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Ask Professor Pedagogy: Designing Learning Spaces

Posted by on Friday, May 17, 2013 in Commentary.

Ask Professor Pedagogy is a twice monthly advice column written by Center for Teaching staff. One aspect of our mission is to cultivate dialogue about teaching and learning, so we welcome questions and concerns that arise in the classroom; particularly those from Vanderbilt faculty, students, and staff. If you have a question that you’d like Professor P to address, please send it to us.

Dear Professor Pedagogy,

Over the course of my teaching experience, I have noticed that my students come to class awake, energetic, and enthusiastic.  Having just rushed across campus from their dorms chatting about the news of the day, they are invigorated.  At the beginning of class, students have a lot of attention for the content and are interested in chatting with one another.  However, by the end of class, they are drowsy and lackadaisical; having just sat through ninety minutes of lecture and short question-answer periods, their energy and attention is zapped, and their interest in interacting with one another is surpassed by an intense desire to nap.

Next semester, I want to change that predictable rhythm of class.  I have the good fortune expecting to have a small class size and a classroom with movable chairs and tables.  I am very interested in making the learning environment feel more energized, collaborative, and open to a wide variety of experiences, whether they be through technology, peer-interaction, or emergent forms of engagement I have not yet considered.  Do you have any suggestions regarding learning spaces that might transcend the traditional “school house” model of sitting at desks, facing a teacher at the chalkboard?  I would appreciate ways of embracing and sustaining the intellectual and physical energy with which my students come to class.


Learning Spaces


Dear Learning Spaces,

Thank you for your question.  Your interest in creating engaging learning spaces is a particularly timely one, especially because many classrooms are “going virtual” or instructors are designing completely new learning environments to meet the changing expectations of their students.  However, I think your question gets at an even bigger idea of situating the classroom within the lives of students, rather than expecting students to situate their lives within the oftentimes inauthentic context of the classroom (Nespor, 1997).  You want to make your instruction as invigorating and relevant as the world beyond the four walls of the classroom.

First, I suggest articulating to yourself the desired outcomes you have in mind when thinking about designing an engaging and effective learning space.  Here are a few possible objectives you might be thinking about:

  • Community: I want to support more peer-to-peer learning and interaction through engaging discussions.  I want to create a strong community of learning where students feel accountable for learning and synthesizing the content in creative ways.
  • Movement: I want my students to be at ease moving around the classroom, but have good reason to do so.
  • Modalities: I want to incorporate many different modalities of teaching and learning; I want to engage all of my students’ senses (e.g., hearing, seeing, feeling, talking).
  • Relevancy: I want my own pedagogical practices and environments to seem relevant and similar to other (informal) learning environments (e.g., playing video games, messaging on Facebook) in which my students flourish.  I want to leverage new media and technology to communicate disciplinary content to my students.

After you have identified your teaching and learning objectives, think about how making modifications to the classroom space can support achieving these objectives.  Below, are some ideas to get you started in making your classroom a vibrant and engaging place for teaching and learning.

  • Community: Get rid of the traditional classroom formation of desks in rows.  Move desks into groups of four to five seats so that groups will naturally form at the beginning of each class time.  This will naturally facilitate conversations between your students and change the dynamic of you being the “transmitter of knowledge.”  If the same people always sit together, make a new seating chart and have it projected at the beginning of class.  That way, as students come in, they will locate their new seat and take it without losing any instructional time.  Even though you now have your students facing each other, it’s important to remember that everyone needs to be able to easily see and otherwise access any visual or material resources you’ve located around the room.  In other words, avoid having people’s backs to the screen if you’re projecting a presentation, or making tight spaces that require students to squeeze in and out of if they need to move for some reason.
  • Movement: Design instructional activities that require your students to leave their seats.  This will keep your students’ minds and bodies engaged and alert.  Put images related to the content that you are teaching that day around the room, and have them do a “museum walk.”  As they circulate around the room, they can make notes about the images they see, and then discuss these observations after a set amount of time.  If there are locations or artifacts around campus that somehow relate to the content you are teaching, give your students twenty minutes or so to go find those artifacts, then return to class and have a set of related questions to discuss.
  • Modalities:  Let’s face it, a lecture delivered via Powerpoint doesn’t usually do much to entice the senses.  Some instructors are much better at incorporating evocative audio and video clips and images.  But these presentations still rely only on hearing and seeing, and ignore the many other modalities of communication.  Worse yet, most instructors feel compelled to read bullet points directly from a slide while students disengage from extreme boredom.   But think about – did you not learn the most from either talking, writing about, or experiencing a topic yourself?  Think about ways to stop talking.  Make your students do the talking, the writing, the experiencing.  Design a learning space that has your students making and presenting original work or research.  Make it convenient for students to plug in their own laptops to project work they are doing for the entire class.  Allow room for creativity in graded assignments so that music, art, or even food, are incorporated and assessed.  Create a space that supports peer assessment and feedback.
  • Relevancy: By now you’ve recognized that your students learn in all kinds of settings and activities.  For example, they are watching YouTube, they are writing blogs, they “Tweet,” they listen to music, and they “fly around” to any location on the planet using Google Earth.  (It’s always a good idea to take the time to ask your students what they like to do outside of class.  Doing so will strengthen your relationship with your students, and make your instruction appropriately relevant).  To make your instruction relevant to their lives means leveraging new media and technology (e.g., Flickr, Google Maps, wikis).  This could entail designing a learning space outside the classroom that exists online, but actually increases interactivity between your students.  Creating a classroom space online, in addition to the one you have carefully designed inside, can serve many purposes:  your students have yet another venue to share thoughts and interact, different modalities of communicating are opened, and you have more ways of assessing what your students know.

I hope these suggestions work for you, and of course, tailor these to your own content area.  I also suggest referencing these handy resources to keep you thinking about effectively designed learning spaces.

Nespor, J. (1997). Tangled Up in School: Politics, Space, Bodies, and Signs in the Education Process. Mawah, NJ: Erlbaum.



Professor P.



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