Better by design: putting learning spaces to work

Olga Wojtas meets an environmental psychologist studying architecture's impact on academic life

November 6, 2008

Edward Edgerton finds it deeply ironic that universities, as cradles of research, know so little about the impact their own buildings have on staff and students.

Dr Edgerton is a researcher in environmental psychology at the University of the West of Scotland with a key interest in the design of educational institutions. There is a dearth of research on the topic, but enough exists to indicate that it can have a huge influence on student performance.

"There are US studies showing that improving the environment of seminar rooms improves final grades. These are very simple changes - such as making the rooms aesthetically more appealing with settees and carpets - but they result in quite dramatic improvements in terms of academic performance," he said.

"We're miles behind the US. I've noticed quite a few institutions starting to advertise themselves in terms of the quality of their academic environment, and recognising that this is a way to market themselves. Whether they've got research backing that up is another thing."

Only the University of Surrey had a large group of environmental psychologists and offered postgraduate courses, Dr Edgerton said. Environmental psychologists can find themselves marginalised even within psychology because their approach is practical rather than theoretical.

But he believes there is an increasing need for the discipline. Poor design can be as simple as a lecture room with the entrance at the front, so that a student coming in late distracts the lecturer and other students - or may decide to avoid embarrassment by not coming in at all.

Many rooms have poor acoustics and poor lighting. A lack of natural daylight can hamper students' ability to study. But academic performance is only one outcome, and Dr Edgerton is more interested in the indirect effect of the built environment, such as the impact it can have on self-esteem.

"If students feel better about themselves, they're more motivated to attend."

A basic principle of environmental psychology is that people should have more control over their environment, but academics and students are often unable to adjust the lighting and temperature of rooms.

Research shows that the way social spaces and circulation spaces are set out can reduce bullying and vandalism, which then feeds through to better academic performance.

"One of the countries that is far ahead of us is Finland. They have pedagogy competitions where architects must match the building to the school's learning strategy. We have it the other way round," Dr Edgerton said. "I sometimes get quite disheartened. An architect will say, 'look at this fantastic new design,' and I think: 'you have no evidence to base that on apart from your own gut feeling.'?"

While a growing number of architecture courses in the US now incorporate psychology, combining the two disciplines is virtually unheard of in the UK. Many architects are baffled by the idea that they might talk to a psychologist when drawing up designs.

"But who are you designing (the building) for? People. And who knows about how people behave? Psychologists," Dr Edgerton said.

Part of the problem, he noted, is that architects' involvement is generally with those who are paying for the building rather than the people who will be using it. While Dr Edgerton sees a massive need for research, it is tricky to get funding. Researchers normally find out about building programmes only when they are under way, too late to bid for research council grants.

UK studies have tended to be very small scale, perhaps on only one classroom.

But Dr Edgerton is hoping that funding can be found for what would be a groundbreaking study of the University of Edinburgh's £42 million informatics forum, a building that opened in September to bring together 500 researchers who had previously been scattered across different campuses.

Mike Fourman, head of the School of Informatics, wanted a design that would allow as much interaction as possible between the researchers, arguing that this would boost the chances of breakthroughs. The project was unusual in that the academics were closely involved.

"There are idiosyncratic features such as 'wormhole' staircases, which increase the chances of bumping into people," Dr Edgerton said. In addition, there are plenty of comfortable areas to sit and chat, and a roof garden for barbecues, with spectacular views of the city.

"It doesn't seem like a university environment. I was there at 5pm one Friday, and it was really busy with staff."

Dr Edgerton hopes to be able to research the impact of the new building on the researchers' behaviour.

"There are objective ways of measuring change, such as the number of papers (submitted) to journals, but what we're interested in doing is looking at behaviour in the old and new environment in terms of when people come into work, where they spend their time, and how many new people they met."

This will reveal whether the building itself has transformed researchers' traditionally solitary existence.

"It would be really exciting if this went ahead, because as environmental psychologists, we have skills that architects don't have in carrying out an evaluation," Dr Edgerton said.

"Architects are fine for doing an analysis in terms of energy efficiency, but we can look at how the building impacts on self-esteem, motivation to research and social interaction."

olga.wojtas@tsleducation.com.

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