5 Tips to Create an Active Learning Environment

Jan 17 2023
Classroom with traditional layout and chalkboard.

Take a moment and imagine a classroom. What are the first images that pop into your mind?  

If you envisioned desks in rows and a teacher lecturing at the front of the room, you imagined the traditional classroom model. This popular configuration was first implemented during the second industrial revolution to accommodate growing student populations following the introduction of child labor laws in the United States. The goal of this layout was to maximize floor space and build more schools as quickly and affordably as possible.  

As education continues to evolve, many educators have decided to abandon this traditional model in favor of active learning environments. Active learning is an approach to instruction that actively engages the students in the process of learning through activities and discussions in class. Research shows that this method of learning can lead to greater retention and transfer of information, better student engagement and motivation, and less frequent failure rates, among other benefits. 

A “strong active learning environment” provides students with diverse opportunities for interaction amongst each other, easy access to technology, and the comfort to work where they want while still giving the teacher access to the whole class. 

Active learning environments can be created in any space where learning occurs regardless of how large or old the space is. To create these spaces, there are a few key design tips to note:  

Active Learning Ecosystem

1. Flexible furniture is a must-have in any active learning environment. 

To create a successful active learning environment, the design of the space must complement the active learning pedagogy. When creating an active learning environment, whether it be a classroom, library, or student union, it is important that the furniture in that space can move into any sort of configuration needed.  

In recent years, ergonomic furniture has become popular in educational spaces because it is designed with the functionality and movement of the human body in mind. This type of furniture is perfect to include in an active learning environment because it is typically lightweight and is easily adjustable to comfortably accommodate a wide range of body types.  

When picking out furniture for classrooms and other educational spaces, it is especially important to choose furniture made with durable materials that are easy to clean. Sturdy vinyl or plastic are popular materials used in classrooms because they are easy to wipe down with an assortment of cleaners and are difficult to wear down.

Student Common Area. Any area can become an active learning environment. These colorful chairs can be easily moved around to different configurations so that students can study where and how they want.

2. Create a space that is accessible to all learners and educators.  

Active learning environments can be created anywhere. Inside of ECU's Health Science Student Union, there are plenty of dynamic study spaces for students to collaborate and work alone. This photo shows open study spaces and private meeting rooms.

Designing accessible classrooms that accommodate students with physical and learning disabilities and a variety of different learning styles is important when designing any educational space. A professional design team can help ensure that your building is accessible and meeting Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) standards and can implement quality design solutions that will create spaces that properly engage students with a variety of different learning styles and disabilities.

Whether you are renovating an existing school or building a new one, a professional design team will help you choose the best layouts, furniture, and interior design that will cater to each space’s individual needs. When designing a school that is accommodating to students with different learning disabilities and styles, it is important to create spaces where students can be alone with no visual or auditory distractions so that these students can process information they are learning in their own time. If your current building does not have extra space to create low-stimulating rooms, creating spaces within classrooms and other learning spaces for individual and small group work is another way to accommodate these students.

3. Remember to include technology. 

When creating active learning environments, it is important that students and teachers have access to the technology they need for each subject. Having spaces in the classroom dedicated to using several types of technology allows for students and teachers to get so much more from the room.  

It is important to set aside space for technology in an educational setting for many reasons. Since today’s technology is very mobile, leaving space for charging stations, secure storage, and for cleaning and repairs are necessary. Giving students and teachers the flexibility to use technology when needed and to safely put the technology away will help teachers prepare their students for living and working in the 21st century.  

CTE Classroom. In order to create a strong active learning environment, technology needs to be incorporated. This classroom has plenty of computers for students to share at their work stations in this classroom.

4. Do not limit your design to just classrooms.  

Active learning environments can be created anywhere. This hallway meeting area has mini stadium style seating so students can work together and listen to a speaker.

Active learning can take place anywhere on a school campus. Take advantage of all the spaces on your site and see how those spots can be transformed into a learning environment. For example, if there is wasted space in the hallways or available space outdoors those spaces can be transformed using proper design into individual or small-group study spaces or outdoor classrooms. 

Taking learning outside the classroom has countless benefits for students and teachers. Research has shown that students focus better, have fewer disciplinary problems, and better mental health when they are exposed to nature. Designating outdoor spaces on school campuses for learning gives educators more creative opportunities to engage their students with the course material.  

Leaving room for active learning outside of the classroom in informal indoor settings such as hallways, lobbies, and libraries allows students to better focus on individual or small-group work without the distractions of being inside of a crowded classroom. Dedicating space to small-group work has been because it helps improve their academic performance and their relationships with other classmates and teachers.  

5. Add color and creative elements to your design.  

Blank, white walls inside of school buildings are quickly becoming antiquated. Adding in the right colors and creative design elements to your school’s campus will boost active learning by maximizing information retention and encouraging participation.  

Color is an influential communicator and can play a role in conveying information, creating certain moods, and can impact decision making. When picking out the colors of the walls and furniture in an educational environment it is important to consider the psychological effects of colors to create a calm and welcoming environment. Studies show that shades of blue, green, and warmer hues of white are great to use in learning environments because they promote better concentration and have a calming effect on students.  

Incorporating creative design elements such as graphic signage, murals, and space to feature student artwork are just a few ways interior designers can help enhance an educational space. Adding these decorative elements can help reinforce a school’s identity and sense of community and is shown to positively benefit students’ performance in school.  

Proper space planning, assessment for current and future needs, and creative design can help ensure that your school is an environment where students and teachers can thrive.

Washington Montessori Middle School