Case #19: Designing a Studio Classroom to Promote Active Learning Pedagogy


DISCIPLINE: User Experience Education, Higher Education
RESEARCH AREAS: Active learning pedagogy, classroom design, studio-based pedagogy, hands-on learning


In fall of 2018, the Faculty of Information at the University of Toronto opened a brand-new design studio (Figure 1). The space was envisioned and designed by a faculty member to support the User Experience Design (UXD) concentration, a discipline that fosters active learning pedagogies through hands-on activities and projects. The new classroom transformed teaching in our program by introducing studio-based courses. This is an example of how educational leadership in the design of space influences the learning possibilities for both instructors and students.


A studio is a “coherent system” where surface structures, pedagogical activities, and epistemology work together to create unique learning environments (Shaffer, 2007). Using Shaffer’s framework, our new studio was designed to first ensure that appropriate physical and logistical components were in place to support a mix of active learning and hands-on teaching approaches. Then, specific studio-based pedagogical activities were considered. Finally, the relationships between the surface structures and pedagogical activities were analyzed with respect to the epistemological constructs that support the knowledge formed in our studio classroom. Our leadership in the classroom design process demonstrates that thoughtful considerations must be given to the human factors of space design, to ensure coherence between the architecture of the physical space, the methods of teaching deployed in the space, and the knowledge acquired by student.

“This is an example of how educational leadership in the design of space influences the learning possibilities for both instructors and students.”


The design of our studio classroom can be analyzed using the 5-Pillar Model of Educational Leadership (Fields, Kenny, & Mueller, 2019). First, our design supports affective qualities. By configuring the physical space with tables for four students and chairs of different colours, the space helps instructors facilitate relationship-building amongst students.

Moreover, the physical proximity of the instructor to the students helps establish trust, as the instructor becomes a facilitator in the classroom and has privileged access to students.

Second, our new classroom is a space where instructors can learn from one another. It is a sandbox in which instructors experiment and share their teaching and learning practices. It allows instructors to grow their repertoire of active learning activities and brings teachers from different areas together to exchange information about their experiences interacting with a new classroom setting. Therefore, the studio affords mentorship and empowerment amongst the instructors embracing this unique classroom.

Third, our studio is action-oriented. This transformational project from a traditional classroom into a studio space was initiated to promote a different kind of teaching in our Faculty. Instructors using the space must be willing to take risks and change their pedagogy, as the space was created with the intent to experiment and demonstrate teaching innovations. The studio helps create and facilitate long-term teaching transformations, in which instructors will iterate their active learning approaches over several semesters.

Fourth, our space is student-centric and fosters teaching excellence. It enables and empowers students to become active learners and design thinkers. It builds confidence in learners as they are able to gain hands-on knowledge and receive individualized guidance from instructors. The space and its active learning activities result in a collaborative environment in which students are in constant communication and are exposed to rich learning experiences. Fifth, our studio is a testbed that allows instructors to conduct research on their teaching practices. Having been designed as a prototype and sandbox for studio-based pedagogy, the space can be used to conduct pedagogical research related to active learning, group work, critiques, peer-reviews, etc.


We can assess the value of our new studio classroom by looking at its adoption from professors in our Faculty. Thus far, after one full academic year, the space has been primarily utilized to teach UXD courses in the Master of Information degree, although it has also been used by instructors from other programs and faculties. Our studio has been the classroom of choice for 18 different courses, ranging from UXD, critical making, library science, information system design, information workshop, and museum studies. Debriefing sessions were conducted with instructors who taught in the space and feedback is currently being analyzed to inform minor adjustments. Overall, instructors have commented positively on the surface structures of the space (e.g., movable tables, collaborative features of the furniture, and inspiring ambient colours). Students have also commented positively on the space in course evaluations. Comments related to the surface structures, pedagogical activities, and the knowledge acquired during studio-based courses were reported and these will inform future course design and allow for iterative changes in the space.

Overall, the transformation of a traditional classroom into a design studio drastically changed the pedagogy for the delivery of courses at the Faculty of Information. Its success in promoting active learning pedagogy has attracted several instructors to use the space and innovate their teaching practices.


Fields, J., Kenny, N.A., & Mueller, R.A. (2019). Conceptualizing educational leadership in an academic development program. International Journal for Academic Development, DOI: 10.1080/1360144X.2019.1570211

Shaffer, D. W. (2007). Learning in design, in R. A. Lesh, E. Hamilton and J. J. Kaput (Eds). Foundations for the Future in Mathematics Education (pp. 99–125). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum


Headshot of Olivier St-Cyr

Olivier St-Cyr is an Assistant Professor, Teaching Stream in User Experience Design (UXD) at the Faculty of Information, University of Toronto. He leads the UXD concentration, part of the Master of Information (MI) degree. Prior to joining the Faculty, he spent eight years in industry working on UXD related projects.


Along with his role of professor at the Faculty of Information, Olivier also serves as the Director of the Knowledge Media Design (KMD) Collaborative Specialization, and holds a cross-appointment in the Department of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering, University of Toronto. In the Faculty of Information, Olivier created the curriculum for the UXD concentration, a new area of specialization concerned with a user’s total experience when interacting with traditional and digital artefacts. Olivier is a proponent of active learning and designed the UXD concentration to promote a mix of theoretical and hands-on approaches though project-based, design-oriented classes. In the summer of 2018, he led a major classroom transformation project and design of a studio classroom to establish studio-based pedagogy in the Faculty of Information. In his courses, students work collaboratively and intensively on a variety of wicked design problems ranging from traditional digital systems to recent advances in the field of Human-Computer Interaction.



EduCHI – A Community of Practice dedicated to Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) Education
The Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) Special Interest Group on Computer-Human Interaction (SIGCHI)
The ACM Education Advisory Committee
The SIGCHI Education Task-Force