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What's so special about Ellis Hall's active learning classrooms? Take a look inside

The Ellis Hall active learning classrooms opened to students and instructors in January. Each of the three renovated classrooms offers unique configurations and technology that allow instructors to employ different teaching and learning strategies. Mark Kerr, Senior Communications Officer, visited a few classes early in January to observe how the spaces are impacting teaching and learning.

Students slowly trickle in to Ellis Hall Room 319 slightly before 8:30 on a Thursday morning in January. Melanie Bedore, the instructor for this upper-year social geography seminar, quickly rearranges the moveable chairs. Near the door, she slides the chairs to form a small circle; farther back, she creates small groups of four chairs.

Dr. Bedore begins the class with a short review of post-modern approaches to social justice before moving on to a lighthearted pop quiz based on that week’s readings. To lead the discussion, Dr. Bedore sits within the circle – not behind the podium – a deliberate decision on her part.

Students in Melanie Bedore's social geography seminar take advantage of the whiteboards along the walls of Ellis Hall 319 to complete a learning activity.

“I want to convey we are all learning together and I just happen to have a few more years of experience. We are all trying to figure out these problems together,” she says.

After the quiz, Dr. Bedore introduces the “learning activity,” the focal point of that day’s class. The students form five random groups of three or four students. From the assigned readings, each group charts an era of Canada’s social policy. Using the whiteboard that rings two walls of the classroom, they record their findings on a timeline that Dr. Bedore sketched out before class.

Soon, the odour from the whiteboard markers overpowers the new carpet smell as the students jot down their points and fill in the timeline. The students then present their work and start a discussion.

As a concurrent education student, Candice Thwaites (ConEd’14) enjoys the group work activities that Ellis Hall 319 facilitates. She says Dr. Bedore’s approach is similar to a technique she learned about in an education class: think, pair, share. She finds it helpful to hear how her peers are grappling with the course material.

“It’s a lot easier to stay focused on what’s going on in the class because it’s not too much of you staring at the teacher for hours. It’s a lot more interactive which makes things ‘stickier’ in your brain. As I am going back and studying for my quiz the next week, I remember pretty much everything because we are actually working with the material. It’s easier to remember things when you have this visual aid.”

The 90-minute class comes to an end, but most of the students hang around to discuss their group project. Some look over the whiteboard and one student takes a picture of the work for future reference.

After answering students’ questions, Dr. Bedore sits down in one of the moveable chairs and reflects on how she prepared for this course, her first teaching experience. She says she was considering active teaching strategies well before she was assigned Ellis Hall Room 319.

“I wanted to teach the course in a more animated way. When I found out I got the room, I started thinking I could do active teaching even better given the physical layout and the whiteboard,” she says. “However, I am starting to get a sense of how rewarding the learning activity can be for students. The activities force them to go deeper into the readings and pull out information and key points they believe their peers need to know.”

Several hours later, just down the hall from Ellis 319, nearly a hundred students fill Ellis 321. The large class room buzzes with activity as teams of eight students sit at rectangle tables and work on a computer programming assignment. Students collaborate to write code and then use the technology in the room to test their work. Within each group, a student plugs in his or her laptop at the table; that screen is then displayed on the other screens at the ends of the table. The entire group sees the work and the students can offer their input.

School of Computing instructor Dave Dove doesn’t lecture in the CISC-221 Computer Architecture course, instead taking a “team-based learning” approach to teaching the material. He assigns readings and the students work on activities and labs during class time. After using team-based learning in a lecture theatre setting for two years, Mr. Dove believes he finally has the optimal space for this teaching method.

School of Computing instructor Dave Dove speaks with a team during a recent class in his Computer Architecture course. Mr. Dove says Ellis Hall 321 is the perfect space for his "team-based learning approach."

“I couldn’t get to a lot of the groups, and the acoustics were not meant for 80 students talking at the same time. It was abysmal trying to do it in that type of environment,” he says. “This room is just wonderful. It’s big, there is isolation between the teams and the acoustics are marvelous. Plus, the technology in this room lets students use their laptops, write code and display it for the rest of the team.”

Leif Raptis-Firth (Cmp’16) is impressed by the classroom, specifically the two display monitors located at both ends of every table. With multiple screens and laptop plug-ins, the teams can split into smaller groups and tackle different aspects of the problem. He also likes that the instructor’s display can be transmitted to individual screens on the table.

“Everyone in the group can easily see what the professor is doing and what we ourselves are doing. It’s much more effective than passing a single sheet of paper back and forth,” he explains.

Mr. Dove acknowledges the team-based learning approach takes students out of their comfort zone of lectures and exams. He remains committed to the technique, though, and refines it every year.

“Team-based learning is part of the Academic Plan and it’s what students need. For years I observed students struggling to apply what they had memorized,” he says. “Team-based learning also helps students develop communication and teamwork skills they will need to survive in the working world.

“I make the whole group accountable to everybody. As a student, you are responsible for learning the material but also helping the rest of your team learn the material. That improves their articulation skills and their ability to argue for a point. Those are useful skills in whatever you do.”


On a frigid Monday night, 55 students gather in the warmth of Ellis 333. Mark Hostetler, professor for DEVS 330: Technology and Development, begins the three-hour class with a discussion around a recent guest lecture by John Geddes, a local physician and founder of the non-governmental organization CanAssist African Relief Trust. He displays his questions on the interactive touchscreen displays hung on the walls above every round table in the room.

Without a lectern denoting the front of the room like a traditional lecture theatre, Dr. Hostetler positions himself in the middle of Ellis 333. He moves around and pivots to ensure he is involving all of the tables in the discussion. He wants to draw out the different perspectives from both the global development students and the engineering students taking the class. It takes some work, but the students eventually comply.

Ellis Hall 333, with screens located near every table around the room, supports a focus on group work and discussions. A student in Mary C. Olmstead's History of Modern Psychology presents his work to his peers during a recent class.

The discussion ends, and the students turn their attention to their “mind maps.” Using an online brainstorming tool called “bubbl.us,” the students work in small groups to make connections between the themes and ideas presented in assigned course material. Each group puts up its mind map on the display using a team member’s laptop and the students manipulate it as they go.

Amanda Brissenden (Sc’15) says the screens around the room were especially helpful when they did the mind map for the first time. Her classmate, Ali Sutherland (Artsci’15), echoes that sentiment.

“You can do group work and see it going on. You can also look at other groups at the same time and see what they are doing,” says Ms. Sutherland, a third-year global development studies student.

Ms. Brissenden’s group blends the classroom’s technology with a tried and true brainstorming tool: Post-it Notes. All of the members gather around the table and excitedly write and arrange the colourful pieces of paper. Once they are comfortable with the results, they input their thoughts into the online program to further refine their work.

“We have the space to do crazy things like cover our desk in Post-It Notes,” Ms. Brissenden says. “I think the classroom has opened me up to different ways of learning. Usually I am a person who sits and takes notes in a little notebook. But this has been more interactive and we are engaging in larger group discussions that come back to the individual work.”

The students shy away from the touchscreen technology, choosing instead to edit their mind maps using a laptop. Ms. Brissenden says that might change once the students become more familiar with the technology and get better at using it. Dr. Hostetler doesn’t force the issue, instead letting the students attack the assignment as they see fit.

More information about the Ellis Hall classrooms