PALS evaluation validates new standards for active learning spaces


An initial evaluation of the Pilot Active Learning Spaces (PALS) Project run by UNSW Learning Environments has provided an evidence base for the future development of interactive and collaborative classrooms across the UNSW Kensington campus.

Conducted using feedback from the Semester 1 2016 pilot of two purpose-built active learning classrooms, the evaluation reviewed the effectiveness of the initiative. Two key themes emerged from the report.

“The first was the need for a series of core conditions that provide a framework for the development of future learning spaces. Our evaluation shows that having baseline values for key components of classroom design will enable academics and students to leverage the opportunities inherent in active and collaborative teaching and learning methods” says Sue Beardman, Director of the Learning Environments unit.

These values and conditions provide set parameters for things like class and group sizes; room size, shape and standards; furniture configuration and variations; equivalence of student experience; acoustics; technology and sightlines.

“The second theme was around the development of an embedded, integrated and standard model of PALS provision and service support that spans all activities, from scheduling to academic development,” Sue says.

This model is focused on the negotiation of pedagogies, spaces and technologies, as well as on the change management process required to normalise active learning, both in the classroom and within university policies and processes.

The PALS project was a prototyping activity designed to test innovation in learning space development and delivery at UNSW. Eighteen academics from across the science, medicine, arts and social sciences, engineering and law disciplines were recruited to teach in the pilot classrooms in the Mathews Building during Semester 1 2016.

The project had an immediate impact on both staff and students, who delivered significantly positive feedback on the role of the spaces in shaping active learning delivery and participation. Academics noted rapid increases in student satisfaction, engagement and attendance, as well as a marked shift towards active, student-led participation and initiative in classroom activities.

“That sense of people moving into that self-learning, responsible, active participant without asking for clues and without asking for permission is significantly different to what I’ve ever experienced,” says one academic who taught in the Mathews spaces.

Rooms were split into ‘pods’ of 6-8 students, with display screens and device ports available in each pod. Students could not only share digital content using the screen within their pod, but could also opt to share content on the screens of the other pods. 

“In one session, a group was presenting their video analysis of the South China Sea conflict, which they sent to three pods, and they were simultaneously running a live Twitter feed and poll on the other two screens, with class participation immediately available as a constantly updating data feed,” one academic says.

For students, the pod layout required greater interaction with teaching staff, which one student described as a positive outcome of the active learning experience.

“I think because the teacher or the facilitator has to walk up to see what you’re doing and what you’re talking about, [it builds] access to your facilitators that you don’t get the opportunity to build in [non-active] CATS spaces,” one student says.

The next stage of the PALS project will hopefully see the development of two active learning precincts in the Mathews and Goldstein Buildings. The design of these precincts will be informed by the evaluation of Semester 1 2016 activities and will provide an enhanced scope of active learning opportunities for students and staff across the Kensington campus.