Toward Inclusive Learning Spaces: Physiological, Cognitive, and Cultural Inclusion and the Learning Space Rating System

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Inclusive learning space design should be based on a tripartite framework addressing the diverse physiological, cognitive, and cultural needs of learners.

The word INCLUSION bracketed by icons representing inclusion
Credit: bsd © 2020

Clearly, learning environments should aim to engage learners, make participants feel welcome, and give everyone an equal opportunity to participate—that is, they should be inclusive. The pedagogical design is paramount in this effort, and well-articulated sets of principles such as the Universal Design for Learning (UDL) Guidelines have been developed to inform inclusive teaching practices in the classroom. Likewise, instructional designers have made good progress in understanding how to promote diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in online learning environments. But how can we apply such insights to designing physical learning spaces? Can we complement inclusive teaching practices, and even facilitate inclusion directly, by how we design and provision classrooms and other learning spaces?

In the Learning Space Rating System (LSRS) version 3.0, planned for release in spring 2020, my colleagues and I attempt a preliminary answer.1 When our previous team tried to integrate inclusion as a principle in LSRS 2.0, we wrestled with a dilemma. As learning space designers, we instinctively knew something about the kinds of things we should not do in order to create welcoming spaces. We knew, for example, that if we wanted to engage linguistically diverse students, we should not post important classroom instructions only in English or that if we wanted to make students from historically underrepresented groups feel welcome, we should not line classrooms with pictures of "dead white males." In other words, we knew more about how to create uninclusive environments than inclusive environments, and more importantly, we lacked a research-based framework for creating guidelines.

Nevertheless, in our first attempt, we asserted two principles (or "credits," in the parlance of the LSRS) as part of the "Environmental Quality" section of LSRS 2.0: Environmental and Cultural Inclusiveness (Credit 4.7) and Accessibility and Universal Design (Credit 4.8). The former credit was intended to "create an aesthetically pleasing, stimulating and culturally inclusive atmosphere that helps promote engagement in learning activities," and the latter credit aimed to "create an inclusive, safe, and accessible environment for diverse and differently abled participants." These are laudable goals of course, but in hindsight—and with the helpful feedback of reviewers—we found them to be too broad and encompassing and our criteria for achieving them to be vague at best. As Maggie Beers and Teggin Summers noted regarding the breadth of Credit 4.7: "These conditions merit their own subcategories on the LSRS, since they contribute to a student's sense of belonging and success."2

To highlight the importance of these issues in LSRS 3.0, the current team determined to create a completely new section dedicated to "Inclusion and Accessibility," with multiple, fleshed-out credits based on educational research. While the final wording of that section is still under review, the new criteria have been developed from a tripartite framework of physiological, cognitive, and cultural inclusion.3

The LSRS provides institutions with metrics for the design of individual classrooms—or by extension, for a fleet or inventory of classrooms (though not, for now, informal learning spaces)—measuring the extent to which they can flexibly facilitate multiple modalities of learning and teaching. That goal is fully congruent with the goals of DEI. Yet the distribution and the proportion of successful, well-designed (or "high scoring") classrooms within an institution are not specifically addressed by the LSRS. Issues of what might be called "institutional inequality" are matters of resource allocation and policy. The persuasive case made by Beers and Summers for distributing scarce resources to create larger inventories of basic "learning-ready classrooms," as opposed to a few higher-end or high-tech spaces, speaks to this important aspect of institutional equity.4

Physiological Inclusion

The infrastructural attributes of a learning space—such as lighting, acoustics, temperature, and air quality—can make a space feel more or less comfortable and welcoming for people in general and, thus, more or less compatible and motivating for learning. Learning environment researchers have frequently extended the analogy of Maslow's famous hierarchy of needs in this regard.5 People cannot learn effectively if they're too hungry, thirsty, hot/cold, or tired, so the learning environment should first ensure that learners' physiological needs for food, water, comfort, and rest are met. These needs can be addressed in learning environments by, for example, including cafés or vending machines and quiet, contemplative spaces. People also cannot learn effectively if they feel in danger, threatened, or insecure, so learning spaces must ensure physical safety and security for learners. Once these basic needs are addressed—those at the base of Maslow's pyramid—designers can work their way up the pyramid to facilitate the higher-order psychological, cognitive, and meta-cognitive—or "self-actualization" (in Maslow's terms)—needs of learners.

Even the basic physiological factors with the most impact on learning, —temperature, indoor air quality, lighting, and acoustics—may entail more diversity than previously thought. For example, while Glen Earthman determined that the optimal temperature range for learning is between 68 and 74 degrees Fahrenheit (20 to 23.3 degrees Celsius),6early studies either ignored gender or focused on male students. Meanwhile, a growing number of recent studies have found significant differences in thermal comfort levels between the genders. According to Sami Karjalainen's meta-analysis, "Females are more sensitive than males to a deviation from an optimal temperature and express more dissatisfaction, especially in cooler conditions."7

Beyond physiological comfort, learning spaces must accommodate a variety of physical attributes and abilities by following legal requirements such as the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) and by providing furnishings and equipment that fit various body sizes and types. Physical impairments (defined as those constraining participation in life activities) that must be accommodated under the ADA include those that impact vision, mobility, communication, and reading.

However, making spaces accessible for people with different needs is not the same as making spaces inclusive. The principles of universal design established by the Center for Universal Design at North Carolina State University, in partnership with the US Department of Education's National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research, are intended to help make "products, buildings, or environments usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design." Offering a solid framework for inclusive design that is readily applied to physical spaces, the seven principles are Equitable Use, Flexibility in Use, Simple and Intuitive Use, Perceptible Information, Tolerance for Error, Low Physical Effort, and Size and Space for Approach and Use.8 The following is a set of applications to physical space design:

  1. Equitable Use: Provide identical, or at least equivalent, means for all participants to use the space; avoid segregating or stigmatizing any participants. In larger spaces, follow the mantra "No Bad Seats"—that is, ensure that all learners can access seating centrally located or close to instructional activities, if they wish. Wheelchair-accessible seating should not be relegated to the edges or margins. As Beers and Summers point out, ADA-compliant furniture that "is fully integrated into the classroom, rather than set apart at the side of the room or marked with a different color laminate or upholstery, helps meet students' social needs, since it is inclusive for students with disabilities."9
  2. Flexibility in Use: Accommodate a wide range of physical abilities, and make accommodations such as support for left-handedness and for ergonomic input devices integral, not marginal, to the classroom design. A fixed-seat classroom outfitted with only right-handed tablet-arm chairs communicates that left-handed people are not welcome or included. But even when, say, 10 percent of the tablet-arm chairs are left-handed, they may be lined up along an outer edge so as not to "intrude" on the space of the right-handed tablets along each row. This solution might proportionally accommodate left-handed people, but by denying them seats in the center of the classroom—by, literally, marginalizing them—it does not allow them to participate on an equal basis with right-handed people.
  3. Simple and Intuitive Use: Make the classroom and its affordances easy to use for those with a variety of backgrounds, language and literacy skills, and technical fluency. Examples include effective wayfinding and multilingual instructions for use of technology tools.
  4. Perceptible Information: Provide compatibility with a range of methods and devices used by those with sensory limitations.
  5. Tolerance for Error: Minimize hazards to avoid accidents or unintended actions. This speaks to the safety factor at the base of Maslow's hierarchy.
  6. Low Physical Effort: Design spaces and seating to allow for comfort, to maintain neutral body position, and to avoid necessitating repetitive actions or sustained physical effort by participants in learning activities.
  7. Size and Space for Approach and Use: Accommodate diverse physical attributes by providing furnishings and equipment that fit various body sizes and shapes and by allowing appropriate space to permit the use of assistive devices and to accommodate reach and manipulation regardless of body size, posture, mobility, or hand and grip size.

Cognitive Inclusion

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) applies universal design principles specifically to learning environments. UDL is based on "findings from cognitive neuroscience that tell us about the needs of individual learners" who differ in how they perceive and comprehend information, how they navigate a learning environment to express knowledge, and how they are engaged or motivated to learn.10 In short, learners are highly variable in their response to instruction. We can call the range of these differences cognitive diversity and embrace also in that term neurodiversity, which has been somewhat more narrowly associated with normalizing or depathologizing conditions such as autism and ADHD.

In addition to physical accommodations, the ADA requires accommodation for what it terms mental or psychological disabilities, including cognitive impairments (what many now call neurodiversity) arising from conditions such as autism and learning disabilities. Students with learning disabilities may have specific limitations in auditory perception and processing, visual perception and processing, information processing speed, abstract reasoning, long-term or short-term memory, spoken and written language ability, mathematical calculation, or executive functioning (e.g., planning and time management). Those with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) may suffer from impaired social interaction, diminished communication abilities, and sensory processing problems that may lead to agoraphobia or difficulty moving through spaces. Applying universal design and UDL principles, designers can and should go beyond the legal requirements to design truly inclusive spaces. Learning space design features that can help those with ASD include providing ordered and comprehensible spatial structures, a mix of large and small spaces, and some user control of environmental conditions, such as the amount of stimulation from light and bold colors.

The three main principles of UDL—to provide learners with multiple means of representation, multiple means of expression, and multiple means of engagement—address cognitive diversity primarily through pedagogical design. Instructors applying UDL may provide course materials in multiple media, offer students different options for demonstrating their understanding and mastery, and build various ways for students to engage with instructors and one another. Surely, whether in physical classrooms, online, or hybrid environments, course design and delivery is the most important factor in promoting cognitive inclusion. But as with active learning practices, physical space design can significantly contribute to (or detract from) the ability and ease with which instructors can implement such pedagogies. Each UDL principle is an opportunity to design and provision classrooms and other learning spaces to facilitate cognitively inclusive practices:

  1. Multiple means of representation: provide alternatives and multiple media for presenting visual or auditory information, including sound amplification, visual displays, and equipment for lecture and notes capture; provide hardware and software allowing information sharing using multiple media.
  2. Multiple means of expression: provide access to assistive technologies; provide abundant writable surfaces and computer displays; provide spaces with access to different types of tools for content creation and content sharing.
  3. Multiple means of engagement: provide diverse and flexible spaces for individual learning, collaboration, and teamwork with movable, reconfigurable furnishings; provide spaces with plenty of room for movement and interaction among peers and between students and instructors.

Many of these physical design features are addressed in various sections of the LSRS instrument, and indeed the entire thrust of UDL around facilitating flexibility and multiple modalities aligns closely with the key principles of the LSRS.

Susan Pliner and Julia Johnson argue that design solutions based on universal principles can benefit not only students with different cognitive or physical capabilities but also students from historically marginalized groups, because "students with disabilities face similar challenges to those faced by students of color" in learning environments. Thus Pliner and Johnson conceive of UDL in a context of multicultural education, power and privilege, and social justice—a framework that leads us to consider the importance of cultural inclusion.11

Cultural Inclusion

If we accept that campus learning environments work best when they provide a sense of security and inclusion along with ways for students to be involved in an experience of community,12 it follows that we should design spaces with, at a minimum, human-friendly infrastructure and accessibility in mind. But the history of higher education, and of the larger society, makes cultural inclusion—meaning inclusion for people with different backgrounds or social identities—more complex and pressing. Pliner and Johnson note: "Historically, barriers to inclusion in higher education have been based on the explicit exclusion of individuals because of race, gender, national origin, disability, religion, language, and class." As social norms and demographics have shifted, institutions have, sometimes unknowingly, perpetuated practices that "disproportionately support and reward" the historical white, male, able-bodied, majority.13 Stating this more strongly, and in the context of the experiences of indigenous students, Kevin Brown argues: "The constructed university environment overlays the memories of Indigenous people and at times erases, ignores, and subdues Indigenous existence."14 For example, if we want to achieve a campus ethos of egalitarianism, dignity, and civility, Eamonn Callan of Stanford's Graduate School of Education notes: "Residential halls named to honor people who enslaved some of the residents' recent ancestors are not a terribly good idea."15

Whereas ideas about neurodiversity and cognitive inclusion arise from cognitive neuroscience, the notion of cultural inclusion is based on social psychology—in particular on people's social identities (e.g., age, gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, social class, religion, nationality) and the concepts of social belonging and social identity threat. Social belonging (i.e., seeing oneself as socially connected) is a fundamental human motive, so people are especially attuned to environmental cues that might signal social connection or rejection. Uncertainty about social belonging can undermine motivation and achievement for college students from historically excluded ethnic groups. Social identity threat is experienced by members of a group when that group's perceived competence is devalued or its unique characteristics are insufficiently acknowledged; contextual cues in the environment can communicate low or marginalized status for the group, or even animus toward the group, resulting in poorer academic performance. One form of social identity threat is stereotype threat, in which the perception of negative stereotypes about a group have been shown to impair learning, student success, and academic achievement for members of that group.

How do social identity threat and stereotype threat get communicated in learning environments? In addition to structural features, learning spaces have characteristics that are more symbolic, socially constructed, or rhetorical in nature. Today's architects and designers understand that spaces have "character" that is acquired not only through the physical design elements—such as the use of curving surfaces, which are more approachable to humans than sharp-edged ones—but also through a set of often nonconscious "embodied schemas and metaphors" that conjure up mental images and associated emotions. Embodied metaphors, used carefully, can help create emotionally engaging and enriching spaces.16 In this important sense, architecture is inherently rhetorical—that is, it is a kind of communication or narrative consisting of codes and meanings that promote certain values and beliefs. Thus the "the symbolic classroom" consists of design features (e.g., classroom layout, wall decor, and display objects) that give visual and rhetorical cues—that tell a story or narrative. Particularly for women, students of color, and members of other historically underrepresented populations, these symbolic elements can strongly influence the character and culture of learning spaces, raise fears about confirmation of group stereotypes, and impact performance, aspirations, engagement, and behavior.17

Objects and other contextual cues in the environment can signal who belongs and can activate biases that make certain groups feel unwelcome. "Even small things carry a powerful message about who is really welcome," says Callan, recounting the experience of a new African American faculty member who encountered a gallery of photographs of white men, his departmental predecessors.18 Women have been steered away from computer science courses by the presence of stereotypically geeky and masculine objects such as video games and items from the Star Wars and Star Trek movies. Christmas displays in a campus study space can make Buddhist and Sikh college students, for example, feel less included.19 More broadly, "socially symbolic objects that embody and communicate group member stereotypes," also known as "ambient identity cues,"20 may be more pervasive and impactful in learning environments than previously thought. Students' comfort levels and social interactions can be affected even by different classroom layouts. In one study, female college students felt more at ease with seats in cluster arrangements and rows of tablet-arm chairs, while male students were more comfortable with U-shaped seating arrangements and rows of tables with individual chairs.21

In their framework for psychologically inclusive learning design, René Kizilcec and Andrew Saltarelli offer a taxonomy of environmental cues that can be manipulated to increase social belonging and/or reduce social identity threat:

  1. Verbal content (e.g., written and spoken words)
  2. Visual content (e.g., images, animations, photos, videos)
  3. Visual design (e.g., color scheme, organization of information)
  4. Interaction design (e.g., how users input information, make choices, navigate the environment, and interact socially)22

Although conceived for the online learning context, these categories can apply both directly and by analogy to physical learning environments, as follows:

  • Verbal and visual content might include physical signage, room decor, and the display or presentation of course content.
  • Visual design might include room size and shape, colors, layouts, and lighting.
  • Interaction design might include how users navigate learning spaces (including by wayfinding) and how they use the affordances of spaces to interact with information, peers, and instructors.

By using language and images friendlier to women to subtly manipulate the verbal and visual cues advertising a computer science course, Kizilcec and Saltarelli measured an increase in female enrollment. Likewise, the University of Washington redesigned a computer lab by repainting walls and hanging nature posters to create a warmer, more appealing environment and to communicate that the subject of computer science and the learning space were welcoming to all. In a classroom virtual reality space, manipulating the symbolic visual elements—to include photographs of female leaders—was associated with the elimination of gender differences in the length and quality of students' speaking performances.23 Making spaces in and around classrooms more inclusive for gender-nonconforming students, for whom restroom safety can be one of the biggest sources of anxiety, can be as simple as changing the signage on single, lockable restrooms to be gender neutral or converting male/female restrooms into unisex ones. Research has found that signals of "identity safety" from the creation of gender-inclusive bathrooms can transfer to cis-gender women and members of racial minorities.24 The Space Reface Toolkit from Stanford University's Psychology Department offers a step-by-step guide, and some "quick fixes," to make spaces more inviting for all people. The Toolkit includes a Space Inclusion Quotient Test or "Space IQ Test" to measure belongingness, to "assess a space's people, art, artifacts, amenities, and temperature," and to "improve representations of and accommodations for women and people of color."

Finally, in considering how to create culturally inclusive learning environments, designers must remember that people are not members of just one group but have multiple social identities that intersect in various ways. Proponents of "intersectionality" point out that ethnicity, for example, "may be experienced differently for women as compared to men" and that clearly distinguishing the experiences related to different social identities for one individual may not be possible.25 Likewise, portraying diversity in terms of only one group or subset of groups can backfire by alienating majority groups; subtler cues are more effective and less likely to cause backlash, such as when men reacted negatively to overt "inclusivity cues" targeting women.26 And in making design interventions, designers should of course take care not to insert token cues or symbols representing groups in stereotypical or disrespectful ways.


Learning spaces should allow everyone to participate on an equal basis and feel welcome and included. An inclusive learning space design practice, therefore, should address the diverse physiological, cognitive, and cultural needs of learners. Based on this framework, the LSRS 3.0 will feature a dedicated section on "Inclusion and Accessibility" suggesting metrics for best practices. Recognizing that these three sets of needs and sources of diversity overlap and intersect in complex ways, I hope the framework presented here, and its expression in the LSRS, will be a springboard for further discussion of inclusive design.


  1. Barbara Brandt et al., Learning Space Rating System, version 3 (EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative, 2020 [forthcoming]).
  2. Maggie Beers and Teggin Summers, "Educational Equity and the Classroom: Designing Learning-Ready Spaces for All Students," EDUCAUSE Review 53, no. 3 (May/June 2018).
  3. Design teams for educational learning environments should include participants, and in particular students, who represent the physiological, cognitive, and cultural diversity that this framework describes. The perspectives of diverse stakeholders must be integrated throughout the process of designing inclusive learning spaces, including post-occupancy assessment and evaluation.
  4. Beers and Summers, "Educational Equity and the Classroom." See also Teggin Summers and Maggie Beers, "Ready for Equity? A Cross-Cultural Organizational Framework to Scale Access to Learning-Ready Classrooms That Support Student Success," Journal of Teaching and Learning with Technology 8, no. 1 (2019).
  5. A. H. Maslow, "A Theory of Human Motivation," Psychological Review 50, no. 4 (1943).
  6. Glen Earthman, Prioritization of 31 Criteria for School Building Adequacy (Baltimore, MD: American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Maryland, 2004).
  7. Sami Karjalainen, "Thermal Comfort and Gender: A Literature Review," Indoor Air 22, no. 2 (2012).
  8. M. F. Storey, "The Principles of Universal Design," in W.F.E. Preiser and K. H. Smith, eds., Universal Design Handbook, 2ded. (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2011).
  9. Beers and Summers, "Educational Equity and the Classroom."
  10. David Rose et al., "Universal Design for Learning in Postsecondary Education: Reflections on Principles and Their Application," Journal of Postsecondary Education and Disability 19, no. 2 (2006).
  11. Susan M. Pliner and Julia R. Johnson, "Historical, Theoretical, and Foundational Principles of Universal Instructional Design in Higher Education," Equity & Excellence in Education 37, no. 2, (2004).
  12. See C. Carney Strange and James H. Nanning, Educating by Design: Creating Campus Learning Environments That Work (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2001).
  13. Pliner and Johnson, "Historical, Theoretical, and Foundational Principles of Universal Instructional Design in Higher Education."
  14. Kevin Brown, "Creating Culturally Safe Learning Spaces and Indigenizing Higher Education," Journal of Learning Spaces 8, no. (2019): 57. See also K. Lipe, "Toward Equity and Equality: Transforming Universities into Indigenous Places of Learning," in Robin Starr Minthorn and Heather J. Shotton, eds., Reclaiming Indigenous Research in Higher Education (Newark, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2018).
  15. Eamonn Callan, "Education in Safe and Unsafe Spaces," Philosophical Inquiry in Education 24, no. 1 (2016).
  16. Sarah Williams Goldhagen, Welcome to Your World: How the Built Environment Shapes Our Lives (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2017).
  17. Sapna Cheryan, Sianna A. Ziegler, Victoria C. Plaut, and Andrew N. Meltzoff, "Designing Classrooms to Maximize Student Achievement," Policy Insights from the Behavioral and Brain Sciences 1, no. 1 (2014).
  18. Callan, "Education in Safe and Unsafe Spaces."
  19. Michael T. Schmitt, Kelly Davies, Mandy Hung, and Stephen C. Wright, "Identity Moderates the Effects of Christmas Displays on Mood, Self-Esteem, and Inclusion," Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 46, no. 6 (November 2010).
  20. Sapna Cheryan, Paul G. Davies, Victoria C. Plaut, and Claude M. Steele, "Ambient Belonging: How Stereotypical Cues Impact Gender Participation in Computer Science," Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 97, no. 6 (2009).
  21. Brigitte Burgess and Naz Kaya, "Gender Differences in Student Attitude for Seating Layout in College Classrooms," College Student Journal 41, no. 4 (December 2007).
  22. René F. Kizilcec and Andrew J. Saltarelli, "Psychologically Inclusive Design: Cues Impact Women's Participation in STEM Education," in Proceedings of the CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (Glasgow, Scotland, May 2019).
  23. Iona M. Latu, Marianne S. Mast, Joris Lammers, and Dario Bombari, "Successful Female Leaders Empower Women's Behavior in Leadership Tasks," Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 49, no. 3 (May 2013).
  24. Kimberley E. Chaney and Diana T. Sanchez, "Gender-Inclusive Bathrooms Signal Fairness across Identity Dimensions," Social Psychological and Personality Science 9, no. 2 (November 2017).
  25. Kay Deaux, "Social Identity," Encyclopedia of Women and Gender, 2 vols. (Cambridge, MA: Academic Press, 2001).
  26. Kizilcec and Saltarelli, "Psychologically Inclusive Design."

Richard Holeton is Assistant Vice Provost for Learning Environments, Emeritus, Stanford University.

© 2020 Richard Holeton. The text of this work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.