Best Practices in Learning Space Design: Engaging Users

min read
  • Engaging those who will use a learning space in its planning yields the greatest benefits, yet the people who manage a space usually determine its design.
  • Formal and informal surveys of space use provide data that inform design according to the location and intended purpose of a specific space.
  • Survey results from the Society for College and University Planning and Herman Miller showed that respondents believe users should be key drivers in learning space design.

Learners and Learning

Conceptions of the learning process have varied over time, from seeing learners as “blank slates” for a teacher to fill to the view that, unless a learner is engaged in actively constructing knowledge, little will be learned or retained.1 As research on the physiological aspects of learning has revealed, active engagement with the learning object — whether a lecture, laboratory process, text, or creative medium — increases the likelihood that the learner will both retain and be able to use information and skills later.2 While the realities of instructional spaces on most campuses fall closer to the sage-on-the-stage paradigm than the guide-by-the-side, more campuses are seeking to create facilities that encourage collaboration and active participation in learning activities.3

As it turns out, spaces that are created to engage students in active, collaborative learning are best designed by facilitating similar processes with users to identify their learning space needs. A recent survey by the Society for College and University Planning (SCUP) and Herman Miller, Inc., indicated that respondents believed users should be the key drivers in learning space design. In fact, the people who manage the space are most likely to determine the design of learning spaces.4 A challenge for designers and planners, then, is how to most effectively bring the user’s voice into the design process and, ultimately, deliver the richest use of spaces for learning.

Existing Campus Learning Spaces

It’s important to remember that your campus already has an abundance of spaces designated as classrooms and that these are generally considered the primary learning spaces on most campuses. Such places are generally designed to allow an instructor to lecture from the front of a room and hopefully have access to media projectors, the Internet, and a chalkboard. Survey respondents submitted photos showing typical classrooms as examples of a minimal learning space design.

typical classrooms

Typical Classrooms: Learning Space “Minimal”

Look around your campus and you’ll rapidly discover that students are studying and learning in many places. Visit the library, a coffee shop, a residence hall lounge, a dining room, and the quad. You’ll discover students with books open, laptops humming, and text messages flying — while intensely discussing their views on social issues. The characteristics of these informal learning spaces are ones that need to be translated into classrooms, labs, and other built environments.5 The tutorial and several other articles in this issue provide insights into creating such informal learning spaces.

Discovering the Best in What Exists

Research methods from the social sciences, particularly anthropology, make an excellent starting point for identifying what students and faculty look for in a learning space. Systematically collect data on where students and faculty engage in learning and include students in the data collection process.

  • Ask students to send digital images of their favorite spots to study alone or with peers. Have them include a description of what made the spot conducive to learning.
  • Visit places on campus identified through these photos at different times of day and count the number of people using it for learning.
  • Spend an hour in a coffee shop, dining hall, or other campus eating spot and observe how students and faculty use them for learning spaces.
  • Establish a Twitter feed to gather information from randomly selected students as they use the formal learning spaces on campus.
  • Post a survey on your campus’s Facebook site.
  • Engage social science courses in devising methods for gathering this information.

Each of these methods provides a lens on the features or characteristics that make a space successful. What are the commonalities you see in the data you’ve gathered? Look for convergence in descriptions that point you to design components that you may want to carry across all spaces.

Surveys and research indicate that flexibility is one of the most desirable characteristics in a space — furniture that moves and acoustic and visual separations that allow collaboration.6 Flexibility is often associated with the ability to accommodate multiple learning styles, which is a characteristic prized by both students and faculty.

Respondents to the 2008 SCUP/Herman Miller Survey on Learning Space Design provided photo examples of learning spaces they considered “optimal.”

redesigned classrooms

Redesigned Classrooms: Learning Space “Optimal”

Engaging Users in the Design Process

Gathering information on what features of existing learning spaces are viewed as most desirable or conducive to learning is the first step in engaging users in the design process. These descriptions form the base for that engagement. A particularly effective method for this is the charrette,7 which brings together design expertise with stakeholders/users to rapidly and collaboratively create solutions to design challenges. Charrettes generally have three phases and may be carried out over a matter of days. Initially, a group of designers (for example, planners, architects, urban housing experts, etc.) gathers data on “what is.” This information forms the boundaries/parameters of the research/education/preparation phase. Included in this phase is the identification of broad and diverse segments of the campus community to create the vision of optimal learning spaces for the campus.

The second phase of the charrette involves iterative design presentations alternating with public input and reflection. The charrette design team formulates options for creating learning spaces based on what they have heard from students, faculty, and other users. These options are presented and critiqued, and then the design team reconceives the space and presents the design again. The process often lasts three to four days. At the end, the design team makes a final presentation that merges the expertise of the designers with the vision and needs of the users and the boundaries imposed by costs, site, etc.

Desired Characteristics of Learning Spaces

The 2008 SCUP/Herman Miller Survey of Learning Space Design asked respondents to rate

  • the importance of different learning space characteristics for effective design, and
  • the presence of these characteristics in their campus learning spaces — how well their campus was doing at including those characteristics.

The majority of the 112 respondents were from public four-year and above institutions with more than 10,000 students. Over half the respondents were in facilities-related positions, approximately a third were in academic or academic administration, and the rest were in a variety of positions ranging from student affairs to institutional research to classroom technology and learning. Six characteristics were provided, and they were asked to rate each characteristic from one (1) signifying the highest level of importance to six (6) indicating the lowest level of importance.

Respondents indicated that the adaptability of learning spaces was the most important characteristic for spaces to possess on a campus. It received the best rating (2.1) and the highest number of respondents who indicated that it was most important (57). Respondents were less clear about the characteristics on which their campus was performing best, with adaptability, healthful, and resourceful all rating equally (2.8).

The following chart summarizes the results ...


Figure 1. Rating of the Importance of Selected Characteristics to, and their Performance in, Campus Learning Spaces

As designers and users collaborate on the creation of effective learning spaces, these characteristics are ones to keep in mind, yet few resources exist for measuring the general desirability of learning space characteristics. In an effort to enrich our understanding of the importance of flexibility, sustainability, and technologically enriched environments, SCUP and Herman Miller are again sponsoring a survey on learning space design and the tools used to measure the contributions of various characteristics. If you’d like to participate, please visit the survey site: 2009 Survey on Learning Space Design.

Concluding Thoughts

Every time new buildings are contemplated, classrooms need renovation, or a heritage space needs preservation, their potential as learning spaces should enter into the mix. Students and faculty use a variety of settings for learning, and they’re willing to share their preferences with designers, planners, and managers. Find ways to gather opinions on the most important characteristics of space for your campus. Observe how often and in what ways students use your designated learning spaces, like libraries and technology-enriched spaces. Ask faculty members where they do their most productive work. Engaging future users in designing learning spaces increases the likelihood that those spaces will accomplish the mission of achieving student learning outcomes.

  1. Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckman, The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1966); Jean Lave and EtienneWenger, Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991) and L. S. Vygotsky, Mind in Society: The Development of Higher Psychological Processes (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1978).
  2. James Zull, The Art of Changing the Brain: Enriching the Practice of Teaching by Exploring the Biology of Learning (Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing, 2002).
  3. Nancy Van Note Chism, “Challenging Traditional Assumptions and Rethinking Learning Spaces,” in Learning Spaces, Diana G. Oblinger, Ed. (Boulder, CO: EDUCAUSE, 2006),
  4. Phyllis Grummon, “Summary Report of a Survey of Learning Space Design in Higher Education,” Society for College and University Planning, 2008,
  5. Peter Jamieson, “The Serious Matter of Informal Learning,” Planning for Higher Education, vol. 37, no. 2 (2009), pp. 18-25.
  6. Deborah J. Bickford and David J. Wright, “Community: The Hidden Context for Learning,” in Learning Spaces, Diana G. Oblinger, Ed. (Boulder, CO: EDUCAUSE, 2006),; Grummon, “Summary Report,” 2008; and C. Carney Strange and James H. Banning, Educating by Design: Creating Campus Learning Environments That Work(San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2001), pp. 9-32.
  7. See National Charrette Institute,; The Charrette Concept,; and Wikipedia,

Phyllis T. H. Grummon is Director of Planning and Education for the Society for College and University Planning.