At Ayers Saint Gross, the design of new learning spaces starts with understanding the mission, vision, and values of the institution for which the project is being planned. Planning and designing successful learning spaces requires an understanding of today’s students: who they are, how they learn, and what their needs are. Learners come from a cross-section of backgrounds, ages, socioeconomic situations, ethnicities, and experiences. The campus learning landscape must be more inclusive of learners from all backgrounds and experiences.
Today’s students are not responsive to passive, row-based lecture methods, they want to learn actively through production and discovery. Integrating human interactions within learning creates connections and fosters retention, comprehension, and motivation. This holistic learning experience is supported through a combination of formal, scheduled learning space and places for informal, student-directed learning experiences.
FORMAL LEARNING ENVIRONMENTS
Classrooms, laboratories, and lecture halls have traditionally contained rows of desks facing one direction with a fixed lectern and singular teaching wall, but as the method of and behavior of learning is evolving, so too are formal learning environments; they are flexible, engaging environments. A thoughtful and well-designed space sets the expectation for active and collaborative learning.
Formal learning environments need to have spatial flexibility: environments should be scalable, convertible, fluid, modifiable, and versatile. Flexibility ensures programmatic longevity by building plasticity into the architectural components of the space, thus allowing for the flow of information among faculty, students, and learning tools. A scalable room provides for a variety of student needs, including places for focus, team, sharing, and social connection to align with different work styles and the flow of ideas among peers in a classroom.
Alongside mobile furnishings, thoughtful placement of static architectural features and technology can enhance the fluidity of space. Designing spatial flexibility into a room enables the learner to appropriate the space for their perceived needs and allows for longevity as future needs evolve. When the learner has control over their learning style, it promotes choice and provides for a sense of connection among the students, faculty, and material created in the course.
Technology should be seamless, agile, and user-friendly while also being conducive to collaboration at a variety of scales. Space must be easily adaptable to new equipment and new styles of teaching and learning. Wireless technology allows a seamless connection to remote learners, creating environments that offer various models of engagement for both synchronous and asynchronous learning. Power should be easily accessible and at waist-height and software should allow instructors and students to control classroom technologies without relying on a static IT podium.
To successfully teach every student, the instructor must be able to reach every student. Furniture should be mobile, versatile, durable, and adjustable to accommodate all types of users. The layout and furnishings should champion pedagogical adaptations by the instructor and the students. Seating density should be proportional to room dimensions, and ergonomic furniture supports a range of postures, motions, and physical abilities.
Acoustic quality is a priority when specifying fixtures, furniture, and finishes. Soft surfaces such as carpet and wallcoverings allow sound to be absorbed, whereas angled furniture, such as high-back lounge chairs, contain and direct sound. Technology can enhance the learning experience for those with hearing differences by compensating for less than ideal acoustic conditions; however, the noise associated with powering and utilizing digital tools must factor into the acoustic design of formal learning environments.
Natural daylight and views optimize learning but can often compete with the many digital devices used by students. Operable shades allow user control heat and glare, providing an additional layer of flexibility for users. In addition, overhead lighting should be a mix of direct, indirect, and task lighting to accommodate different means and methods of instruction. Proper design of learning spaces considers sightlines for all participants during discussion-based, presentation-focused, and team-based activities.
INFORMAL LEARNING ENVIRONMENTS
In informal learning environments, the ownership of learning lies with the individual to design their own experience, create their learning incomes, and self-assess. Informal environments have non-traditional lighting and seating and can incorporate non-learning experiences. Informal learning environments mix private, public, and collaborative spaces to accommodate all learning behaviors. These types of spaces should be available inside and outdoors, in a range of scales, and encourage both planned and impromptu interactions.
Social and study space outside of classrooms and laboratories should have comfortable seating that is durable, ergonomic, and mobile. Whiteboards and access to power provide boosts to these spaces with the tools digital natives use to communicate in support of anywhere and anytime learning.
Rich opportunities for learning and creating exist in research and student project labs, maker spaces, simulation labs, exhibition spaces, pitch platforms, incubator spaces, ideation spaces, and intimate in-between social spaces. Space should be adaptable to new programs and technologies through tensile, versatile, and student-centric design strategies. Informal learning spaces should be designed with the same care and attention to pedagogy as their formal counterparts to create a campus-wide holistic vision for the learning experience.
When locating project labs and innovation studios, an important consideration is access for collaboration across disciplines as well as with outside business and industry partners. For these, special consideration to spots with additional noise, exhaust, and security requirements (such as lockable storage space for student work as well as space for the storage of tools and materials) is necessary. Flooring in work areas needs to be resilient. Writable walls enhance collaboration, however, glass can still sometimes be a barrier so furniture and collaboration spaces should spill from the zoned project lab to add permeability between project and adjacent social and collaboration areas.
Adjacent to student project areas, exhibit and pitch spaces help students to practice oral and visual communication skills. Acoustics and lighting are essential factors in designing these spaces, as students will be showing and describing work to peers as well as faculty and industry mentors. Technology should be available to capture performances and also available to amplify acoustic or visual effects as desired by student presenters. Presentation and exhibit spaces are informal in that they are not usually scheduled but should present as formal spaces that emphasize the importance of creating and sharing new work.
Informal environments allow formal spaces to flex and evolve as new learning needs arise. They allow for connection, invention, and discovery that both enhance formal learning discussions and encourage independent exploration and collaboration. With limited budgets, it is important that all learning spaces are designed with careful research, thought and expertise in support of future-proof and student-centered learning environments inside and outside of the classroom.
Ayers Saint Gross projects featured throughout this blog:
- University of North Texas Health Science Center Interdisciplinary Research & Education Building
- Duke University School of Nursing
- University of Maryland, College Park Edward St. John Learning and Teaching Center
- Auburn University School of Nursing
- University of Arizona Health Sciences Education Building
- Emory University Freshman Housing Village
- Colby College Alfond Commons
- Howard Community College Science, Engineering, and Technology Building