Rethinking the Classroom

Exterior of Mell Classroom Building

The Mell Classroom Building project is complete and is serving as the apex of the learning transformation taking place at Auburn University. The Mell Classroom Building @ RBD Library was designed to enhance teaching and learning at the university by offering instruction that is different from lecture-focused classrooms. The new building consists of modern, flexible, problem-solving  learning spaces. The project is a 69,000-square-foot addition to the existing RBD Library and offers 40 new and renovated group study rooms, 26 active learning classrooms, two lecture halls, and food venues.

So, what does this mean for our students and our faculty? We talked with Wiebke Kuhn, the learning spaces and faculty development coordinator for the university, to find out more about active learning classroom, also known as flipped classrooms. “What we hear again and again is communication, collaboration, leadership, and a drive to figure things out yourself is what employers want. The kind of active learning environments available on campus enable this. Sitting in a large lecture hall of 250 to 300 students, you sit there and you listen. There is no collaboration skill that is being practiced. There are no other core skills. Some people talk about these as soft skills. I've decided they are not soft skills, they are core skills,” Kuhn said.

Associate Dean for Educational Affairs Giovanna Summerfield, one of the liberal arts professors teaching in a flipped classroom this fall, believes the new teaching style will benefit both lecturers and students. "In my case,” said Summerfield, “I will probably have about 70 students in my class, so I can’t really sit at every table and have a discussion. But with a flipped classroom, you can put resources online and have the students prepare or watch something. And then, in class, you can still do some of the activities that are either group or team, and that could continue to create a student-centered, not teacher-centered, activity.”

Students working on white board in Mell Classroom Building

The active learning classroom is not entirely new to campus. Kuhn began implementing the classrooms in Haley Center when she was the information technology manager for the College of Liberal Arts (CLA). "I had been following the research on these types of classrooms around the country and they had proven to be very successful, so I approached the provost a couple of years ago and requested initiating these kinds of classrooms at Auburn," said Kuhn. "The first classroom in Haley Center had proven to be very successful, so the provost financed the construction of another, similar space in the Sciences Center Classroom Building."

Kuhn taught workshops for CLA and College of Sciences and Mathematics faculty so those who were using the new active learning classrooms would be better prepared to meet the challenges that come with employing new teaching methods.

With financial support from CLA's dean's office, 40 liberal arts professors were able to attend a three-week-long workshop hosted by the university's Biggio Center. Out of the 70 seats available for the optional workshop, over half were taken by CLA professors spanning all departments.

“Liberal Arts faculty are on the cutting-edge of classroom pedagogy,” said Dean Aistrup. “Supporting this additional training for our faculty will make our instruction stronger and more engaging for our students.  It’s well worth the investment.” 

The workshop allowed Auburn professors to not only learn about flipped classrooms, but experience them as well. “The syllabus and the setup of the workshop were meant to mirror what we are supposed to be doing in our classroom—active learning," says Summerfield. "They give you resources which you read online before coming in, and then at the workshop there are activities."

Kuhn said that faculty and students have been excited about sharing their experiences of teaching and learning in the flipped classroom. The rooms are described as energizing, inviting, and so different from all other classrooms that students come to class early and stay late.

Kuhn said faculty realize that preparing for teaching in this room takes a lot of time, but they find it gratifying to watch the students discover connections on their own a lecture may have touched on but possibly would have been overlooked. Students are more independent helping each other, form a stronger community, and see this space and this type of learning as great preparation for their future work experiences.

Summerfield hopes that the new teaching style in the college will give students—and parents—more confidence in their chosen major, and see the value a liberal arts degree has in the professional field.

“I think it's starting to be that way. I think that the students, little by little, are starting to understand, ‘Okay, if I am developing critical skills, if I am developing communications, and things of that nature, then I can apply them ostensibly everywhere, no matter where my career will take me.’”

Written by Lydia Gudauskas Sinor

Last Updated: December 01, 2017