at the stations, yields less effective communication.

We currently don’t have an active learning space at our first campus. I hope we get to add one. That would be awesome.


1. Baepler P, Brooks DC, Walker JD, editors. Active learning spaces. New Directions for Teaching and Learning. 2014 Spring; 137:1-98. doi: 10.1002/tl.20080.




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