The New Classroom

Spaces for active learning and teaching

Teachers, students and researchers are discovering the benefits of a collaborative, active learning environment. In most classrooms, the latest trend in how to rethink learning and teaching has not yet been implemented. Yet there is a great opportunity here to make lasting improvements to learning and create a conducive atmosphere for learners.

“Learning is not a watching activity. Students must talk and write about what they are learning, link it to previous experiences and apply it to their everyday lives. They must take ownership of the learning internally.” – Chickering and Gamson

To help students achieve good learning outcomes, a critical aspect is keeping them motivated on an ongoing basis. A survey on student motivation (CCSSE) conducted by the Community College of the University of Texas at Austin found that only half also complete their second year of study. Many even drop out during their first semester. This survey is conducted annually to find out why many students give up on their studies so quickly and to address this problem in the long term. Among other things, the CCSSE measures the extent to which students are active and collaborative learners.

An article in Change magazine on collaborative learning in higher education provides a powerful illustration of the benefits of collaborative teaching and learning methods. “College students who are only in the middle of the pack with individual learning styles show significantly better results with a collaborative learning method and are then in the top 30 percent.” This study looked at aspects of knowledge acquisition, knowledge retention, accuracy, creative problem solving and reasoning skills, among others. They can be used to measure whether a learning method is useful and beneficial for students.

A study by the National Training Laboratories found that knowledge stuck with students longer when more active teaching and learning methods were used.- Adapted from The Learning Triangle: National Training Laboratories © mindServegroup 2005

What we know

The layout of a classroom affects interaction and motivation. Higher motivation and active learning improve knowledge retention.

A 2000 study by the National Training Laboratories found that students retain only 5 percent of the information presented in a lecture. In contrast, the rate is 50 percent for discussion groups and 70 percent for hands-on work. When students teach each other, the rate is as high as 80 percent.
Sophocles already knew this. The 5th century B.C. Greek philosopher said, “We learn only by doing, for he who thinks he knows something cannot be sure until he tries.” Herman Miller also tried to heed this wisdom in his recent research at Estrella Mountain Community College (EMCC). Sixty-four percent of students surveyed said “learning by doing” was their preferred method of learning.
Alexander Astin, professor emeritus at the University of California, Los Angeles, points out that with an active learning space, teaching must also change. The teacher sees less of his own work and more of what the student is doing. He recognizes how motivated a student is and how much time and energy he is devoting to learning. “The focus is on student engagement,” Astin says, “so learning techniques and resources take a back seat.”

This is where student motivation comes into play. It becomes the teacher’s most important goal, he says. So we see a clear difference here from the traditional pedagogical approach.

The classroom setup helps students develop skills for their everyday lives. Autonomous, self-directed learning and collaborative problem solving are critical aspects of this.

Learning how to learn is an important skill that will benefit the student throughout his or her life. The League for Innovation at the community college has created a list of goals for 21st century learners. These include communication skills, diversity and pluralism, critical thinking and problem solving, interpersonal skills such as teamwork, relationship building, conflict resolution, professional and personal skills to respond to change and learn how to learn, and personal responsibility.

Roger Yohe, director of the Center for Teaching and Learning at EMCC, says, “The key is not what students know, but what they do with that knowledge. Group work leads to strong social control. Misbehavior is much less likely to occur than with face-to-face instruction. With small groups, everyone pays attention to everyone else. You learn as a community. Students turn to their fellow students first when they have questions and only to the teacher when in doubt.”

The layout of the classroom can contribute formally and informally to a higher level of interaction between teacher and students.

When the instructor can move freely around the room, it allows for closer contact with students when they have a question or problem, so interaction is greatly improved. Astin explains that regular interaction with instructors leads to greater “satisfaction among students than any other type of reference.” So students who have direct contact with their instructors are significantly more satisfied with their university experience. The more intensive the exchange, the better the rating.

Pleasant learning spaces can trigger physical and mental well-being, enable greater concentration, and minimize distraction.

Well-being can’t always be quantified. But we do know that people who are not comfortable are unfocused and easily distracted. Temperature, lighting and furniture play an important role. But attention must also be paid to mental well-being. An environment that repels or frightens the learner prevents sustained learning.
At Herman Miller, we’ve studied the impact a comfortable workspace can have. We have found that a person’s well-being increases when they have control over their work environment. Ergonomically designed furniture and work areas increase concentration. A pleasant environment thus ensures that we are less distracted and better able to cope with our work or learning load.
A survey of employees at Estrella Mountain Community College leaves no doubt that modern learning spaces create an atmosphere more conducive to teaching and learning than traditional classrooms.

These days, people of all different types go to college. That means colleges need to offer flexible learning spaces that accommodate this change so that all students can learn better, regardless of their background or learning goals.

A survey of Estrella Mountain Community College employees leaves no doubt that modern learning spaces create an atmosphere more conducive to teaching and learning than traditional classrooms.


Classrooms must be designed to be conducive to academic, intellectual, and community growth. They should provide a sense of well-being and not prescribe or discourage certain behaviors in either faculty or students. Classrooms should promote motivation and active teaching and learning and support the learning objectives of higher educational institutions.


If active, collaborative teaching and learning is more effective than lectures and individual learning, the question is why classrooms have not been redesigned accordingly. Since we know that frontal teaching and competition leads to poorer outcomes and high dropout rates, the next question would be why students are still sitting on fixed long benches – “lined up like soldiers,” as one community college professor put it – instead of in small groups at tables or in circles. And why don’t classrooms support dynamic teaching and learning?

The problem in answering these questions is that colleges must consider many different issues. They must incorporate new learning and teaching methods as well as cultural and societal developments, consider the needs of teachers, students, and administrators, and develop from all these conflicting positions a possible good solution that can also be implemented on their campuses.

Creating motivating, active learning environments requires a collaborative vision, the development and implementation of which is best entrusted to a specialized team that can provide innovative solutions thanks to its particular skills and talents.


One example of designing creative spaces that promote active teaching and learning is EMCC. EMCC in Phoenix, Arizona, is part of the Maricopa Community College District, the nation’s largest community college district.
When a major remodel was in the works, EMCC leadership asked some faculty, students and staff to formulate requirements for the new space. Herman Miller and its sales representative there, Goodmans Interior Structures, were brought in to create a holistic learning environment.

Out of this partnership came a working group with diverse experiences and backgrounds. They all had one thing in common: a desire to leave behind the time-honored understanding of what a classroom should look like. First, the team surveyed faculty to learn more about their teaching methods. The most common teaching style cited was “a forum for open, free dialogue between students and faculty.” Followed by “providing incentives and allowing students to make their own discoveries.”

To address this teaching style, the team developed three principles:

1. Institutions can create spaces that nurture students and enhance teaching and learning.

2. With the help of new spaces, institutions can respond to changing student and faculty needs and expectations.

3. Classrooms must not prescribe or discourage a particular style of teaching or learning.

The biggest challenge for the team was to redesign the classrooms, as they would have the most direct impact on teaching and learning methods. What was the best way to support collaborative, active learning, motivate students and faculty, provide opportunities for student-faculty interaction, and challenge and encourage students?

Very soon it became clear that the answer could not be to use the existing concept of classrooms as a foundation that would only be changed incrementally. The term “learning studio” was meant to describe not only the physical space, but also the paradigm shift toward active teaching and learning.
Initially, the team designed two prototypes of such learning studios. From design to implementation, this work took two months, but the result set the tone for EMCC’s new direction for its classrooms.
After the learning studios had been in use for several months, Herman Miller conducted a survey of EMCC faculty and students. The purpose was to compare the traditional classrooms with the new learning studios. Focus groups of students and faculty were formed, and interviews were conducted with faculty and administrators. A mass survey of students and faculty was also conducted online.
Student and faculty reactions to the new learning studios were extremely positive. The lecturers in particular saw the learning studios as a successful model that better suited the possibilities of experimental and constructivist learning than the old rooms.

Interaction and motivation

Thanks to their flexibility, the learning studios support different teaching and learning styles. The design and furnishings of the rooms are variable, allowing instructors to hold not only lectures, but also discussions, group work or active learning.
Thanks to the Mobile Intersect portfolio tables and Caper chairs, the room can always be set up precisely for the purpose in question. For example, a circle of chairs for all participants can be set up in the same room just as easily as six tables for larger groups.
All products from the Intersect portfolio can be moved around as required. With a few whiteboards, a larger room can be quickly and easily divided into smaller areas.
Thanks to the WLAN available everywhere, students can move around completely freely with their laptops. Replacing desktop computers with laptops has also contributed to the freedom of movement. As a result, students share more with each other and are more willing to provide information about their work and findings.

Learning studios support direct relationships and communication among students, who are thus no longer as passive and isolated as in a traditional classroom.

Active participation and Self- responsibility

The dynamic, flexible learning studios also provide moments of surprise time and again. The unexpected possibilities that open up in these spaces often make them appear in a new light. This, of course, brings advantages over the traditional classroom with its long, fixed rows of desks.

EMCC faculty were particularly convinced that learning studios encourage group activities and thus student autonomy. Particularly emphasized in the follow-up studies were the ability to separate groups, the flexible room design, and the ease with which information can be presented.

Another plus was that students learn to learn independently in this way. Instructors and students alike can have control over the space.

Roger Yohe of EMCC is working with other instructors to explore how to further increase motivation and self-responsibility among students. “We need to move away from frontal teaching and emphasize how students learn. That’s active teaching. Our job is not just to teach students a theory, but more importantly to show them how to apply that theory.

When we give our students the right tools to learn, they understand that they are responsible for themselves.”

Learning studios also encourage students to support each other. Unlike traditional classrooms, they allow for relaxed group work without lowering academic standards. The students interviewed said that

they had already started learning groups themselves and were more likely to ask their fellow students for help, as sharing and participation had become an everyday part of university life.

The special set-up of the learning studios also creates a sense of belonging. Students said they were now more likely to greet each other in person, talk about assignments, or ask each other questions because they were now sitting across from each other due to the new arrangement of tables and chairs.

Learning for everyday life

The design of the learning studios creates a collegial atmosphere in which problem solving and relationship management are part of everyday student life. Communal rather than individual tables, organic rather than linear room constellations, teaching methods with lots of discussion rather than frontal presentation – all these aspects promote communication skills, teamwork and relationship management.

In a group that relies a lot on collaborative work and experimentation in small groups, each individual is important. The teacher is no longer the “leader.” This aspect of the learning studio is what one EMCC instructor called the “decentralization of the teaching space.” But it’s not just where the instructor is located that is decentralized; the instructor’s role is decentralized as well. An important principle now is “give and take.” Lecturers are supposed to teach this to their students so that they take it with them into their everyday lives.

Students interviewed said the learning studios promoted independent learning
  • through more active participation in group activities,
  • through the stimulating learning environment that encourages speaking contributions and participation in discussions, and
  • through easy access to technology that facilitates research and dynamic learning.

Interaction through formal and informal means.

Many EMCC students only have the opportunity to speak with their instructors in the classroom. In most cases, they only attend their classes and then leave campus again to study at home. In this respect, faculty-student interaction in learning studios is particularly important.
In traditional classrooms, a hierarchy tacitly emerges. The assertive, confident students sit in the front and get more attention than the quiet, shy students who sit further back and shy away from contact with instructors and fellow students.
In the learning studios, students generally felt freer to speak because the spaces are more informal. In a collaborative space where the instructor moved freely, conversations started more easily.

But the learning studios also provide opportunities for one-on-one conversations between faculty and students. Celeste soft seating, Covey stools and Resolve rolling desks can be used to set up appropriate areas.

Mental and physical well-being

Like many community colleges, EMCC has many dropouts. Many students come from educationally disadvantaged families from whom they receive little support. Some also have little schooling or, before coming to the college, have not been to any school for years. A welcoming, comfortable and supportive learning environment makes these students feel more comfortable. It makes what is often a difficult transition easier for them and enables them to achieve better outcomes.
The responses of the students surveyed indicate that the atmosphere of the learning studios met their expectations of higher educational institutions. For them, the spaces exuded professionalism, trustworthiness, and high quality, qualities they would not attribute to traditional classrooms. Their impression was, “We are respected and valued by the college. The learning studios are “welcoming” and “relaxing.” This positive impression could lead to lower dropout rates, especially at community colleges.
But attention should also be paid to physical well-being. The furniture in the learning studios is ergonomically designed for comfort. For example, students said of the Caper chairs that they were very comfortable and did not cause back pain even after two-hour classes.
In addition, the open design of the learning studios creates a more comfortable atmosphere. Students felt freer to spread out their belongings and move chairs around. It was also possible to change the layout of the room by using various aids. All students could effortlessly follow what was happening and were neither too close nor too far away from the action. Faculty explained that the spaciousness of the learning studios and the arrangement of the furniture allowed them to move freely around the room, and they no longer had to squeeze between tight rows.
Another design goal was to incorporate natural shapes and elements. The spaces offer a surprising variety of colors, patterns, shapes, and hard and soft surfaces, creating a stimulating learning atmosphere.
 The Butterfly table from the Intersect portfolio offers a pleasant counterpoint to rectangular tables with its soft shapes. Resolve dividers provide a lighter component among the structuring elements. Some learning studios also feature soft seating that is particularly suitable for one-on-one exchanges.
EMCC had 22 more learning studios installed on campus after an initial two pilot rooms. The other rooms are currently being renovated on an ongoing basis in view of the great success of the learning studios. The overriding design principle remains maximum flexibility of the spaces: the room, furniture and technology must be changeable on the fly. Not only does this allow the space to be better adapted to specific needs, but the experimental, dynamic learning areas also increase student and faculty motivation.
As the EMCC administration puts it, “Good design solves problems. If our spaces don’t allow faculty and learners to interact in fruitful ways, I don’t see the point of coming to EMCC at all.
We need to be advocates for learning and teaching to make our college a true place of learning.”

Out of the partnership between EMCC, Herman Miller and Goodmans grew a new collaborative approach to how learning studios can be planned and designed. It demonstrates how ideas, experiences and sharing can lead to successful outcomes as part of a diverse, creative team – like the students and faculty in the learning studios.


Astin, Alexander W., „Student Involvement: A Developmental Theory for Higher Education“, in: Journal of College Student Development, September/ Oktober 1999, 40 (5), S. 518-529

Chickering, A. W. und E. F. Gamson, „Seven Principles for Good Practice in Undergraduate Education“, in: American Association of Higher Education, Bulletin 39 (7), S. 3-7, 1987

Community College Survey of Student Engagement, „2005 Findings“, Ergebnisse und Zusammenfassung der Umfrage,, abgerufen am 24.7.2006

Estrella Mountain Community College, Office of Planning and Institutional Effectiveness, „Summer 2005 Student Focus Group & Survey on Classroom Design“, 19. Juli 2005

Fisher, Kenn, Tony Gilding, Peter Jamieson, Peter Taylor und Chris Trevitt, „Place and Space in the Design of New Learning Environments“, in: Higher Education Research and Development, 19 (2), Juli 2000, S. 221-237

Herman Miller, Inc., und D. Deasy, Inc., „Radical Flexibility and the Learning Studios at EMCC“, Forschungsbericht, Mai 2006

Herman Miller, Inc., interner Forschungsbericht, 2006

Herman Miller Case Study, Estrella Mountain Community College, 2006,

Johnson, David W., Roger T. Johnson und Karl A. Smith, „Cooperative Learning Returns to College: What Evidence is There That It Works?“ in:Change, Juli/August, 1998, S. 27-35

Leach, Linda und Nick Zepke, „Integration and Adaptation: Approaches to the Student Retention and Achievement Puzzle“, in: Higher Education Academy and SAGE Publications, 6 (1), 2005, S. 46-59

Maricopa Learning Exchange, „Learning Studios: Radical Flexibility for the Next Generation of Learning Spaces“, slip.php?item=1797, abgerufen am 27.6.2006

National Training Laboratories Institute for Applied Behavioral Sciences, „The Learning Triangle: Retention Rates from Different Ways of Learning“, Bethel, Maine, 2005

O’Banion, Terry, „The Learning College: Both Learner and Learning Centered“, in: Learning Abstracts, 2 (2), March 1999, abgerufen am 22.6.2006 auf

Oblinger, Diana G., „Radical Flexibility and Student Success: An Interview with Homero Lopez“, in: Educause Review, Januar/Februar 2006

Wolff, Susan J., „Design Features for Project-Based Learning, February 2002,, abgerufen am 27.7.2006

Yohe, Roger, Telefoninterview, 31. Juli 2006

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