Making Space for Active Learning


Dr. Sherry Molock

Dr. Sherry Molock utilizes new active learning spaces and techniques to engage her Multicultural Psychology class. (William Atkins/the George Washington University)

Dr. Sherry Molock has been teaching psychology for three decades. Just as she remains current in her field of psychology, she wants to remain current in the field of teaching. Supporting her in testing and refining her teaching methods are the University Teaching and Learning Center (UTLC) and Academic Technologies (AT).

“We partner with professors who want to assess and improve their teaching,” said Dr. Patricia Dinneen, director of the UTLC. “It’s an ever-evolving field. We research and develop practices that support active, student-centered learning and foster student engagement.” Each year, the UTLC offers a weeklong Course Design Institute (CDI), exposing professors to active learning, and guiding them through the design of a new course or the redesign of an existing one.



Photos of Students engaging in Molock's class

(William Atkins/the George Washington University)

Active learning techniques flip the classroom. More time is spent for discussion and other activities that allow students to learn by doing and experiencing, rather than passively listening to information being shared one way—the sage on the stage model.

Molock attended CDI in 2017. “The course was a paradigm shift for me,” said Molock. “It’s a completely different way of understanding learning and teaching.”

Molock previously implemented some active learning techniques in her 35-person course but hadn’t thought that active learning was possible in a large class. “They gave us examples, and we saw clips of people doing it with 100 people.”

But sometimes, instructors’ enthusiasm for active learning comes to a halt when they enter a traditional lecture hall. Chairs are bolted to the floor, forcing all students to face the same direction. The professor is tethered to the podium. While professors find ways to work around the configuration of the room, they can’t implement all the active learning techniques they’d like.

“The setting is not great. But I’m doing it,” Molock said of applying active learning to her 75-person Abnormal Psychology course, held in a traditional lecture hall. “I wish the students could get in small, more clearly delineated spaces.”


Photos of students utilizing OER in Molock's class

(William Atkins/the George Washington University)

The connection between pedagogical techniques and physical space is what makes AT vital in supporting professors. Collaborating with colleagues in the UTLC and Instructional Technology Lab, as well as working directly with professors, AT identifies trends in teaching, assesses faculty needs, and tracks new technologies. Audiovisual engineers have designed several classrooms to support the needs of active learning, which are increasing each year. Chairs get wheels, allowing students to easily move between small group work and large class discussion. Whiteboards adorn three or four walls, eliminating the front of the classroom. Larger active learning labs include circular tables and display screens on multiple walls, which allow students to face one another in order to collaborate and discuss.

“These kinds of classrooms support the flexibility required by active learning,” said Jared Johnson, associate dean for AT and deputy chief academic technology officer. “Professors aren’t bound by the set-up of the room. They can start with a brief lecture, transition to a small group activity, and then return to lecture mode for the conclusion—or whatever they want.”

Molock’s 35-person Multicultural Psychology class is in a new active learning space designed by AT. “That’s exciting because I can put them in groups right away,” Molock said. “I can frame my lecture notes around questions for them to answer, and they can work in their small group and then discuss it as a class. It’s not so much of a one-way information circuit.”

“I can walk around with them and talk with them and interact with them,” said Molock. “Me doing that models them doing it with each other. It’s a much better environment because of that."

To learn more about supporting our teaching and learning programs, please contact Tracy Sullivan, executive director of development, GWLAI, at 202-994-8928 or [email protected].