Innovations highlight the classrooms of today

Dean Pic

By Steven R. Leigh

Classrooms are obviously the heart of any university. Great ideas are shared and formulated in our classrooms. Students can interact directly with some of the world’s best faculty in CU-Boulder classrooms, providing a lifetime of benefit. I am struck by how many alumni/ae recall transformative experiences that occurred in our classrooms.  Professors Rueben Zubrow, George Gamow, Al Bartlett and Dennis van Gerven are among names that I most often hear from alumni/ae in my travels. They were all remarkable teachers (and I’m sure Dennis still is, despite his recent retirement!). The chances to interact with these fine professors started in our classrooms, where students developed the foundations for successful and active careers.

The College of Arts and Sciences is partnering with other units on our campus to upgrade many of our classrooms, creating some of the world’s best places for teaching and learning. At the time of this writing, our new physics learning facility is just going through final “project walk” checks by construction crews and departmental personnel. Next semester, courses will be held in these new facilities, which include a lecture room, small seminar rooms, and a large teaching assistant meeting room. Instruction will combine lecture, hands-on learning and direct interaction with teaching staff. These spaces join newly constructed classrooms in our BioFrontiers Institute, where students in chemistry, biochemistry and other areas will have access to some of the finest facilities in the country. In fact, I was fortunate enough to deliver a presentation to an enthusiastic group of alumni/ae who graduated CU in the 1960s during their Delta Upsilon reunion. I believe we may have been the first “class” in the room, which is well equipped with state-of-the-art presentation equipment and sound capabilities.

These classrooms are not just spruced-up spaces with new seating and paint. They’re different from classrooms of the past (of which we have no particular shortage). What is different about these rooms is that they are designed for active learning. Our faculty have pioneered dynamic new pedagogical approaches. Taught with new pedagogical tools, the contemporary CU classroom is a noisy, fast-paced place. Professors still lecture. However, lectures include pauses for problem solving, supported by “clickers.” These clickers look like modified TV remote controls, and they allow faculty to check on how well students comprehend concepts in real time during lectures. Our new classrooms are “clicker compatible,” making it easy for faculty to make concept checks, and allowing them to gauge how well students grasp key ideas. Faculty can immediately revise the lecture so that concepts can be learned more firmly. These tools help increase student engagement and participation. They also reduce student hesitancy about classroom participation.

The other major change is that classrooms are designed so that students can have their backs to the professor. Even in large classrooms with fixed seating, new seats rotate 180 degrees so that students can turn and face the next row back to work on problem sets and discuss concepts. Working groups of four or more can happen immediately. In many of our classes, learning assistants are available to facilitate group work, both in and out of the classroom. Classes with movable seating include enough space for students to turn to the next row and work with other students on assignments. These changes have greatly improved student learning and classroom performance, as has been clearly demonstrated by meticulous research into learning and teaching that show significant improvements from traditional learning techniques.

Construction project teams have also attended to small details that will promote student success. The new physics facilities include a quiet study area with stylish lighting and furniture, as well as artsy sound deadening panels. The large classroom even includes skateboard hangers for our many students who prefer the fast, adventurous track for their travels.

We are looking forward to more opportunities to transform our classrooms with the coming Ketchum Hall remodeling project, which will consolidate our currently dispersed classrooms in the building. Our alumni/ae and donors can promote these transformations with naming opportunities for classrooms and seminar rooms. Named spaces will support our successes in teaching and learning. At the same time, gifts for naming clearly denote the dedication of our alums and supporters in education. Support for named spaces brings our supporters into direct partnership with our students and faculty, reflecting perpetual engagement in a commitment to CU-Boulder’s quality and to our students, staff and faculty.

Steven R. Leigh is dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Colorado Boulder.

Dec.17, 2014