About 30 years ago, students on campus pushed to see a physical realization of the university’s commitment to educational innovation and the Kaneb Center for Teaching and Learning was born. Today, the center — which specializes in learning research and offers resources for students and faculty alike — is housed under Notre Dame Learning.
While Notre Dame Learning’s Kaneb Center offers educational development workshops and individual consultations for faculty members and graduate students, much of its work is grounded in research.
“We’re actively working to create better learning environments for students,” G. Alex Ambrose, the center’s director of learning research, said. Ambrose, who has a doctorate in education technology, is a professor of the practice — a role which is a hybrid of teaching and research. While Ambrose occasionally teaches courses in the Alliance for Catholic Education master’s program or education, schooling, and society undergraduate program, he spends the majority of his time conducting learning research.
Ambrose engages with two dimensions of educational research: learning data, which is based in the digital environment, and learning spaces, which is an exploration of the physical environment.
The goal of the research, Ambrose said, is to “better understand both of those two environments to optimize the learning — make it more efficient, effective, enjoyable.”
While learning data research is centered around the collection and analysis of digital data, learning spaces research is an entirely physical endeavor focused on enhancing both formal learning spaces, such as classrooms, and informal spaces, which are any and everywhere else that learning occurs.
“We’re studying learning in the wild which takes a different approach,” Ambrose said.
Ambrose’s involvement with learning spaces research arose out of tragedy. In 2017, the university was awarded a grant from Steelcase, a Michigan-based furniture company as a result of an application submitted by assistant registrar Linda Martellaro and academic technologist Jeffry Bain-Conken, who died suddenly in September 2017.
“I volunteered to finish the project,” Ambrose said “But without him we wouldn’t have gotten the grant.”
The grant money was used to fund the construction of a prototype flexible learning space in Debartolo Hall. Flexible learning spaces are designed to optimize active learning, which is a form of learning that encourages student interaction with material rather than passive absorption of it.
The goal of active learning is “to decrease sitting, listening, taking notes and increase moving, creating and discussing,” Ambrose explained.
The involvement of Notre Dame Learning’s Kaneb Center in the project centered around analyzing the impact of the classroom. To do so, Ambrose, along with student research assistants, created and disseminated surveys to students and faculty that participated in courses in the prototype classroom and a designated “typical” 25-seater Debartolo classroom.
The surveys included questions that aimed to assess whether the design of the prototype classroom promoted active learning behaviors such as collaboration, movement and discussion.
After two years of data compilation — over which the surveys reached over 1,000 students and several dozen instructors — Ambrose created a learning space report card which helped visualize classroom-user satisfaction through a comparison between the typical and prototypical classrooms.
The report card demonstrated which new design elements students and faculty approved of and also where there was room to improve. For seven of the nine design features implemented in the prototype classroom, both students and faculty reported increased satisfaction.
One of the non-preferred elements was positioning the instructor’s station in the back of the classroom because it created impractical lines of sight.
Ultimately, research indicated a preference for the flexible learning space. When asked to give an overall grade to their classroom, students and faculty gave the typical classroom a C while the prototype was graded a B+.
Ambrose hopes to use the research to optimize other flexible learning spaces. The success of the pilot prototypical classroom has had a ripple effect: already there are three new flexible learning classrooms on campus: two in the basement of Crowley Hall and one in the basement of Bond Hall.
Ambrose envisions a future in which 100-person lecture halls are optimized to promote active learning, a goal that has already been accomplished by other leading institutions in the country through the integration of technology and flexible furniture into the classroom.
As Notre Dame Learning’s Kaneb Center moves forward with further educational research, Ambrose emphasized the desire to continue seeking student and faculty feedback: “Notre Dame Learning is trying to get the voice of the students and faculty and help insert it into the learning space design process.”