How do I implement studio teaching?

Initial Publication Date: February 9, 2007


Studio teaching is not just another kind of classroom activity. It is not a lab session, nor is it just a series of class projects. It is an approach to teaching and learning that gets students actively engaged in directing their own learning. The instructor is not the focus of the class, as in traditional classrooms. This pedagogical philosophy will be new to many students and so requires time for adjustment -- fortunately not a great deal of time.
  • It is very important for instructors to tell students what studio teaching is, and why it is being used.
  • This can, if the instructor desires, lead to discussions (with students) about the nature of knowledge and learning (epistemology). Some studio classes have significant focus on metacognition. Students may keep learning portfolios. Portfolios and other things allow them to analyze their thinking and learning skills and so better develop good habits of the mind that will guide them in the future.
  • Expectations must be clear: students will not be comfortable unless they know what is expected of them and how they will be evaluated.
The goal of studio teaching is to get students to be active learners -- to let them "invent" their own knowledge. As students take more control of their learning, they develop the skills necessary to go on and be successful lifelong learners.

Instructors serve as guides or mentors, helping when needed and avoiding whenever possible taking the lead role. Although some lecturing may be included, many studio classrooms involve no lecturing at all. In other studio classrooms, lecturing is only in response to specific student needs. (For more about this concept, see the module on Just-in-Time Teaching elsewhere on this website.)


A key to studio teaching is to develop a collection of exercises/projects that will provide the focus for learning throughout the semester. A good way to do this is to make a list of good exercises/projects you have already. Then make a list of learning goals and compare the two lists. Then go back and forth -- adding or subtracting from each list until the semester is planned. Some important things to remember as you do this:
  • You do not have to cover everything in class. Students are big kids -- they can read and they can do homework to supplement what goes on in the classroom.
  • If your classroom is successful, students will take more time than you expect to complete each project. So, you do not have to have every minute of every class planned out.
  • You can always make mid-course corrections if they are needed.
  • Patience is a virtue -- let the students carry the ball as far as possible before you step in.
In studio classrooms, just as in all classrooms that emphasize active learning, the amount of material delivered by lecture is less than in a traditional lecture class. Additionally, traditional hour exams may have little utility. The activities that take place in the classroom, and the scholarly development of students, are more important than the topics covered. So, for proper course alignment, instructors base grading in large part on what the student does and how they develop intellectually. Instructors must monitor student progress continually by observing student behavior, talking formally and informally with students, using various short assessment activities, and other means. Traditional measures of learning that focus on content mastery, such as objective exams, receive less emphasis. In fact, some instructors have concluded that exams are not a good use of ANY class time. (See Tewksbury, 1996, for a discussion of the value and problems associated with an "exam-less" classroom.)

Classroom activities

There are many approaches that instructors can use to promote active learning. In studio classrooms, the focus is on cooperative learning. For more information on cooperative learning and other active learning, see some of the other pages on this website:
Cooperative Learning
Playing games
Gallery Walk
Case-based Learning
Using data collections
Teaching with data examples
As much as possible, the goal is to distribute assignments and then stand aside while students do their learning. This does not mean that projects are 'dumbed down.' In fact, the longer class periods and group projects make it possible to investigate challenging topics in great depth, thus promoting higher levels of learning. However, carefully planning is required for these projects to be successful.

Few lectures means that organization and flow of a studio course has to come in other ways. The curriculum needs to mesh well, and projects need to fit together and move the class toward specific goals. If students are to work together in cooperative groups without instructor input for long periods of time, they need to stay on task. So, assignments and expectations must be especially clear to students. Sometimes, individuals or groups may lose focus or became distracted by tangents. It is important to be there to nudge them back on course.

Group activities lead to individual learning/development

  • The focus is on group work but, perhaps surprisingly, most students contribute. Instructors can adjust groups as needed if poor dynamics develop or if some individuals dominate or (shudder) take a "free ride."
  • There is a period of learning -- while individuals and groups learn to work together and learn to focus and to move toward project goals. During this time, the instructor must provide guidance and enthusiasm. With proper encouragement, this "warm up" time is short.
  • A few students may have a hard time adjusting to this new style of learning. Instructors must deal with each on an individual basis, stressing that it is the student's responsibility to take charge of their learning.
  • It is essential that there be some sorts of "plenary" activities where groups can compare results. This often leads to good discussion, perplexing questions, and exploration into new areas of interest.
To maximize higher level learning, it is absolutely necessary to take time to review and discuss outcomes at the end of each project. Because students work in small groups, closing the learning loop requires bringing the groups together to compare results. Besides discussing results, many instructors have their students analyze/critique the projects themselves during discussion sessions. The plenary sessions produce some of the best teachable moments of the whole semester.