April 17, 2013 UT Renovates Classroom Building to Focus on Student Collaboration

From the Wall Street Journal, as released from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville: The renovation of the Humanities and Social Sciences Building, a project of the College of Architecture and Design, envisioned, in part, by the students and faculty of our Interior Design and Architecture programs.

With the rise in popularity of online lectures, the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, has moved toward student-centric learning in a building considered the “classroom hub” for the campus.

While renovating the Humanities and Social Sciences Building last year, UT sought to overhaul the traditional higher education lecture–becoming one of the first universities in the country to dedicate an entire classroom building to this collaborative learning teaching style.

Once known for its dirty whiteboards, tunnel-like hallways, hand-me-down tablet armchairs and bland projection technology, the 48-year-old building welcomes students with 36 classrooms containing vibrantly colored furniture, all four walls featuring white boards and interactive smart boards, high-definition video capability, bolstered wireless Internet, and adjustable and mobile “Node” chairs.

UT chose the building because nearly every undergraduate will take at least one course from one of its classrooms. More than 25 percent of all undergraduate student credit hours are delivered from the facility. It re-opened to students last fall. The $3.5 million redesign, paid for by the students’ facilities fee, essentially eliminated the traditional front of the classroom to encourage collaborative learning.

“We are hoping to move from classrooms with static fronts to dynamic classrooms that facilitate student interaction and expression where faculty members are experts as well as facilitators/mentors,” said Bill Dunne, associate dean of the College of Engineering and chair of the Classroom Upgrade Subcommittee, which oversaw the renovation.

The dramatic renovations were considered for multiple reasons, including demonstrating the value of campus-based learning, adapting to new student learning styles, harnessing new technologies and creating a people-based alternative to online learning.

“What we are involved in is an institutional culture change,” said Stan Guffey, member of the subcommittee and Faculty Scholar with the Tennessee Teaching and Learning Center. “The ‘brick and mortar’ university is going to persist because we are offering something better. We have the added value of the collaborative learning, the social elements, which is how we operate in a professional environment.”

The university’s goal is helping students develop strong effective communication, problem solving, critical thinking and team-building skills. Additionally, studies have shown that interactive learning increases information retention.

“Lectures have served as the primary instructional approach for centuries, if not millennia,” said Dunne. “Yet, they’re dominantly a one-way information flow that creates little expectations or responsibilities for students during that class time. The new classrooms support learning strategies that make the students the center of the learning expectations during class time, while challenging them to learn, collaborate and adapt in real-time.”

Faculty members learned how to use the new technology and adapt teaching styles inside a humanities model classroom during a series of faculty dialogues hosted by the Tennessee Teaching and Learning Center.

So far, feedback has been positive. A fall survey showed a majority of students and faculty members, are happy with the changes. A spring survey will assess student enrichment.

“I have noticed that in the newer classrooms with the all the technology the students are much more engaged with the course material,” said Jennifer Fowler, mathematics senior lecturer. “They are not passive learners like they are in traditional classrooms where you are writing on the board and they are sitting and copying. You can get them to relax a little bit more, and I think they feel more comfortable and they can help each other.”

With this success, UT plans for all of its new classrooms to be student-centered.

The project is a collaborative effort between the Classroom Upgrade Committee, Facilities Services, the College of Architecture and Design, the Tennessee Teaching and Learning Center, University Libraries and the Office of Information Technology.