Teaching in a CLS

This document is meant to help organize my thoughts on using Collaborative Learning Space (CLS) rooms for teaching. My thoughts on this may (will?) evolve over time, and thus this document may too.

What is a CLS?

A CLS (Collaborative Learning Space) is a relatively new type of classroom setup. Typically, a CLS is a flat-floored room (no tiers or stadium-style seating) with a number of small tables spread throughout the space. Each table seats 4-6 students, and the tables are sometimes equipped with supplies for students to use such as whiteboards and markers. The tables are spread out enough such that instructors can walk throughout the room and converse with each group of student, even with full capacity.

Below is a picture of one such room at the UofA (Ina Gittings 201):

Ina gittings 201

This is as apposed to the more university-typical lecture-hall style classroom. These rooms resemble the following:

ENR 2 Classroom

When looking at the two rooms, it’s easy to see that there’s a radically different design philosophy between the two spaces. The lecture-hall appears to be teacher-centric. All of the seats are arranged to maximize instructor (or instructor + overhead) visibility. In the CLS, students face many directions, with the emphasis on them being able to see, communicate, and work with each-other. Projector screens and TVs are placed in all directions, so all students can see the displayed content.

Why use a CLS?

I have not yet had much time to read the literature on what the benefits of CLS teaching are, but I assume this has been studied, and I’d like to at some point. My understanding is that studies show CLS spaces (when used well) can be very effective. Most of my reasons for liking them are anecdotal, or from positive things I have heard from colleagues.

Using a CLS effectively helps improve the atmosphere of a course, both at the individual class-session level, and the course as a whole level. However, this improvement depends greatly on the instructors ability to use the space correctly, and design course content that can be delivered well in this environment. Spaces like this are not designed for classes where students show up and listen to an instructor talk for an hour, passively absorbing content. Group work, class interaction, and peer-instruction need to be woven into the fabric of the class meeting times.

I think the atmosphere improvement is primarily due to effective use of groups and class interaction. Providing ample opportunities for students to work together, discuss concepts with each-other, and peer-teach creates a more fun and engaging atmosphere. It also allows opportunity for students to get-to-know each-other better, because there is “forced” interaction.

Techniques for effective CLS use

Below are techniques and tips to keep in mind when developing course content for use in a CLS. Really, many of these could apply more broadly to all types of classrooms.

In-Class Activities

In-class activities (ICAs) are a crucial counterpart to teaching in a CLS. Clearly there are many kinds of ICAs, and the exact way in which they are used can vary from instructor-to-instructor. Creating good ICAs isn’t necessarily easy. To do so, you need to practice. It takes time to get good at coming up with quality problems, accurately predicting the time it will take student to do a problem, effective debriefing, and general ICA classroom management. With time, I hope to get better and better at this.

Group Work

Given the arrangement of the tables, these classrooms lend themselves to in-class group activities. I try to incorporate several group ICAs per class session. Some in-class activities make more sense as individual ones, but even these, I let students talk with eachother, get help from eachother, etc. The dynamic of allowing discussions to arise between students, and in some cases between students and the instructors that peruse the room, creates an engaging and energetic environment.

I have yet to do assigned groups and tables using a CLS, but I believe this is the direction I will move.

Attention Span

There are lots of claims about the (short) attention spans of human beings (such as here and here ). Some of these may be well-founded, and other perhaps not, but it’s clear that holding student attention for a long span of time can be difficult, unless you plan carefully. Instead of fighting against the short attention span pandemic, why not leverage it?

When teaching in a CLS, it can be beneficial to never do one thing for more than ~5 minutes at a time. Instead, break the class up with a variety of of types of learning. In my experience, a back-and-forth of me speaking/explaining, giving a group activity, and then debriefing the problem. This allows for a constant “back-and-forth” flow to the class. Never talk for long enough for students to lose focus. But also, never give them too much time on an activity, so that _they_ don’t lose focus. The constant mix really helps keep a class engaged, interested, and focused.

There is much more that could be written about attention span and teaching, but I’ll leave that for another time.

Using TAs / Section Leaders / Preceptors

Having sufficient teaching staff for a CLS room is absolutely necessary. A good goal is to have 1 TA/SL/Preceptor for every 20-25 students. There are often a number of questions during ICAs, and when teaching in a large CLS, one instructor is not enough. The TAs/SLs can (and should) roam around the room during these times, to help answer questions and keep an eye on how students are progressing through a problem. They can also help students stay on-track, when they see people stuck or distracted.

Calling on Tables

Calling on tables is something I don’t do very well currently, but I want to move in this direction. Calling on tables to provide their solution to an ICA seems like a great way to (help) ensure that all students are actually working in the ICA problems. Without the “risk” of being called on, they may be less inclined to do the problem, talk with their neighbors, etc.

Calling on a whole table/group can help reduce the “being called on stress” as compared to calling on an individual. With groups, no one person needs to be singled out to present the answer. It can be a group effort.