From Innovation to Inspiration: WSB’s New Collaborative Learning Classrooms

Picture a typical college lecture hall—rows of stadium seating for students and a chalkboard in the front for the instructor to use when delivering a lecture. Now look inside the newly remodeled collaborative learning classrooms (CLC) in Grainger Hall at the Wisconsin School of Business. There’s nothing typical about this state-of-the-art learning environment.

Incoming Wisconsin MBAs students
Incoming Wisconsin MBAs (L to R) Jack Hampson (MBA ’17), Joe Minor (MBA ’17), Christopher Hatton (MBA ’17), Qi Zhang (MBA ’17), and Adrianna Fie (MBA ’17) kick off their curriculum with an ethics session in the new collaborative learning classrooms during the Wisconsin MBA Experience.

Rows of chairs and computers have been replaced by moveable chairs and tables at which teams of students can work together while faculty supervise and facilitate. Large monitors and laptops help students work together more efficiently. During discussions, the instructor weaves throughout the room, stopping at tables to review projects and offer feedback.

“It’s a different style than we’re used to, but easier to interact in, which is very appealing,” says Allison Amadon (BBA ’17), who took a business analytics class in the CLC in Fall 2015.

Change for the better

The new collaborative learning classrooms opened in August 2015, and demand for the classrooms doubled in six months—with faculty members wanting to return and others wanting to teach in the space for the first time.

“Faculty and students are aware they’re pushing themselves, and they’re outside their comfort zone,” says Suzanne Dove, assistant dean for academic innovations at the Wisconsin School of Business. “It’s great that students are seeing how this space pushes boundaries and creates better learning for them.”

I learned a lot from little questions or comments people at my table would ask as we worked on problems. I would love to take more classes this way.

Allison Amadon (BBA ’17)

Amadon says she took to it right away and felt other students did, too.

“I learned a lot from little questions or comments people at my table would ask as we worked on problems,” she says, adding that it was also easy to ask for help from the instructor. “I would love to take more classes this way.”

That’s a reaction that most students have, according to Mark Connolly, a researcher from the Wisconsin Center for Education Research, who is analyzing quantitative and qualitative data from students and faculty to measure the rooms’ impact on student learning.

“The collaborative classrooms are off to a strong start,” he says. “The students and instructors are confident that the space is improving their learning experiences.”

Connolly is gathering data for a report on the effectiveness of the space. After surveying students and faculty, instructors responded positively, and 80 percent of students agreed or strongly agreed that the classrooms engaged them in the learning process—inspiring them to learn from their peers, encouraging active participation, tackling real-life business problems in teams, deepening understanding of course content, and helping develop professional skills to use beyond the course.

Innovation as a long-term plan

The idea for the CLC came in 2013, when the School was launching its focus on educational innovation, and enrollment in the Wisconsin BBA Program was set to increase. Discussions with architects about increasing capacity and flexibility began. Space renovations started in May 2015, made possible by investments of the Wisconsin School of Business Innovation Fund, a club of investors who provide seed money to test and scale educational innovations. Using research and best practices, two ordinary computer classrooms were transformed into an innovative learning environment.

Chris Dakes (L), the WSB’s director of educational innovations, looks on as Paul Oliphant 
                                         (behind podium), director of academic technology and web, explains the classroom’s 
                                         operating system to WSB faculty and staff.
Chris Dakes (L), the WSB’s director of educational innovations, looks on as Paul Oliphant (behind podium), director of academic technology and web, explains the classroom’s operating system to WSB faculty and staff.
Laura Grossenbacher, director of the Technical Communication Program at the UW-Madison 
                                         College of Engineering, engages incoming MBA students in the new collaborative classrooms 
                                         at the Wisconsin School of Business.
Laura Grossenbacher, director of the Technical Communication Program at the UW–Madison College of Engineering, engages incoming MBA students in the new collaborative classrooms at the Wisconsin School of Business.

Courses that used the space in Fall 2015 ranged from an entire course to single exams or discussion sections. Nearly every faculty member and instructor who used the space wanted to book it again.

“The majority of instructors felt that the rooms enhanced the student learning experience,” says Chris Dakes, the School’s director of educational innovations and learning design. “These are experienced teachers, but not in this setting. With the students and faculty having no experience in the new classrooms, we were pleasantly surprised by the universal positive feedback and how quickly they embraced the new classroom design.”

Peter Lukszys, a senior lecturer in WSB’s Grainger Center for Supply Chain Management, used the CLC in a logistics management class. The space worked well, Lukszys says, to play a business simulation game with more than 40 MBA and graduate students.

“The collaborative learning space was ideal for team-based, simulation learning experiences,” he says. “There was lots of discussion among team members.”

Qing Liu, Associate Professor of Marketing
Using the monitors, the students can easily see what analysis methods are appropriate and easily explore together what works and what does not work.”

Qing Liu, Associate Professor of Marketing

Adapting to innovation

Halfway through the first semester that the classrooms were in use, Dakes and Paul Oliphant, director of academic technology and web at the WSB, gathered feedback from faculty members who were using the rooms.

“One of the things they said was that they didn’t know where to stand to lecture,” Dakes says. “And that’s exactly the point. It’s not a lecture space—the space pushes them to engage with their students rather than present to them.”

Instead, it’s a space for other kinds of learning. Qing Liu, associate professor of marketing, taught two marketing analytics courses in the CLC, which created an optimal environment for interactive learning of data analysis software.

“The group setting helps collaboration among students, in comparison to a traditional classroom, which is better for lecturing,” she says. “For example, using the monitors, the students can easily see what analysis methods are appropriate and easily explore together what works and what does not work.”

A roadmap for the evolution of learning

The success of the rooms presents an opportunity to learn from the space in ways that go beyond construction or rearranging chairs and tables. Maybe it’s in the way lectures are incorporated or how group projects can enhance student participation.

“Not every classroom in Grainger Hall is going to become one of these active learning spaces, nor should it,” Dove says. “But what are some of the techniques or interventions that faculty are discovering in this new room that we can translate to other classrooms? What can we use in a traditional space that was learned in an active learning space?”

The rooms were booked to capacity for the Spring 2016 semester, filled with classes that are fully or partially taught there.

“Introducing one of these active learning classrooms is not guaranteed to go smoothly,” Connolly says. “I think this has been exceptional in how it’s taken off. Our design managed to satisfy both the instructors’ needs and the students’ needs. They both feel it’s a positive place to participate in the learning experience together.”

Read more about the collaborative learning classrooms and see more photos.

Catch up on fellow Wisconsin School of Business alumni. View Now »

Want to add your own class note? Submit Note »

Don Davidson (BBA ’73, MBA ’87)

retired as vice president of credit union system relations at CUNA Mutual Group in 2010. He joined The First Tee of South Central Wisconsin as a youth mentor and worked through board chairs to become chairman in 2015. The First Tee is a leading nonprofit that teaches youth life skills using the game of golf. The First Tee recently opened its first Learning Center in Madison, providing at-risk youth after-school education and recreation to address the achievement gap. More Class Notes »

Lizz Warner (BBA ’14)

was recently promoted to supervising video producer at BuzzFeed, managing teams of producers overseas and in Los Angeles. Her videos have been featured in the Washington Post, Huffington Post, the “Today” show, and at United Nations conferences, with more than 500 million views cumulatively. More Class Notes »

Will Wait (BBA ’01, MBA ’07)

opened Red Wing Shoes in Delafield, Wis., in February 2016. Red Wing Shoes is a full-service retailer with a great selection of purpose-built footwear, carrying a wide assortment of Red Wing, Irish Setter, and Vasque boots and shoes. He has dreamed of owning his own business and says he couldn’t have done it without his UW education. More Class Notes »