Seven Principles for Classroom Design: The Learning Space Rating System

Key Takeaways

  • The Learning Space Rating System tool enables scoring a classroom's design to see how well it supports active learning.
  • If the design meets the criteria for a specific credit, a point or points are added to a compiled score.
  • The higher the score, the better the design for active learning.

Malcolm Brown, Director, EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative, EDUCAUSE

Organizing your thinking when beginning a major classroom project, whether renovating or building from scratch, can be a daunting task. Like most construction projects, a wealth of considerations and details need to be taken into account, disagreements settled, and coordination established. Typically these are high-stakes projects, with substantial resources in play and much visibility. Beyond the construction project lurks the challenge of managing the institution's classroom "fleet," ensuring that they contribute to academic strategic directions and aspirations.

Over the past year, a pair of resources have become available for classroom management: the Learning Space Rating System and the FLEXspace project. In two closely related articles you'll learn about these resources, appreciate their complementary fit, and understand how they might assist you in working with classrooms on your campus.

Why a Rating System for Learning Spaces?

As its name suggests, the Learning Space Rating System (LSRS) is a tool that enables scoring a classroom's design to see how well it supports active learning. Why create a classroom rating tool? What motivated development of the LSRS?

Active Learning

According to the adage, there are few certainties in life. Yet some things are hard to doubt because of the copious evidence testifying to their existence. The same can be said about the value of active learning. A great body of evidence makes a strong case for the value of active learning compared to its transmission-based predecessor, lecture-based learning.

The National Academies Press book How People Learn, first published in 1999, summarizes learning research and makes a strong case for active learning, based on the constructivist model of how we build and maintain our knowledge about the world. Most recently, an invaluable meta-analysis has again shown how active learning is more effective across a variety of science disciplines.1

Built Pedagogy

We also know, from first-hand experience, the ways in which the built environment — defined in Wikipedia as "human-made surroundings that provide the setting for human activity"— influences what we do. This is especially true of learning spaces. Torin Monahan of North Carolina State University Chapel Hill refers to classrooms as "built pedagogy," as "architectural embodiments of educational philosophies."2 Taking these two points together, it would seem that if active learning is the goal, then our classrooms and other learning spaces are a means to achieve that goal. The built pedagogy of our campus must serve to promote, not hinder, active learning practices.

Learning Spaces

We know that learning is not confined to a single kind of physical space. Hence we use the term "learning spaces" as the name for the category that captures that aspect of our built environment designed for learning activities. Included in this category is, first and foremost, our formal learning spaces or classrooms. These rooms are designed to support face-to-face meetings of all participants in a course, ranging from large auditoriums to seminar rooms. Formal learning spaces are typically scheduled by the campus registrar and maintained by a cross-organizational governance committee. Informal learning spaces are facilities such as an information commons or a makerspace, designed to enable individual learners or groups of learners to pursue their learning activities, typically on a more ad hoc basis.3

Despite the growing role of online learning across higher education, we know that the face-to-face dimension of learning is still critical to the success of the teaching and learning mission. The fact that we invest so many resources in learning spaces testifies to our sense of their importance to learning. Hence it makes sense to design, build, and promote learning spaces that effectively support active learning. But how do we know if our designs do in fact promote active learning?

Measurement

The performance improvement expert H. James Harrington wrote: "Measurement is the first step that leads to control and eventually to improvement. If you can't measure something, you can't understand it. If you can't understand it, you can't control it. If you can't control it, you can't improve it."4 We see the usefulness of measurement at work in the success of the LEED rating system, which gives tangible, objective ways to measure progress in achieving energy conservation goals in the built environment. If our goal with built pedagogy is to promote active learning, then we need something like LEED for our learning spaces. This is the idea behind the LSRS.

About the LSRS

The LSRS rates a classroom's design by scoring the design's characteristics against a set of 50 credits. If the design meets the criteria for a specific credit, a point or points are added to a compiled score. As you proceed through the credits, the score for the room's design rises. The higher the score, the better the design for active learning.

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Note two things: First, because of the wide variety of learning spaces (especially informal ones), the LSRS team limited the initial version to one kind of learning space, formal. The team hopes to extend the rating system to other kinds of learning spaces over time.

Second, the LSRS rates design, not performance. A classroom could be well equipped and laid out to support active learning, but there's nothing to prevent the instructor from teaching in the transmission style via lecture. This is similar to the approach taken by the green building rating systems. The design by itself does not guarantee the hoped-for results. Nevertheless, the LSRS, if applied systematically across an institution's classrooms, provides important information on how well the institution is performing in meeting its goal of designing classrooms to support active learning.

Seven Principles

The holistic structure of the LSRS yields insight into seven key principles of learning space design. As noted, the LSRS contains 50 credits sorted into six thematic sections. The theme of each section can be viewed as a principle of learning space design — a thematic cornerstone that good classroom design needs to consider.

One might think that a rating system like the LSRS would measure only the furniture, layout, and technology in a classroom. While certainly important, these considerations comprise only a part of the LSRS system of credits. To provide the best chances of success, a learning space's design must align with overarching campus plans, strategies, and support infrastructures. It must also involve all key stakeholders from the beginning of the process, lest the learning space languish and have a minimal impact on teaching and learning practices.

Principle 1: Design Aligns with the Campus Context

Section 1 of the LSRS tests whether the design of the classroom aligns with larger campus strategies. The credits "ask" whether the design aligns with the campus's academic strategy, learning space master plan, and IT infrastructure. In the interest of promoting evidence-based practice, the section further asks if the campus has a "regular, iterative process of research and assessment," the results of which can inform future local designs and be shared with the community at large.

Principle 2: Planning and Design Process

Evolving teaching and learning practices toward active learning involves changing campus culture — often quite challenging to accomplish. One way to effect such changes is to ensure participation in the design process, building consensus and support across key stakeholder groups. These include the future users of the learning space, their deans, and administrators charged with classroom oversight. Other considerations include whether the design process is based on research and documented best practices, whether pilot projects have demonstrated the feasibility of the design, and whether an evaluation plan is in place to determine if the potential of the space has been realized in practice.

Principle 3: Support and Operations

Imagine you've completed work on an exciting new active learning classroom, with a team-based design and replete with the most recent classroom technology. How will you maintain it as a facility? Who can come "riding to the rescue" in the event that users encounter difficulty? Can faculty find information about the room when requesting classrooms? Will that information tell them if the room's capabilities align with their pedagogical goals? Finally, are plans in place to help faculty re-imagine their course so that they take full advantage of the room's features?

Principle 4: Environmental Quality

A learning environment that supports human needs strengthens learning. Since learners can spend long periods in a learning space, the space should address humans needs that go beyond the obvious components like technology and furniture. For example, we know how distracting it can be if a room is too cold, has flickering lights, or provides uncomfortable furniture that doesn't encourage collaborative work. The recent trend to include cafes and coffee shops in or near informal learning spaces indicates the importance of addressing the full range of human needs.

Principle 5: Layout and Furnishings

Room layout and furnishings are to classroom design as rhythm and melody are to music. Successful learning space design anticipates not just what the learners will be using but how they will be using it. This includes considerations such as movement paths through the space, seating density, reconfigurability of the room, visibility of learning activities, and comfort of the furnishings. Another dimension of this principle is providing ways for learners to collaboratively express and capture their learning process by means of writable surfaces.

Principle 6: Tools and Technology

Some technologies are foundational to a classroom's design, such as adequate electrical power or sufficient network capacity. Other, more readily visible, technologies provide what the LSRS calls "distributed interactivity." In both cases, the critical issue is not how advanced the technology is, but rather whether it is truly capable of supporting the activities anticipated for the classroom.

Principle 7: Innovation

Every classroom design project builds on a foundation of current practice, and many design teams take the opportunity to introduce innovations. Innovative explorations, although important, raise an issue for a rating system like the LSRS: How do you define scoring criteria for innovations that haven't been invented yet? To address this, the LSRS places a credit for innovation in each of the sections. For the planning and design process, for example, the criterion for the innovation credit is "provide evidence of an initiative or project demonstrating innovation and/or leadership with respect to design or planning of learning spaces." The idea is to allow thinking outside the box to contribute to the room design's score.

Availability, Participation, and Future Directions

All educational institutions are invited to use the LSRS credits to analyze their current classrooms or those still in design. To assist in the process of scoring a design, the LSRS project team has prepared a spreadsheet that automatically compiles the score as you go through the credits.

The LSRS team also welcomes comments and suggestions for improvement on version 1 of the credits. The LSRS offers a form for providing this kind of feedback; the team thanks you in advance for sharing your experience and observations.

Over the coming year, the LSRS team will explore extending the credits to informal learning spaces. We will also conduct research into practical application of the credits, with the goal of understanding how well the credits work when applied at various institutions. This information will inform the revisions that lead to version 2.

Resources

Notes
  1. Scott Freeman, Sarah L. Eddy, Miles McDonough, Michelle K. Smith, Nnadozie Okoroafor, Hannah Jordt, and Mary Pat Wenderoth, "Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics," Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, Vol. 111, No. 23, 2014: 8410–8415; see also the ELI webinar with authors Mary Pat Wenderoth and Michelle Smith, "Evidence-Based Teaching: The Next Generation," August 4, 2014.
  2. Torin Monahan, "Flexible Space & Built Pedagogy: Emerging IT Embodiments," Inventio, Vol. 4, No.1 (2002): 1–19.
  3. Malcolm B. Brown and Joan K. Lippincott, "Learning Spaces: More than Meets the Eye," EDUCAUSE Quarterly, Vol. 26, No. 1 (2003): 14–16.
  4. H. James Harrington, quoted by Joseph L. Levy, "In My Opinion," CIO Enterprise Section, Vol. 12, No. 23 (September 15, 1999): 10.