Learning to be Flexible: North Carolina State University’s Flexible Classroom

by Sarah Paterson

The word “flexible” brings a few things to mind. Yoga. Cirque du Soleil performers. Rubber bands. Rarely does “flexible” inspire thoughts of higher education. But NC State professor Susan Miller-Cochran and former NC State doctoral candidate Dana Gierdowski (now Visiting Senior Program Coordinator at Elon University) have designed and researched what they call the “flexible classroom,” which allows professors and students to restructure a classroom to fit different innovative day-to-day needs.


NCSU Flexible ClassroomGierdowski’s experiences as a teacher inspired her interest in classroom design research. For one first-year writing class, Gierdowski and her students were confined to a cramped, windowless, technology-free basement room. “I found that space really limiting in the types of activities I could do with my students, and I had to get really creative to try to overcome the cramped and sparse quarters,” she says. “Being in that room made me wonder if my students’ learning was affected as much as my teaching was.”


With this question in mind, Gierdowski and Miller-Cochran endeavored to create a space that made pedagogical variety possible. The flexible classroom includes many different technologies, like LCD screens, mobile whiteboards, and movable desks and ergonomic chairs. These technologies are meant to encourage students and faculty to use their spaces to their advantage and to break up the tradition of “lecture/transmission of knowledge” styles of teaching in university settings.



NCSU Flexible Classroom

Miller-Cochran, who has taught courses in the flexible classrooms, has found that having different mobile and interactive technologies available affected her daily lesson plans. “The room was a variable in each lesson, and I found that if I didn’t consciously consider how to configure the room, we defaulted to a pod design that resembled the design of most of our fixed classrooms,” Miller-Cochran says. “I would say I consciously used the flexibility of the classroom about fifty percent of the time (one lesson learned was that I don’t have to do something remarkably innovative every single day).” Some of her more successful uses of the flexible classroom included group peer review using the LCD screens and “thesis gallery walks” where students would write thesis statements on the whiteboards and walk around to comment on what their peers had written.



NCSU Flexible ClassroomIn addition to the new lesson plan options that a flexible classroom provides professors, teachers that have worked in the classrooms have found that they shape the ways they teach in more traditional settings. “A number of them have commented that teaching in the flex room has helped them think about ways to ‘hack’ more traditional teaching spaces to make them work for more active, engaged pedagogies,” says Gierdowski, “and that’s really exciting to me.”




NCSU Flexible Classroom

The flexible classroom has more than pedagogical benefits for professors. In surveys conducted by Gierdowski and Miller-Cochran, students reported that they felt a flexible classroom had a positive impact on their learning. These students also noted that the physical comfort they feel in a “flex” classroom helps them to pay attention and participate more.



Miller-Cochran and Gierdowski’s future research on the flexible classroom includes studies of its financial sustainability and experiences of diverse/ESL students in the classroom. They are also in the process of publishing an article about an ethnographic conceptual mapping method they use to study student perceptions of the classroom.


NCSU Flexible Classroom



Sarah Paterson is an English major at Elon University with a concentration in Professional Writing and Rhetoric. She is completing an undergraduate thesis about multicultural rhetoric in adolescent slam poetry.