• 4 min read
Improving higher ed spaces to better support new ways of learning and teaching
by Haworth, Inc.
Much like the corporate work environment, learning environments in higher education have experienced a shift in recent times. Some changes are a reaction to the pandemic, while others have been slowly developing over time—such as how students prefer to learn and the new pedagogies faculty utilize to support these new ways of learning.
In the past—unless you were in a lab or studio class—most instruction was given in a linear, lecture-type environment with the professor at the head of the class. Students had to sit and absorb their teachers’ lessons, digesting information through careful listening and note-taking.
In recent years, however, we have seen this paradigm altered. The shift is in part due to the rise in experiential learning, which began for students in their primary and secondary school years but has continued as the pandemic inspired new ways to think about space and enhance learning. Instructors are taking on more of a guiding role, helping to manage a learning process that relies more on students for learning direction. In the classroom of the future, the goal is to create a cyclical flow of information that allows instructors and students to share ideas back and forth, based on the subject matter.
The spaces of old—rows of chairs and desks set up with the instructor at the front of the classroom—are not conducive to these new ways of learning. For this reason, Haworth wanted to learn more about classroom environments, so we partnered with a major local university and turned one of their business school classrooms into a living lab featuring multiple furniture components and arrangements.
We set out with three main learning goals:
The classroom curriculum was all interactive in nature, but with nuances between activity-based work and that which was truly experiential. The furniture was arranged with flexibility in mind to learn how best to support multiple tasks ranging from individual focus work to casual team conversations, more focused discussions, and decision-making.
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What we found from students and professors was their experience was favorable overall, compared to the traditional classroom environment. A few things rose to the top:
First, we found that comfort is key in a classroom setting. Even the best classroom setup can be sabotaged if it does not support a student for the duration of their class. Some college classes can be up to three hours long with limited breaks, so providing a space that is comfortable throughout the length of the class is essential. Seating that has ergonomic features like lumbar support, arm rests, height adjustment, and some amount of cushioning is ideal, as is having materials close at hand. If seating is at a counter or bar height, it’s key to provide bag hooks to eliminate having to reach uncomfortably to the floor for backpacks and bags.
Next, we discovered there is an important balance in the variety of space options available to students within a room or area. Having a single space option to choose from often fails to meaningfully differentiate the space from a more traditional classroom, while also failing to support the unique needs of the students. Having too many spaces available leads to inequitable access and could increase students’ stress levels, as they worry about getting the “best” spaces and avoid the “worst” spaces. We found that having 2 or 3 unique spaces provides a nice balance of improved learning outcomes without the worries of deciding where to sit for class.
Finally, we found that the arrangement of the room led to students and professors feeling they were making deeper connections with each other and the course material. Increased visual connection, encouraged collaboration, and enhanced movement through the space keep students engaged throughout the class period and improve their experiences. This is a key finding, as many universities are seeking to address issues of mental health, improving social support, and retaining students.
As experiential learning becomes more prominent in higher education environments, it will be key to provide equitable access to students in the classroom of the future, whether in a virtual or in-person learning situation. Part of this includes creating an environment that allows choice and flexibility but does not create disparities between learning spaces within the classroom. Having 1–2 settings that provide the ability to move, change posture, and interact with different people and technology—while maintaining visual access with the instructor—can help support better learning and foster better relationships among students and with instructors.
Explore Haworth’s work in higher education spaces, with our case studies from Northwest Nazarene University, Western Michigan University, and Davenport University.
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