Better study results in new learning environments

What importance does the environment have for learning and education? There is a remarkable lack of research in the field, but an ongoing research project will answer these questions.

Note: This is an abridged version of an article in the current issue of the magazine Aha, Vol. 10 spring 2016. Aha is published by Akademiska Hus and can be ordered free of charge or read in digital format at

When the rebuildning of the new Humanities Building began in autumn 2013, the ambition was to create a Swedish version of the American educational format Active Learning Classrooms (ALC).

The framework of this form of learning is the student’s interaction with one another and with the teacher. When students explain how important concepts have been understood and account for various facts, they are made aware of differences in interpretation and of how they need to enhance their ways of explaining.

At the same time, the teacher is made aware of qualitative options to perceive what “should be learnt” and adjust his or her examples and explanations to the students.

Bengt Malmros is coordinator at the Centre for Educational Development at Umeå University. He compares the process to a car journey.

“When a teacher holds a traditional lecture, the student quite easily falls into the actions of a passenger. You think you know the way, but when you suddenly find yourself in the driver’s seat, you become uncertain of where to turn. The student-led repetitions force students to identify the ‘junctions’ themselves to prevent them from getting lost. Humorously, we call the teaching method ‘find-your-lost-way’,” he says.

Two years after the start of the building process, the Modern Age teaching premises in the Humanities Building are in full use. All over the walls are large touch screens. The surfaces are clad in soundproofing material. Most spectacular is how the rooms can change shape in just seconds. Portable screens with a whiteboard surface on one side and soundproofing board on the other can be rolled out and transform a lecture hall into several smaller group rooms in under thirty seconds.

“Group projects are traditionally time-consuming. It takes time for students to find a place to meet. Furthermore, teachers have no idea where students have gone and they in turn have no opportunity to ask the teacher questions,” says Lisbeth Lundahl, professor of educational work at Umeå University.

She leads the research project Rum för lärande (”Spaces for Learning”) funded by Akademiska Hus. The Food and Nutrition Programme is one of the educations involved in the project and has from an early stage been concerned with student-active education.

The food and nutrition student Louise Jansson sees the advantages of the new teaching method.

“Traditionally, cramming was done in solace. To discuss with others and repeat together works very well. The technique makes learning easier.”

Åsa Tieva is a teacher at the same study programme. She admits that she was anxious before her first class in the new environment.

“It felt like going out on a jetty with a blindfold and jump in. It’s scary to give the students control. When I see the results, though, I just want to let go more,” she says.

Rum för lärande will be presenting a final report in 2017, but some conclusions can already be drawn.

“At Food and Nutrition, the proportion of students who pass the first exam at the Physiology and Metabolism course has increased from 14 to 52 per cent. But our aim is set much higher than that. The dieticians have gone from 48 to 85 per cent. These numbers are comparable since the teaching staff is the same as before; the difficulty of the examination questions is the same; and the students are comparable when it comes to previous knowledge. The only things that have changed are education and the learning environment,” says Bengt Malmros.

If more students passed their exams at the first opportunity, it would save time for teachers. Lisbeth Lundahl hopes that the results of the upcoming final report will show the value of new spatial solutions and educational solutions in combination.

“Many universities have again invested in fancy buildings and campuses. It’s nice, but often the interior, which is most important, has lagged behind. Time has come to a standstill and they have been too content with standard solutions. I reckon that will change in the future,” says Lisbeth Lundahl.


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