Aligning Learning Space Design and Student Work: Research Implications for Design Processes and Elements

min read
  • Effective learning space design should be rooted in an understanding of the ways in which students engage a campus.
  • Research suggests that there are significant differences in the ways students report seeking curricular support based on their class year. This finding has important implications for learning space design.
  • Students seek different characteristics of learning spaces depending on the type of assignment they are working on.
  • Campus learning space design must align with the curriculum and student work.

In these troubled economic times, members of college and university communities must provide effective learning environments to support ever-changing curricula while reducing budgets. At the same time, a growing body of literature points to shifting needs of the variously named digital natives, Millennials or the Net Generation. This article recounts one college’s attempts to develop a grounded understanding of the ways students engage with the campus while working on course assignments. This understanding must inform learning space design so that it aligns with students’ needs.

There are three critical factors campus leaders need to understand for effective learning space design:

  1. It is critical to understand student uses of study spaces. Space design and resource allocation processes frequently align with organizational boundaries within the institution. Having data about the ways students use spaces can help focus planning discussions on student needs instead.
  2. Initial research suggests significant variation by class year in the ways that students report seeking curricular support. This finding has important implications for the inventory and array of study spaces on campus.
  3. Study spaces available to students must align with the work demanded of them. Briefly put, campus learning space design must align with the curriculum.

Thanks to a generous grant from The Andrew R. Mellon Foundation, during the 2008–2009 academic year, members of the Carleton College community undertook a year-long research project designed to answer the question:

Are the sources of support that the college provides well suited to the work demanded of students and faculty as they make curricular use of visual materials?

The mixed-method research project began with a series of case studies centered on support-intensive assignments in which faculty members prompted students to work with visual materials. Among other activities, students participating in the study photographed the spaces where they choose to work and were subsequently interviewed by student researchers about their experiences, with emphasis on ways students engaged Carleton’s campus. The case-study findings were the basis for the design of a student survey that examined these trends in the larger community. (For the full research report and the associated survey instruments, which are freely available, go to

Physical spaces dedicated to curricular work are a significant source of institutional support available to students and faculty members alike. This article reports findings from the research study that are germane to learning space design.

The student survey upon which the following quantitative findings are based was administered to 790 Carleton students and had a 39 percent response rate. This survey asked students to identify where and when they choose to work, from whom they obtain assistance in completing assignments, and the characteristics of places in which they choose to work. The survey asked students to reflect on the process they went through in completing an assignment that was familiar to them given their major or, in the case of first-year students, their course of study to date, as well as an assignment that they found challenging.

Critical Factor 1: Understand the Ways Students Engage with the Campus

In an effort to better understand the ways in which Carleton students choose to engage with the campus as they work on assignments, the student survey prompted students to report the locations in which they worked. Students could select multiple study locations for their assignments, reflecting the variety of locations used for multiple work sessions. (See Figure 1.) The three most popular study locations by far were students’ dormitory rooms or apartments (78 percent), Carleton’s Laurence McKinley Gould Library (57 percent), and Carleton’s student union (18 percent). To a lesser extent, students reported working in other locations including the laboratories/studios, academic lounges, academic support centers, and classrooms.

Figure 1

Figure 1. Study Locations Comparing Percentages of Students Working on Familiar Assignments

In terms of chronicling student behaviors, these findings are not surprising to someone familiar with Carleton College. Given the conveniences of a small residential liberal-arts college, students reported working in their living quarters most frequently. The second most popular study space, Carleton’s Gould Library, has a longstanding tradition as a vibrant place to work. The student union is historically a social space on campus. Use of the other study spaces (labs/studio, academic lounges, academic support centers, classrooms) hovered around 10 percent.

In the context of institutional planning and space design, the organizational units associated with just the first three locations (living quarters, library, student union) report up through the dean of students, the chief academic officer, and the vice president for finance. That constitutes almost half the members of Carleton’s presidential cabinet. In other words, the ways in which students engage the campus span the budgetary and planning units associated with specific locations.

These data underscore the importance of having institutional discussions about learning space design. If Carleton is to be in a position to design learning spaces so that, in the aggregate, they attend to student needs, it is critical that we ground those conversations in an understanding of the ways students engage the campus. The ways that students engage Carleton’s campus do not align with organizational boundaries within the college.

Critical Factor 2: Understand How Students Seek Curricular Support

In addition to asking about the physical spaces in which they studied, the survey also asked students if they sought assistance with their assignments and, if so, from whom. (See Figure 2.) Students reported whether they sought help from classmates, the course professor, no support, majors in the department in which they took the course, teaching assistants or prefects, student workers associated with academic support centers, staff members, or faculty members other than the one teaching the course associated with the assignment.

Figure 2

Figure 2. Percentage of Students Seeking Assistance for Challenging Assignments by Class Year

Class year significantly affected the ways Carleton students reported seeking curricular help on challenging assignments. The full report associated with this study addresses this issue more fully. The following points are relevant to space planning. First-year students were approximately two to three times as likely to report seeking assistance from teaching assistants or prefects (25 percent) as sophomores (14 percent), juniors (8 percent), and seniors (7 percent). First-year students were also more likely to report seeking help from student workers at academic support centers (18 percent) and staff members (14 percent) than sophomores (9 percent and 6 percent), juniors (8 percent and 8 percent), and seniors (6 percent and 6 percent). College-wide support units that organize teaching assistants and prefects, hire and train student workers, and provide access to academic support professionals play a particularly important role for first-year students at Carleton.

In terms of learning space design, these findings point to the importance of thinking holistically about types of spaces available on campuses. Academic support units might want to design spaces that cater to first-year students who are still in the process of acculturating to becoming college students. Based on the research findings to date, it appears that students themselves play critical roles in providing curricular support. Classmates, students majoring in the field of study associated with a course, teaching assistants or prefects assigned to a course, and student workers associated with academic support centers all play important curricular support roles. Learning space design for academic support centers should take into account these student support interactions as well as facilitating connections between academic support professionals and students.

These data also have important implications for space design in terms of the ways in which juniors and seniors reported seeking help with challenging assignments. For example, Carleton students in their junior and senior years reported seeking curricular support from their professor (40 percent and 56 percent), majors in their field (15 percent for both class years), and other faculty members in a field of study (7 percent and 12 percent) at greater rates than first- and second-year students. These data reflect the shifting nature of curricular support as students acculturate to a specific major. This has implications for learning space design in terms of designing either departmental spaces or campus-wide spaces for use by students and faculty members connected to a particular major. One of the case studies included in the research project took place in a departmental work space and provides important context for the survey findings.

Example: A Departmental Learning Space

One of the four case studies in this research project centered on a science-writing assignment that required students to use a web resource, a scientific database, and Adobe Illustrator to locate information, edit maps, and synthesize information relevant to their topic. The department in which this course was offered assigned desks to seniors majoring in the department proximate to a departmental computing lab.

One senior who participated in the study, Student 5, described his/her experiences in learning to use Adobe Illustrator over time while working in this departmental computing lab.

Interviewer: Did you find Illustrator easy to use?

Student 5: Well, it’s a challenging tool to use, but it’s also a good one to use, so it requires a lot of experience with it to know what to do with it.

Interviewer: Did you figure this out on your own, or did you have other people who knew about this who helped you?

Student 5: Umm, a mixture of both. … I’ve been using it now for three years, so over the time I’ve been able to pester people to help me with it or doodle around with it myself and figure out how things work.

Student 5 has been using Illustrator for approximately three years. Since Illustrator is a high-end tool that is used consistently in this department’s course offerings, Student 5 has developed expertise over time in an iterative fashion. Student 5 is one of the most experienced students in the class, which also included students in their sophomore and junior years.

Student 5 goes on to describe a support environment that has matured over several years and is fine-tuned to the curricular work of the department. Student 5 commented that although the software required for the assignment was available anywhere on campus,

“One of the benefits for doing it there [in the departmental lab] was that ... there were always other people there working on it — well, not always, but usually. You could get help or you could look for information that you may not get online.”

The benefit to working in this departmental lab, even for a very experienced student, was having access to people who understood the suite of tools required for the assignment and the larger science-writing project — in other words, people engaged in work associated with either the same course or academic discipline.

Another study participant, a junior, described the departmental workspace:

Student 2: It’s pretty casual. If you have lunch there, you may have lunch with a professor if they come in. It’s just really, really casual. You can interact with, like, senior majors and younger students, and just kind of like get to know the department.

This student went on to contrast departmentally focused workspaces with campus-wide labs:

Student 2: When I was a freshman I worked more in the Library and the CMC [Center for Mathematics and Computing]. The CMC is very campus friendly, campus-wide, it’s friendly to everyone on campus. But when you get to like the lounges and [specific academic buildings associated with the sciences], it gets more specific to major.

Student 2’s comments suggest an increasing specialization that occurred as she/he became increasingly connected to the major. While campus-wide labs or even a student’s personal computer may provide access to the same software or information sources as the departmental lab, they do not afford the same access to a community of students and faculty members working in the discipline. The chief benefit students identified in this case study was the access to people, not the software or equipment.

Insights into Curricular Support Preferences

The science-writing case study provides insights into the ways in which juniors and seniors who responded to the survey seek curricular support. Taken together, the findings suggest that campus leaders responsible for thinking about the design of learning spaces should take into account differences in the ways students seek help with challenging assignments depending on major and class year.

Carleton’s research project will continue with a longitudinal study designed to examine whether the differences across class years in the 2007–2008 academic year represent a sustained process of student acculturation in which students acclimate to being a college student and then to their major. What is clear from Carleton’s preliminary findings is that learning spaces designed for campus-wide use and departmental use can attend to different and complementary needs among students across class years.

Critical Factor 3: Understand the Work Demanded of Students

The last segment of the research project germane to learning space design comes from a segment of the student survey that prompted students to select from a list of 13 qualities that they looked for when selecting a workspace. (See Figure 3.) Students selected a common set of five characteristics most frequently for both familiar and challenging assignment types: convenient location (65 percent for both types), low level of distractions (58 percent for both types), open late hours (56 percent and 55 percent), quiet (55 percent and 57 percent), and comfortable furniture (45 percent).

Figure 3

Figure 3. Study Space Characteristics Corresponding to Familiar and Challenging Assignments by Percentage of Student Respondents

In a number of instances the characteristics of study spaces that students reported seeking differed in statistically significant ways by the type of assignment students reported working on. Students working on writing assignments (text analyses, essays, research papers, short essays) more frequently reported looking for comfortable furniture, solitude, and quiet spaces with wireless access than did students reporting about other assignment types. The former group also was less likely to select the characteristic of “help nearby” than other student respondents.

In contrast, students working on problem sets, image creation, lab assignments, exams, and presentations more frequently reported looking for study locations based on having help nearby. This group was less likely to look for comfortable furniture, solitary work environments, or wireless networking.

The most commonly sought characteristics of study spaces are helpful insofar as they suggest a baseline of characteristics that members of the Carleton community should consider when designing study spaces for students. Perhaps of equal importance is the notion that, in some cases, students look for differing sets of characteristics in study spaces as they work on different types of assignments. A single design template will likely be insufficient. Variation in study space design should take into account the types of assignments students encounter in their courses.


Good institutional planning is even more critical in tight budgetary times. Carleton’s research study contains three elements that give institutional leaders insights into the ways in which students engage with the campus, seek curricular support, and exhibit preferences for learning spaces taking into account the type of assignment. It is critical to introduce information about students’ work patterns into learning space design to ensure that precious institutional resources are allocated in ways that attend to student needs.

Andrea Lisa Nixon ([email protected]) is Director of Curricular and Research Support in the Dean of the College Office at Carleton College.