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Novel class setup seen as boost for learning

In a new classroom in the basement of Hagestad Hall, UW-River Falls students sit in groups at round tables circling the edge, with a podium and table for the teacher in the center.

Each round table is next to a large flat screen on the wall. The flat screen is flanked by two large whiteboards.

UW-River Falls student Robert Fraider said he sometimes feels singled-out if he has a question to ask in a traditional lecture-hall class setting. But in Jamie Schneider’s General Chemistry I class, he feels more comfortable asking questions.

“Compared to the traditional classes of this size…this seems more learning-oriented,” said Fraider.

He said the class is “more question-oriented, so that if a student has a question, they’re able to ask the instructor without feeling singled out.”

Fraider is taking Schneider’s class in the college’s new Active Learning Classroom. It is in the basement of Hagestad Hall (formerly the Student Center).

The active learning classroom is arranged much differently than a traditional lecture hall.

Each of the 12 tables around the room holds around six to nine students. In addition to the 12 flat screens, and 24 whiteboards, the room also has two large projection screens.

As she taught Thursday, March 6, Schneider demonstrated an in-class activity using magnetic model “molecules.”

She used a camera to project a large image of the model molecules onto the screens. After demonstrating, students experimented with the magnetic molecules in groups.

As they worked, Schneider walked around the groups, observing, answering questions and seeing how each student was doing.

“I prefer this over a traditional lecture hall,” Fraider said. “If all 90 students were just in one lecture hall and (a) question comes up, you get the feeling like you’re the only one in 90 that may have that question, whereas here, it’s a smaller group. It’s more personal.”

He said because students are able to interact more with professors, they feel more comfortable asking questions.

The active learning classroom was designed to foster active learning -- or learning a lesson through several different methods.

“There are a lot of people who learn physics much more effectively in this environment. Even the people who did well in a traditional classroom environment still learned physics well in this environment,” said physics professor Eric Blodgett.

Blodgett is teaching calculus-based physics II, a beginning physics course, in the active classroom this term. He doesn’t have hard numbers yet but said some of his Physics students were in his class last term, which was in a lecture hall.

“I’ve got promising indicators from my students this semester that I’m seeing some improvements because I had many of them last semester in our traditional format,” Blodgett said. “And I can see that it’s making a difference for some of the students that they’re able to get the fundamentals more solidly locked not place this way.”

Blodgett said active learning works well with his physics class, because physics involves many concrete activities and abstract concepts.

“If you can make that direct connection between the tangible activities and the more abstract ideas, you engage multiple ways of knowing. You have people who are visual learners, you have people who are tactile learnings, they really need to touch and manipulate things, and you have people who learn well just reading things,” Blodgett said. “This provides multiple ways for people to learn, to wrap their minds around things.”

And using all those learning methods at once keeps students engaged.

“There’s really not much opportunity for anyone to fall asleep on the desk, “Blodgett said.

It takes Blodgett extra time to prepare for classes in the active classroom, but he said it’s worth the effort.

“Any time you teach in a brand new class with new instructional techniques, it’s a lot of work,” Blodgett said. “So it’s really useful that we’ve had a lot of support from the college of arts and sciences and I’ve had lots of support individually from the other members of the physics department.”

Schneider said the active learning classroom has made teaching easier for her because she was already using active learning strategies, even when she was teaching in a lecture hall.

But in the lecture hall group work -- a big part of active learning -- was very hard to monitor.

“I physically could not get into the spaces because of the tight rows…It was always a challenge to move around,” Schneider said. “Here I can hit all of the tables during an activity, or at least most of the tables and really see what’s going on.”

Both Schneider and Blodgett were part of the process of setting up the active classroom. Blodgett said the physics department had been looking for a way to do a combined lab/lecture class for 8 or 9 years.

Last year, Schneider visited the University of Minnesota and saw one of their active learning classrooms, and attended a national forum on active learning classrooms.

UWRF’s ALC was designed last spring and summer, and construction began in fall.

The classroom was finished the Friday before spring classes to begin on Monday, Jan. 27. It was supported by the UW-System as a building project, and cost around $850,000.

Blodgett and Schneider are pilot-testing the active classroom this semester. Next year more teachers will begin to use the active classroom.

So far this year, Schneider and Blodgett said teaching in the active learning classroom is going very well.

“It just works the way it’s supposed to,” Blodgett said. “All the students are active and engaged and discussing and arguing and making measurements. There are days when it’s just great. There are other days when it’s a little bumpy, but I figure the second time through the course, that’ll help smooth out some of those bumps.”

Gretta Stark

Gretta Stark has been a reporter for the River Falls Journal since July of 2013. She previously worked as a reporter for the New Richmond News from June 2012 to July 2013. She holds a BA in Print and Electronic Media from Wartburg College.

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