Redesigned with Learning in Mind

A major renovation of UT’s most used academic building has dramatically changed the facility’s appearance—and what’s happening in its classrooms.


Professor Michael Knight (second from right) leads his creative writing class in a group discussion in one of the newly renovated HSS classrooms.

It’s 3:40 p.m. on a Thursday afternoon, and students are assembled in HSS 56 for Professor Michael Knight’s English 484 class. The topic is “From Short Story to Feature Film: The Art of the Adapted Screenplay.”

Students have pulled their mobile desks into a large circle in the center of the room, where they can not only see Knight as he lectures briefly on the topic of the day, but also swivel their seats to face fellow students in the group as they comment or ask questions. In his creative writing classes, Knight often asks the large group to separate into four smaller groups and move their mobile desks to the corners of the room to work on a collaborative assignment. But today, in this class about film and screenplays, Knight uses the classroom’s accessible video capability to screen film clips of the works the class is discussing.

Absent from the scene is the traditional podium with the professor behind it lecturing to students seated in rows. In this classroom with vibrantly colored walls and furniture that can be configured in multiple ways, any of the four walls can become the front of the room.

To make the Humanities and Social Sciences Building renovation truly state-of-the art, all classrooms have upgraded technology, such as wall-mounted interactive white boards, increased wireless capacity, and high-definition video capability.

How are students and faculty responding to the new classroom design intended to foster interactive and collaborative learning?

Andy Arick, an undergraduate English major (with a concentration in literature) in Knight’s class, says he is happy with the ways the renovations have affected the classroom atmosphere and believes the new space facilitates effective discussions between students and instructors.

Pull Quote“Because the seats are mobile and less ‘rigid’ than the previous rows of tables, the classrooms have a freer and more inviting appeal, and students can more readily see each other when speaking,” Arick says. “I’ve also noticed that instructors, too, are more mobile and not locked behind their notes on a podium, which makes them seem more engaging.”

Knight is equally enthusiastic about teaching in the new space.

“I love the new HSS classrooms, especially how versatile they are. In the same class period, I can convert the room from lecture hall to discussion space to small group sections. As a teacher of creative writing, those last two are particularly useful,” Knight says. “Plus the new rooms—the bright colors, the groovy desks—they feel more relaxed than traditional classrooms, more comfortable, more conducive to the sense that we’re all in this together.”

Student Shiloh Jines believes the renovated classroom space is facilitating the intended outcome of encouraging more interactive and collaborative learning.


Creative writing students collaborate in small groups in the newly renovated HSS building.

“In creative writing courses, the moveable chairs are absolutely necessary for a comfortable and innovative discourse between all the students and the teacher. It takes away a degree of intimidation that is often present in standard classroom setups,” Jines says. “I have been fortunate enough to have professors like Dawn Coleman, Michael Knight, and Marilyn Kallet who understand that while teaching and lecturing are crucial, giving students an opportunity to interact with course material on their own terms is even more rewarding. These classrooms have truly supported a higher degree of interaction with literature courses and the whole process of learning in general.”

Not surprisingly, this new classroom design affords both opportunities and challenges for the faculty who teach in the renovated environment. Last summer the Tennessee Teaching and Learning Center (TENN TLC) began hosting workshops for faculty interested in learning best practices for using the technology to promote interactive and collaborative learning. Instructors who have completed workshops with TENN TLC have first priority for HSS classroom assignments in the newly renovated building.

The HSS building is one of the most heavily used facilities on campus.  Several hundred instructors use HSS classrooms each semester, and about 20 percent of all UT classes are taught there. Funded by student facilities fees, the $4 million renovation has the potential to dramatically improve instruction at UT.

Lynn Champion