Holistic Strategy for Active Learning Environments

Easily adaptable, Pixel tables and MultiGeneration by Knoll chairs on casters support a range of classroom layouts and activities.


Savvy institutions recognize the powerful role their physical environment plays in their marketing efforts and how it drives investment in their facilities. Studies have shown that campus appearance influenced the decision of prospective students between 62% and 80%. Not only do institutions seek to appeal to the best and brightest students, faculty and staff, but they also must accommodate – and retain – an increasingly diverse student body.

jenny west

Jenny West,
Transformation Leader, Knoll

Nontraditional students – minorities, adult learners, veterans, returning students, part-time students who work part- or full-time, parents of young children – comprise an increasingly larger percentage of the student population. Additionally, campuses must support new and varied pedagogies including customized programs and learning styles that are collaborative, highly interactive and/or student-driven. Finally, administrators are keenly aware of the influence college rankings have on recruitment and that campus facilities and aesthetics can carry great weight in the reporting.

Texas State University, the rapidly expanding public research university, is the academic home to nearly 40,000 students from around the world. The university continues its commitment toward expanding active learning environments to serve this growing student population.

Located in San Marcos, Texas, the Department of Health and Human Performance, set out to transform into its 1,100-square-foot classroom in a flexible active learning environment. What made this intimate project unique is the proposal and commitment to specialized training to help faculty effectively implement active learning experiences in their classes.

Limitless learning

“For the last 20 years, the research is very clear: When you engage students in the learning process, they retain more information, develop critical thinking and problem-solving skills, and are better prepared for collaborative teamwork in their professional lives,” said Karen Meaney, Ed.D., professor and chair of the Department of Health and Human Performance at Texas State University.

Meaney worked closely with previous department chair Duane Knudson, Ph.D., FACSM, FISBS, FRSA, in recommending a low-tech active learning classroom, which research has revealed can be an equally effective learning environment as a high-tech classroom. “We encouraged the university to invest in a lower-tech classroom that wouldn’t require built-in computers,” Knudson said. “Many students often have advanced phones and tablets that can handle the technology-based academic exercises.

Equipping Faculty for Success 

A key component of Meaney’s and Knudson’s proposal involved equipping faculty with effective instructional techniques for collaborative, team-based learning environments.” The teaching experience in an active classroom is a lot different from a traditional classroom environment,” Meaney said. Instead of standing at the front of the classroom, instructors move from table to table and interact in a much more direct way with students. They have to be willing to give up some control and let students really explore.

Fifteen faculty members from four different academic disciplines within the department completed a three-part professional development workshop series led by Diane Boyd, director of the Biggio Center for the Enhancement of Teaching and Learning at Auburn University. Prior to completing the training, 27% of faculty “strongly agreed” that they were confident in their skill to effectively teach in the renovated learning space. This confidence level increased to 53% following the training. And 71% strongly agreed that they would participate in additional training in active learning.

“I think the classroom has worked so well because we invested in faculty training to ensure it is used the way it was intended.” Knudson says.

Serving Student Needs 

The space is embraced by students, based on the results of a learning and spaces survey of 416 students conducted across 19 classes. More than 98% of respondents “strongly agreed” or “agreed” that the overall layout of the space makes it easy to move about the room and interact with others. And more than 97% of them “strongly agreed” or “agreed” that the furniture is easy to move and reconfigure.

The university is expanding its commitment to active learning by creating active learning classrooms in several other departments, including the School of Family and Consumer Sciences and College of Science and Engineering.

“We appreciate Knoll’s partnership because we’ve found the furniture to be high-quality, attractive, easy to move and effective,” said Knudson. “Anything that helps our students learn better also helps make our alumni more successful and increases the overall status of the university, so it’s a win-win-win.”

To learn more about this topic or other research resources Knoll can provide, visit www.knoll.com/research.

Published in the June 2019 issue of Building Dialogue.

Edited by Building Dialogue