Learning Spaces

Learning Spaces Q&A with Larry MacPhee

8.23.2010 I was recently contacted by SU HING SHEN REUBEN, a student from Singapore who wanted to ask me some questions about Learning Spaces as part of a geography report he is writing for his A Level exams. Reuben asked some good questions so I'm reposting his questions and my responses here:

What is a learning space? What types of learning spaces are there? Which is the most popular among students?

A learning space is any location where learning can happen. It can be a physical or virtual location, and can be either a place where formal instruction or informal learning occurs. A learning space is not just the room, but the furniture, the decorations, the tools, and the technologies available in it. It even includes the power and data outlets, the windows, the heating and cooling systems, the carpet, the safety systems, etc. Many students seem to prefer non-traditional spaces because they like to multi-task...students study while they listen to music, eat, and hang out with friends. But a lot depends on what the student needs...distractions can reduce the success of learning.

What are the key factors that contribute to the creation and development of learning spaces?

Architects design buildings from the outside in. Learning space designers work from the inside out. Money helps! But really, the most important thing is that the people who are designing/building the space know how it is going to be used. Talking to the instructors and getting a sense of what kind of learning will occur in the space is the most important thing. The space should be designed around the learning needs. Most studies show that passive learning is not as effective as active learning: in the sciences and engineering we would call these activities labs. In music or art, it would be performance. Hands on activities that involve learning by doing are important, so the space needs to be designed with these activities in mind. A noisy classroom is not necessarily out of control! When I used to teach high school, I found that my students learned best when we did many activities of shorter length...a little bit of lecture, a hands-on activity, a bit of data analysis, some presentation. Furniture is one important aspect of space design, but this is much more than interior decorating. Learning space design takes into consideration things like the way students will move about the room, the location of power and data outlets, plumbing fixtures like faucets, sinks and floor drains, the kind of lighting, sound insulating materials, the location of doors, storage cabinets, technology considerations, heating and cooling needs, safety, and much more.

Do you think that the creation and development of learning spaces are student-driven or teacher/staff member-driven? Why do you think this is so?

When done right it should be both student and teacher driven, but often I find that neither the students nor the instructors had much input into the design until very late in the process. People talk about teacher-centered (traditional) instruction, and learner-centered instruction, and most recently about learning-centered instruction. With learning-centered design, we think about the learning objectives (what do we want students to know or be able to do when the lesson is over?) and then it becomes clearer what kind of a space we will need. Often, these design decisions are made by non-teaching administrators, architects and builders with input from budget people, trades people (carpenters, electricians, plumbers, etc) and project managers, but rarely are teachers and students consulted until after the rooms are built. Most rooms are designed for traditional, teacher centered instruction like the lecture. If that's the approach the instructor will take, there are fewer design considerations. But if an instructor wants more student-student or teacher-student interaction, or to use technology, or assign students to groups, or have students do presentations, or move around, the room can inhibit those activities.

How is reconstructing learning spaces in today’s dynamic education climate (e.g. curriculum reform) beneficial to students and staff members? Who stands to benefit more?

Students today expect a more dynamic learning environment. Although some students do quite well in traditional lecture classes with minimal engagement, many students with great potential cannot learn this way. Making a class more interactive, more engaging, more fun does not make it less challenging. Our goal should be to try to help all students be successful. Although this new style of teaching is different and many instructors are at first resistant to change, in the long run everyone benefits. The main problem is that teachers tend to teach the same way they were taught, and at least in the U.S., there is very little training on what it takes to be a good teacher. Some people even think it can't be taught, but I disagree with that view even though I think some people have more natural ability than others to be good instructors.

Do you think venturing beyond conventional learning spaces (e.g. sourcing information from external libraries, conducting street interviews, having a group consultation at a café etc) allow students to learn more?

I think it can be the case that these activities are beneficial. It depends on how engaged the students are and how much they care about producing something great. Both instructor encouragement and student motivation are important factors.

Does the increase in collaborative work among students drive up the demand for learning spaces within the campus?

Yes, I think so. As I mentioned above, most classrooms are designed for traditional instruction. They need to be re-designed for more innovative, more interactive, more collaborative non-traditional methods.

Are students currently willing to travel beyond the classroom (e.g. cafés, classmates’ home, libraries) to do collaborative work? Are they encouraged to do so?

That's a good question. Some students don't like working collaboratively, perhaps because they are shy and sometimes because they are hard working, high achieving students. They don't want someone to drag down their work, and they don't want to do the work for someone else. But collaborative work is more like what we do in the real world and so it is better training for the workplace. Rarely do we get to work entirely on our own. Both in the classroom and in the workplace, it is important for the instructor or manager to set clear guidelines and monitor progress so that everyone is evaluated fairly for his/her contribution and so that nobody can just sit back and get the credit without doing the work.

Does the desire to learn and study independently drive up the demand for learning spaces within the campus?

Well, teachers and students are creative so they usually find a way, whether a perfect learning space becomes available or not. So while there may be demand, spaces generally don't appear until there is a lot of money to redesign a room or a building, or when a new building is being designed. And even then, we need to be careful to ensure that the designers listen to the needs of the learners or we will end up with a new learning space that does not get used.

In your own words, describe the recent trends in learning spaces.

Recent trends: Much more attention is being given to the informal spaces outside the classroom. This includes study spaces, collaborative spaces, and transition spaces where students are waiting before or after class. Also, more attention is being given to dining spaces in academic buildings, encouraging students to stay nearby between classes.

How do learning spaces optimise student learning?

I like to think of it this way...first we need to take care of physical needs like comfort. This includes temperature (heating and cooling), furniture design, sound dampening, good lighting, etc. If a student is uncomfortable, he/she will not be able to learn. The second set of needs revolve around the way we teach and learn, so designing the space to address the learning needs is going to help...for example, if it is important to do collaborative work, then we need to be able to move the furniture or work in breakout spaces. If student presentations are important, we need to provide the proper tools to make this effective. Technology choices are also important. The technology needs to be flexible so that it can be used for a variety of teaching styles, but also simple to understand, and not easy to break or be tampered with.

In what ways do students modify their learning spaces?

This is one of the best things...students are very adaptable and they will find ways to be successful even in sub-optimal spaces. Sometimes we redesign the spaces after watching the way students use them. Students have been bringing food into class, for example, and recently people realized that providing food services in libraries and other study spaces keeps students there longer. Students are also increasingly bringing technology with them (cell phones, laptops, etc.) and so we are adding wireless to our campuses and using new polling tools, for example, that allow students to text their answers to instructor questions during lecture.

Are learning spaces vital in achieving the desired outcomes of education/curriculum?

Yes, designing a good space is very helpful. As we focus on more engaging teaching methods and move away from traditional lecture type instruction, the spaces need to change in order to assure success.

Why is the study of learning spaces important in today's world?

Studying how students use their learning spaces, and assessing how well we meet our learning objectives in these spaces, will help us to modify future spaces so that we get more value from our financial investment, and this will improve learning.