Why well-designed learning spaces pay educational dividends

Rethinking classroom design needn’t be expensive, but keeping users in mind is key

Part of the problem is that decisions about the design of learning space are not always made by those with recent experience of teaching or studying in classrooms

Debates on “student-centred” approaches to learning and teaching tend to focus on pedagogy and curriculum design. On the rare occasions when learning environments form part of the discussion, attention is more often given to technology-enhanced learning than to the physical environment.

In my view, though, we need to do more to consider the impact of the bricks and mortar that surround us – and their importance should not be underestimated.

A well-designed learning environment – one that considers all of the senses – can potentially increase levels of student creativity, productivity and well-being. There is extensive research to demonstrate this.

For example, environmental psychology literature details the extent to which physical settings, including the height of ceilings, the colour of walls, levels of natural light, views from windows and temperature can have a dramatic impact on everything from motivation to energy levels.

Taking the recognised impacts of the environment on human behaviour into account makes sound academic sense.

However, this logic is not always followed when universities design new buildings. All too often, design briefs call for striking, shiny glamour based on the hope that if you build it, they (students) will come.

Part of the problem is that decisions about the design of learning space are not always made by those with recent experience of teaching or studying in classrooms. Decisions can be driven by an attractive price tag – or, at the other end of the spectrum, by the desire to build the ultimate award-winning (and expensive) statement building – rather than by the views and needs of students and teachers.

Yet investment in and refurbishment of older estates, working from the inside out, can arguably do more to enhance the student experience than flashy new buildings.

When designing a good learning environment, the configuration of a particular space is only part of the picture. The choice and impact of colour in interior design is far from being an exact science, but a growing body of literature has identified the effect of colour on our mood and our behaviours.

For instance, one 2006 study, published in the College Student Journal, suggests that the use of certain colours in the learning environment can increase learning productivity by 5 to 10 per cent, reduce absenteeism and increase morale. Bright colours are thought to promote mental alertness and activity. Cooler hues of green can have a calming effect and blue can nurture tranquillity. Colours can even be used to shape our perceptions of temperature. Despite this, universities so often fall back on the easy option – as though the colour spectrum consisted entirely of different shades of magnolia.

Research indicates that people working in spaces with good levels of daylight can benefit from increased levels of well-being, reduced absenteeism and increased productivity. Windows are not the only way to introduce daylight into learning spaces, though: studies have shown that natural daylight-effect bulbs can have the same results.

Not all universities have the resources to reinvent their learning environments. But, as these examples show, an array of small changes can contribute to positive change. Extending the colour palette beyond 50 shades of beige or changing light bulbs is hardly likely to break the budget.

Of course, there is no magic bullet, formula or rule book for designing learning spaces to enhance well-being. Spaces need to be flexible to suit different teaching and learning styles. Most importantly, decisions about learning spaces need to put teachers and students at the centre of the design process, instead of those who hold the purse strings.

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