Spotlight On Informal Learning Environments

New research shows that university areas outside the classroom can be essential to student success. How can campus leaders better assess these informal learning environments, and plan for building and renovation projects that most effectively promote student mentorship, engagement, and retention? In order to gain insight into the latest research findings and design strategies, College Planning & Management spoke with architect Sara Grant, AIA, a partner at MBB (Murphy Burnham & Buttrick Architects) in New York, who is currently working on a multidisciplinary study of informal learning spaces at Medgar Evers College in New York, in collaboration with the architect and environmental psychologist Eve Klein, MArch, cofounder of the User Design Information Group at the City University of New York.

Q. How do informal learning spaces impact students?
Informal learning, including the peer-to-peer mentorship and collaboration taking place outside the classroom, is a major part of a college student’s experience contributing to their engagement and success. In our research at Medgar Evers College, we found that many students are spending up to 10 hours per day on campus and only about half that time in class. Informal learning environments include a range of spaces including libraries, cafeterias, student centers, and distributed student spaces along corridors, each of which impact students differently.

At Medgar Evers, we found the library and cafeteria are not serving the informal needs of students to due scheduling conflicts, reservation requirements, and the perceived range of acceptable activities. Instead, students are relying on student spaces along corridors for peer-to-peer mentorship and collaboration because of the lack of such constraints and the close proximity to classrooms and labs. This places enormous pressure on what are largely seen as circulation spaces, which are constrained by code and often receive limited funding. In our research, we worked closely with student researchers and used ethnographic methods to define the programmatic needs and design priorities for these informal spaces—providing tools for architects and campus planners to leverage these spaces to more effectively serve student needs.

Q. What kinds of research can help campus leaders and administrators understand the potential of informal spaces?
Working closely with Eve Klein and a team of environmental psychologists, we piloted a methodology building upon the strengths of architecture and ethnography. This is an inductive approach that campus leaders can employ to discover challenges on campus with an emphasis on sited micro-cultures, or how specific communities view and use places on campus.

We started by first identifying the challenges faced by students, and then determined how the design of a specific informal environment could address these challenges. Our data collection and analysis included extended observations, interviews and narrative analysis, surveys, and focus groups. These rigorous methods are well-suited to capturing the qualitative data on student experience of campus design. A key component of our methodology was to engage students as researchers—placing them as expert informants rather than as subjects of the study. The student researchers provided unique insight into student priorities for informal environments including the need for spaces to be readily available, professional in atmosphere, comfortable, and practical. It also helped account for our bias as outsiders, as architects and researchers of a different generation and, in this case, a different race than the predominant student body. The role of the student researcher is particularly important for informal learning environments where students will largely define the norms of use.

Q. How can design optimize this potential?
To optimize the potential of informal learning environments, planners and architects must first define the program for these spaces through better data collection and analysis on student needs. The space needs will vary based on the specific community of students and on the specific place on campus.

In our pilot project at Medgar Evers, we focused on designing for a diverse student body within an academic building, on a floor serving the physics and chemistry departments. In our research, peer-to-peer mentorship emerged as critical to student engagement, therefore we designed for small groups and one-on-one meetings with flexible furnishings. Design elements such as lighting, acoustics, and power also must then be appropriate to a learning environment, rather than just a circulation space. This meant incorporating supplemental lighting and acoustic treatments, incorporating power and data as well as mitigating glare from large south-facing windows. Our research also indicated it was important for the informal environment to have an identity appropriate to the seriousness of the study taking place, while also being responsive to the pragmatic needs of busy students. In this case, that meant designing an informal environment that students view as sophisticated yet practical.

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