Common challenges when teaching in an Active Learning Classroom – and how to address them

This guidance is based on the work of Petersen and Gorman (2014).

Active Learning Classrooms, including SCALE-UP, present challenges for teachers and their students who are used to more traditional classrooms and lecture situations.

Active learning classrooms contrast with traditional classrooms that are designed with students facing forward and arranged in rows. In traditional classrooms, student sightlines are orientated towards the front of the room, the lectern, projection screen, and teacher’s whiteboard. In such traditional spaces, students are expected to take notes during the presentation of classroom material. The arrangement of desks in rows is suited to the transmission of information from the instructor to the students, however, the physical constraints of the seating make it difficult to prioritise student-student interactivity.

Active Learning Classrooms, on the other hand, are designed to enhance small-group involving a facilitative teaching role.

Challenges of Active Learning Classrooms

No focal point – students must turn to face the teacher or other focus of attention. Consequently, they have no writing surface at some point in the class and it can be difficult for the teacher to be seen by all students at the same time.

The room, therefore, requires a more active approach to be taken in which the student is the focus of attention more of the time. In situations where the teacher or the students need to project information, it should be projected to multiple screens around the room. The teacher should normally position themselves in the centre of the room to address the whole class and to monitor the students working in tables groups to check their understanding. Students should respond to their teacher’s movement within this central space by re-orientating themselves.

Multiple distractions – An Active Classroom needs to be continuously managed. Activity can create multiple distractions. These include noisy small group conversations, audio from other student’s laptops, the changing projections on each of the groups’ video screens, whiteboarding activities, and the constant movement of the teacher.

The teacher needs to be aware of what their students should be doing and check that students are always clear about the tasks they have been given. The teacher needs to consciously direct student attention during class at key points. As discussion groups complete their conversations they are likely to miss key instructions. Before class, the teacher should prepare instructions for the planned activities. They should consider projecting key instructions and repeating them clearly to make sure all groups are keeping up and on task.

Technology can be a distraction. The teacher will need to ask students to close laptops and other devices from time to time. When critical information needs to be conveyed, the teacher should ask for silence.

Where students are distracted or being distracting, it is recommended that the teacher gravitates towards them. Standing near distracted or distracting students should be enough to bring them into line, but on occasion, the teacher will need to intervene perhaps by working at the table with disruptive groups to find out why they are having a problem engaging.

Overwhelming technology – Active Learning Classrooms are often characterised by unfamiliar technologies and this can undermine the teacher’s confidence.

Plan sessions in detail when starting to use new methods. In particular, decide on how technologies will be used and, before your session, check that they work in the way you anticipate. If possible attend CPD or training opportunities or work with peers or technicians to develop your confidence.

Observing peers using the same teaching space is helpful. You can see what they do well and the problems they have and how they deal with them. You can also ‘buddy up’ to learn new methods together. Discuss with colleagues how they manage the technologies. Find out what peers do they do, and what they avoid doing.

Adjusting to the challenges of moving to Active Learning Classrooms

The change of teaching role, from a teaching-centred to student-centred active learning approach, can be substantial. It is advised that you introduce innovative methods in stages. The shift can be characterised by as an enquiry or problem-based active learning strategy. Examples of how incremental change can be made towards a problem-based strategy include:

  • turning rhetorical questions used in lectures into problem questions for small group activities;
  • not giving the students all of the problems to solve at first, but instead modelling problem-solving as you would have done in a lecture and inviting strategies and options from the students for finding resolutions.

In this way, both the lecturer and the students become used to problem-based learning together. This scaffolding approach will transition expectations and develop confidence for greater group engagement.

Engaging reluctant students

The lecturer should create opportunities to recognise students’ input to the class. Acknowledging the students’ contributions helps to clarify the value of a discursive approach. However, “some students are resistant to approaches that ask them to take more responsibility for their learning. Some students expect and prefer to be passive and have all the answers come from the instructor.” (Petersen & Gorman, 2014, p. 68)

Working with groups

The teacher usually needs to work with groups in the active classroom and needs to avoid singling out individuals as may be customary. Establish student groups and maintain them week-on-week. Be aware that groups may already have been established in other classes. Decide if it is useful to retain these. Student groups should have a sense of identity and their formation can benefit by assigning roles to group members (Chair, Note taker, Observer, Organiser, etc)

The active learning classroom should feel like a challenging space. Your aim to excite your students about taking part and challenges should be pitched to feel real but attainable. By taking a group approach, you are more likely to convince students that they are capable of succeeding.

You can use a cold call technique need to randomly single out individuals with challenging questions; however, allow the individual to confer with fellow group members, thus taking the spotlight off the individual who may be anxious taking responsibility for an answer in front of the whole class.

Developing a communal philosophy to active learning

  • Clearly communicate your philosophy on teacher and student roles in the active classroom up front;
  • Teach using a continual narrative to signpost and manage student expectations;
  • Be assertive, but not defensive, by setting out the value of the student-centred active learning approach, its benefits for engagement, learning and student futures. The benefits of the active classroom are about developing a depth of knowledge, making learning interesting, and developing student capabilities and confidence that will hold them in good stead for life. Petersen and Gorman suggest that you include this information in your course and module handbook, so students will know what to expect on the first day of class.
  • Describe your role and responsibilities as a teacher in the active learning classroom;
  • Clarify the role of your students in the active classroom.
  • Be prepared to set time aside at the outset to gain agreement across the class. An agreement will not only challenge the passive student but will support the eager student keen to take advantage of the active classroom.For example, you could do so by co-authoring a ‘classroom charter’ containing about 10 key ideas for what you expect of each other. To do this,
    • draft 7 or 8 points before class and write them on the whiteboard;
    • talk through each point and modify it (be prepared to delete points);
    • add further points until you have 10 that you all agree on as representing the best way of working.
  • Note that some students will have had negative experiences of active learning before; don’t dismiss them, but work with them and learn from their experience to address their concerns;

Enhancement through evaluation

Create and look for opportunities to enhance learning. Be clear about the importance of early evaluation and communicate this to the students and note how you seek to enhance the experience throughout the semester.

Involve the whole room

Set time aside within a session for involving class-wide conversations. For example, whole class discussions can help to:

  • develop the complexity of a problem;
  • summarise activities and their outcomes and show value difference as well as validating correct resolutions to problem-solving.

In large group discussions, do not repeat small group activities or spend too much time reflecting on them, rather build upon them. Keep challenging the students. Use what groups have already gained to take knowledge up a step.

The teacher may find benefits in pairing up table groups to develop interactivity between tables. This is it is especially the case where different aspects of a conundrum have been dealt with by separate table groups. Bringing table groups together obviously creates new opportunities for learning about these different dimensions.

Key points

Petersen and Gorman (2014, p. 70) advise:

Before class

  • Design activities that meet your learning outcomes and take advantage of the space.
  • Decide what technology you will and won’t use.
  • Take an incremental approach to changes in teaching.

First Day of Class

  • Communicate your philosophy about teacher and student roles;
  • Articulate expectations for student-instructor and student-student interaction;
  • Inform students that you will solicit their feedback.

During Class Sessions

  • Direct student attention during class;
  • Set aside time for large group interaction;
  • Ask for student feedback early in the semester.


Petersen, C., & Gorman, K. (2014). Strategies to Address Common Challenges When Teaching in an Active Learning Classroom. New Directions for Teaching and Learning, 2014(137), 63-70. DOI: 10.1002/tl.20086

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