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Active Learning Classrooms: A Solution to Social Isolation in Higher Education

McGill University, New Music Building, room A-412 after renovations
September 11, 2017

Many higher education institutions are going through a paradigm shift, from traditional lecture style instruction to student-centered learning. A leading initiative encouraging this shift is SCALE-UP, which stands for Student Centered Active Learning Environment with Upside-Down Pedagogies. SCALE-UP initiatives can be found at over 250 institutions in the United States and Canada.[i]

At McGill University, SCALE-UP takes the form of Active Learning Classrooms (ALCs) and Active Learning Labs, headed by the Teaching and Learning Services Department. It defines ALCs as “teaching and learning spaces designed to foster students’ active engagement in their own learning.” Characteristics of these spaces include round tables, writable walls and technological capacity, such as screen sharing and multiple projection walls.[ii] In the last 10 years, over 25 active learning classrooms and labs have been built at McGill.

ALCs contribute to building social connectedness at McGill in various forms. For example, the creation of these spaces aligns with the third key objective of the Provost’s Strategic Academic Plan, to lead innovation through increasing collaborative classrooms.[iii] Moreover, ALCs address four principles of effective pedagogy based on the National Survey of Student Engagement: (1) student-faculty interaction; (2) active and collaborative learning; (3) enriching educational experiences; and (4) supportive campus environments. All four principles highlight the importance of student-faculty relationships given the risk of social isolation among students in post-secondary institutions.  

The Canadian National College Health Survey of 2013 reported that 64% of students felt very lonely at least once in the past 12 months. At McGill, the average was 2% higher than the national average.[iv] Active Learning Classrooms can help universities address this concern, as they offer multiple benefits. For starters, the layout supports face-to-face communication and increases two-way accessibility between professors and students. In addition, their furniture and cohesive technologies support both interactive learning and group activities. Finally, their design is meant to be inclusive for all students, especially those with either physical or learning disabilities.

When asked how ALCs affect social connectedness in the classroom, McGill Faculty of Law Professor Tina Piper explained:

It just opened everything up, [the students] talked to each other more, they talked to me more…it was just a very social place…there was something about the room that fostered intimacy, in a way that I thought was healthy, that helped people see each other as complete people.  Not just as another person in the classroom. It was nice that way.

Piper went on to describe how the room allowed her to encourage learning as a social process, where students can learn from one another just as much as they can learn from the instructor. Moreover, the space allowed her and her students to make efficient use of class time, not only for lecturing but also for group projects and discussions.

McGill University, Department of Education, room 627 after renovations

In a recent survey of McGill students and recent graduates, respondents were asked to rate different classroom types on a scale of 1 to 5, from socially isolated to socially connected. Lecture halls, the most common type of classroom, received an average ranking of 1.5, whereas ALCs received a ranking almost three times higher.

However, barriers still exist in terms of how beneficial these spaces can be. For example, less than half of students surveyed have had the chance to take a course in an ALC. Moreover, as one instructor explained, it’s not just about the classroom, it’s also about teaching practices, as not all professors are using these rooms to their maximum potential. Furthermore, there is a need for better evaluation of teaching practices in these classrooms in order to realize their full potential.  

As McGill continues its focus on student-centered learning, the university is renovating and creating more ALCs annually. And where it cannot build ALCs, the administration is seeking to implement Active Learning elements in other classrooms. With initiatives such as SCALE-UP, which prioritizes student learning and connectedness, post-secondary institutions are taking important steps to foster greater community in the classroom.

[i] PER&D Group (2011).  SCALE-UP: Student-Centered Learning Environment with Upside-down Pedagogies. Retrieved from

[ii] Teaching and Learning Services, McGill University (2013, November 1). McGill University Classroom Guidelines and Standards Version 1.2. Retrieved from

[iii] Office of the Provost and Vice-Principal (Academic), McGill Unviersity (2017).  McGill University Strategic Academic Plan 2017-2022. Retrieved from

[iv] Tellier, P., DiGenova, L. (2014, December). Student Health at McGill University: A Report of the Findings from the 2013 National College Health Assessment. Retrieved from