What are ALCs?

Active learning classrooms (ALCs) are student-centered, technology-rich spaces meant to foster collaborative learning and multifaceted teaching. They feature reconfigurable student tables and moveable seating designed to facilitate and promote active learning.

ALCs at schools including Yale, MIT, University of Minnesota, and Washington University in St. Louis are largely modeled after SCALE-UP, a classroom designed at North Carolina State University in the mid-1990s to facilitate active learning.

Recent articles from prominent scholarly journals and higher education centers highlight the benefits of an ALC. Early research shows that students who learn in an ALC have better attitudes, conceptual understanding, and passing rates.

Research shows that learning in an ALC also improves students’ exam grades and satisfaction (Baepler 2016). In 2017, an EDUCAUSE Center for Analysis and Research report named ALCs its top strategic technology.

ALCs can be particularly useful in lecture courses. Researchers at the University of Minnesota looked at how ALCs impact student learning in large introductory biology courses. The same instructor taught the course in two rooms, an ALC and a traditional classroom, with the same course outline and pedagogical approaches. The research shows that ALCs positively affect student learning by improving student performance and engagement (Cotner 2013).

Another study from researchers at Harvard University published in 2019 shows that even though students felt that they learned more from traditional lectures, they actually learn more when taking part in classrooms that employ active learning strategies. Active learning classrooms are a great conduit for employing these strategies.

“Active Learning Classrooms show how physical space can impact instruction in a positive way. When students face each other instead of the instructor they can interact much more easily. From an instructor’s standpoint, it is more natural to incorporate student-centered activities into a class when the physical space allows for that flexibility,” said Eric Fournier, Director of Educational Development at the Center for Teaching and Learning at Washington University in St. Louis.

Physical Space 

Physical space plays an important role in active learning classrooms. In A Guide to Teaching in the Active Learning Classroom by Baepler et. al. (2016), authors write that ALCs

typically feature round or curved tables with moveable seating that allow students to face each other and thus support small-group work. The tables are often paired with their own whiteboards for brainstorming and diagramming. Many tables are linked to large LCD displays so students can project their computer screens to the group, and the instructor can choose a table’s work to share with the entire class.

The Center for Teaching and Learning has three active learning classrooms at Washington University including January 110, McDonnell 362, and Simon 17.

Washington University’s active learning classroom in January Hall features diamond-top shaped tables that can be shifted into different configurations for a single user, a small group, or a theatre-style arrangement suitable for presentations or lessons. January 110 will allow students to work in small groups or as entire class for lecture-style presentations.

January 110 seats up to 60 students with 10 configurable tables. There is one projector and one screen in the classroom. Each student pod has a large monitor. Students use wireless collaboration software to move data between their devices and classroom monitors. Each table can seat up to six students per pod or can be broken down to groups of two, three, or four. Chairs are wheeled for ease of mobility. Student pods have clear table surfaces to encourage discussion and collaboration.

A hard-wired teaching station allows the instructor to send data from various presentation devices to student pods. The teaching station also allows the teacher to distribute data from each student pod to other pods. Anything presented can also be shown on the central projection screen. Teachers can also utilize wireless devices to present materials to the individual monitors.

Other features of the room include windows with dual shades, power at regular intervals on the wall and at the student pods, large writing pads and whiteboards, dimmable lighting and a chalkboard for the instructor.

Finally, the room has a clear line of sight and superior acoustics, making collaboration among students and the instructor effortless.

McDonnell 362 and Simon 17 are perfect for facilitating active learning in smaller class sizes.

McDonnell 362 seats 48 students and has standard classroom technology including a PC computer, single data projector, document camera, DVD player, and VGA and HDMI laptop connections. It includes four moveable chalkboards, six whiteboards, and eight student group pods seating six students each with sectional, moveable tables and wheeled chairs. Faculty have access to a touchscreen laptop allowing them to walk and present at the same time.  The room has wireless presentation technology for use with any device; video conferencing and lecture capture technology.

Simon 17 seats 54 students and includes the same advanced classroom technology as McDonnell 362. It has six moveable chalkboards, nine whiteboards, nine student group pods seating six students each, and the same furniture as McDonnell 362.

ALCs are expected to become mainstream by 2022, according to the recent report in EDUCAUSE. Peer institutions must rely on one another to develop and improve technology. Please contact us with any questions regarding our ALC.

The classroom in McDonnell 362 has new mini-whiteboards around the walls, which allow student groups to work through problems and share their work. These are extremely helpful teaching tools.

Claire M. Class / Postdoctoral Fellow, Department of English

Helpful Resources

– Find inspiration for your ALC via North Carolina State University’s SCALE-UP project

– See an ALC in action on the University of Minnesota’s website

– Get more information on designing and utilizing ALCs from the University of Minnesota

– Read A Guide to Teaching in the Active Learning Classroom: History, Research, and Practice. Ed. Baepler, P, Walker, J.D., Brooks, D.C., Saichaie, K, and Petersen, C. 2016. Sterling, VA: Stylus.

– Learn more about ALCs from Yale’s Center for Teaching and Learning

– Check out TILE, the University of Iowa’s approach to ALCs


  • Baepler, P, Walker, J.D., Driessen, M. “It’s not about seat time: Blending, flipping, and efficiency in active learning classrooms.” Computers & Education 78 (2014), 227-236.
  • Baepler, P, Walker, J.D., Brooks, D.C., Saichaie, K, and Petersen, C. (2016). A Guide to Teaching in the Active Learning Classroom: History, Research, and Practice. Sterling, VA: Stylus.
  • Brooks, D. C. 2012. Space and Consequences: The Impact of Different Formal Learning Spaces on Instructor and Student Behavior. Journal of Learning Spaces 1.2.
  • Cotner, S., Loper, J., Walker, J.D., & Brooks, D.C. (2013). ’It’s not you, it’s the room’ (Or, are the high-tech, active learning classrooms worth it?). Journal of College Science Teaching 42(6), no pagination. (Picked as Editor’s Choice, Science, Vol. 341, 23 August 2013.)
  • Deslauriers, L., McCarty, L., Miller, K., Callaghan, K., Kestin, G. 2019. Measuring actual learning versus feeling of learning in response to being actively engaged in the classroom. PNAS, 116 (79), 19251-19257.
  • Soneral, P. &, Wyse, S. (2017). A SCALE-UP mock-up: Comparison of student learning gains in high- and low-tech active-learning environments. CBE—Life Sciences Education, 16(1).
  • Walker, J. D. 2011. Pedagogy and Space: Empirical Research on new Learning Environments. EDUCAUSE Quarterly, 34.

Active Learning Spaces

Check them out!

McDonnell 362

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Simon 17

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January 110

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The room has been great. It worked out well for our ‘Biology of Cancer’ class. We have utilized the multiple whiteboards for student group activities and the mobile tables and chairs to move things around the room for whole-class activities and games. The multimedia capabilities worked well for various types of lecture presentations. I hope to use the room again next fall.

Anthony J. Smith / Assistant Dean & Academic Coordinator, College of Arts & Sciences

January 110 has been a godsend for the Sustainability Exchange. We started doing this course in 2015 and for years we tried different venues, including the Academy Building. Once January 110 was open, we felt like we had a home. The room setup is perfect for our course. We typically have five or six project teams and each group uses one of the stations in the room. We use this format even when someone is leading a seminar and has the teams do exercises within the groups.

Bill Lowry / Professor of Political Science