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Student-Centered Learning and the Traditional Classroom

Michael Ronan

At the Westgate Campus of Houston Community College Northwest, a discussion over carpets versus tile in classrooms expanded into an inquiry into whether classroom environment affects learning. The traditional classroom consisting of clean pastel-colored walls and rows of chairs facing a lectern was placed under the microscope. Does it support learning, and, specifically, student-centered learning?

Budgets are tight at Northwest. The college, one of five in the Houston Community College System (HCCS), sits outside the district, and over the years, as in-district campuses received funds for more student-centered approaches to the classroom – for instance, desks with wheels for convenient group work and computer labs in classrooms – the faculty at Northwest looked on with envy. Believing that a good instructor can teach in a cave if need be, faculty members have rolled up their sleeves and gotten the job done without the extras. However, without these extras, many faculty have not been challenged to update their pedagogy, and they still see the role of the instructor as lecturer and hold unquestioned authority in the classroom as their due. In-service sessions about learning centers and student engagement sound like the flavor of the year to some.

However, being left out of the technology loop gave some faculty at Northwest a chance to question whether state-of-the-art desks and computers are the only paths toward enhancing the 21st century classroom. They looked at some of the objectives of participatory pedagogy – for students to be more engaged, to be more verbal, to develop an intellectual identity, to express their views without fear, to look one another in the eye and see a person, not an ideology – and questioned whether the traditional classroom environment supports student-centered learning. Their concerns: placing instructor lecterns at the head of a classroom of straight rows of desks might reinforce authority, dominance, and rote learning – lecture-based pedagogy. The teacher who wants to empower students by giving away authority and being more fluid seems to swim against the stream. Additionally, if other goals include stimulating students' imaginations and kindling their creativity, classroom walls painted in institutional pastels designed to calm the heart and ease the mind did not seem appropriate. Initial conclusion: The traditional classroom might frustrate student-centered learning. Solution: Create one that supports it.

The Disagreement

A faculty member returned from summer break to discover that the carpets in the three classrooms primarily devoted to English had been replaced by tile. The argument for the change was that tiles were easier to clean, would last longer, and looked attractive. Furthermore, budgets were tight.

The faculty member argued that the room lost its professional personality, noise ricocheted around it like ping-pong balls, the tiles' glare from the phosphorescent lighting strained eyes, and his back ached after 30 minutes of standing on the tiles. He now had to teach sitting down.

The Committee

The president of Northwest stepped in and asked questions that neither faculty nor administrators had considered much: What are the goals and objectives of classrooms? What does a classroom need to meet them? What specifically does an English classroom require? What does a classroom dedicated to student-centered learning require?

A committee attempted to answer the questions. The English faculty on the committee wanted an environment that enhanced student creativity, participation, and abstract thinking. They visited classrooms at other HCCS campuses and at other colleges around Houston, searched the internet, and looked for scholarly discussions of teaching environments. They discovered that nontraditional colors in the classroom excited the senses, but found little work by scholars.

The committee developed a list of furniture and equipment that would help meet their goals:

  • Carpet
  • More whiteboards
  • Desks with large surfaces for writing and laptops
  • Desks that move for group work
  • Horseshoe desk configuration
  • Closed podium and a comfortable podium chair
  • Desk and chair for instructors who prefer them
  • Track lighting
  • Ceiling projector
  • Screen

However, the committee knew furniture and equipment alone would not meet their goals. What might help? Art. They interviewed artists and zeroed in on a former student, now a professional with a fine arts degree, who had taken English classes in the room earmarked as the pilot project. The artist possessed a clear understanding of the college's diversity of students and, after preliminary discussions, interviewed the committee about its objectives. A week later, she developed a proposal to transform the room. The committee, including the president and the academic dean, immediately and unanimously accepted the proposal.


The president and academic dean secured limited funds for the room from a student retention budget. The committee voted to use the money for art and carpets. Other equipment would be squeezed out of budgets as small surpluses arose over the course of the next year.

Art and Room Design

The artist invoked colors and textures symbolic of earth and sea. An expanding and contracting ribbon of wood twists around the walls of the room like the track of a roller coaster, supported by painted structural beams reminiscent of classical Grecian columns. Copper tubing irregularly outlines the edge of the wooden ribbon. Underneath the wood and copper tubing, the walls are textured, painted, and glazed in an uneven pewter color that seems to undulate like waves. Two white boards join to make one long board like a wide-screen television. A carpet picks up the colors on the walls. Thirty-one desks with large flat surfaces sit two deep in a horseshoe configuration that opens to a desk and a closed podium on wheels that can be pushed aside easily. Other funding has added a ceiling projector and an electronic screen. A portable laboratory of laptops can be wheeled in if needed. Funds for track lighting have yet to be secured.

Student Reactions

Students responded to surveys at the beginning and end of semesters.

Beginning of semester results were that

  • 98% liked the room, 2% quibbled over the color;
  • 73% thought they would be more likely to participate in class discussions;
  • 79% thought the environment enhanced learning; and
  • 92% thought more classrooms should be designed in similar approaches.

End of semester results were that

  • 66% thought they participated more in class discussions;
  • 76% thought the environment enhanced their learning experience; and
  • 94% thought more classrooms should be designed in similar approaches.

In a grade and retention comparison of all English and other disciplines taught in the same room for the year before and the year after the change (408 and 527 students, respectively),

  • Overall grades were fairly consistent between the two years; and
  • Retention increased after the change: 4.2% fewer student withdrawals.

In Literature classes after the change, there were

  • 5% more As,
  • 4% more Bs, and
  • 4% fewer withdrawals.

Students love the room and are quick to praise it. They stay in courses longer and perform better in those that demand abstract thought. They perceive of themselves as more actively engaged in courses offered in the room, take good care of it, and eagerly fill out surveys in the hope that other rooms, which they call “institutional” and “sterile,” can be similarly transformed.

Faculty and Administration Reactions

Faculty who actively seek to make their composition and literature classes more student centered also love the room. They report that it stimulates them and their students. They tend to experiment more, and their expectations for their students rise. Faculty who remain lecture based appreciate the art but find the desk arrangement too confrontational and request another room. Administrators and department heads hold meetings in the room, and those who once vigorously opposed the room no longer do so. In fact, the administrator who championed tiles now actively supports the room and claims it has a calming effect; he believes that people discuss difficult issues more civilly within its walls.

The evidence is that classroom environment affects learning (Shneider, 2002). The traditional classroom consisting of straight rows of chairs facing a podium surrounded by pastel-colored walls makes student interaction difficult, does not stimulate the senses or the mind, and promotes rote learning. In contrast, a nontraditional classroom consisting of chairs facing each other, surrounded by walls with vibrant colors or art fosters interaction, stimulates students and instructors, and promotes student-centered learning.


Schneider, Mark. (November 2002). Do School Facilities Affect Academic Outcomes? Washington, DC: National Clearinghouse for Educational Facilities.

For more information contact
Michael Ronan
Houston Community College Northwest
1550 Foxlake Drive
Houston, TX 77084


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