Why does the learning environment matter?

 

 

Welcome to the U of L in 20… oh, 1967!

It is a bit of a paradox: As a university, one of our biggest goals is to educate students; yet, we pay little to no attention to the spaces in which this education happens. A year ago in July, LEE went to a conference entitled: “Design Thinking Shaping Educational Environments” hosted by the American Institute of Architects’ Committee on Architecture for Education. This conference to me embodied the general attitude regarding the design of new buildings in postsecondary institutions. That attitude seems primarily concerned with design, followed by functionality, but never involves empirical evidence gathered from the occupants of said buildings, or any buildings. We then get shiny new buildings, in fact, mostly made out of glass symbolizing transparency as the overarching concept in higher education (and specifically science). But are these buildings, and more importantly, the classrooms in which teaching and learning formally happens, useful to the space users? We frankly don’t know.

When the Learning Environment Evaluation project was officially formed in 2012, the lack of literature on the topic of the learning environment became apparent fast. Not only our institution, but pretty much institutions all over North America have given very little importance to the evaluation of teaching and learning spaces. Yet, this is the environment that is supposed to excite and ignite learning! In the time that LEE has been active, it has become evident that there is nothing exciting or igniting about some of the dungeon-like rooms in the bowel of the university. These rooms have existed since the inception of Uhall in 1967, and have seen the abolishment of the death penalty, the official adoption of “O Canada” as the national anthem, the Winter Olympics in Calgary, the implementation of GST, a few prime ministers, and even the university’s 45th anniversary! In fact, we have never once evaluated these classrooms.

 

 

New Approaches in Old Rooms?

The literature talks about a paradigm shift in higher education away from delivering instruction and towards producing learning (Bennett, 2007). This is also known as the constructivist learning paradigm (Felix & Brown, 2011), and has indeed been around since the mid-20th century. Constructivism proposes that knowledge and meaning are constructed within the mind of the learner (Bodner, 1986). This is translated into active learning in the classroom where the responsibility of learning lies with the learner, rather than with the instructor. Interestingly, most of the classrooms at the U of L do not reflect this change and are clearly suited only one style of teaching and learning, which is pure and traditional knowledge-transfer. These are classrooms that are reminiscent of the opening scene in Charles Dickens’s Hard Times, where we hear Mr. Gradgrind in the 18th century classroom utter the following in an utmost literal scenario of a knowledge-transfer setting:

“ ‘In this life, we want nothing but Facts, sir; nothing but Facts!’ The speaker, and the schoolmaster, and the third grown person present, all backed a little, and swept with their eyes the inclined plane of little vessels then and there arranged in order, ready to have imperial gallons of facts poured into them until they were full to the brim.”

This paradigm shift doesn’t make direct instruction obsolete. Many students love a good lecture, and people who advocate that the lecture is dead are wrong. In fact, many students much prefer a lecture over any type of active learning or group work. Yet, with the advancements in neuroscience, we have come to understand that this might not be the best way to learn. A student can sit in a biochemistry lecture and not grasp a concept unless he or she actually tries out an experiment in the lab. We know that active learning works, even though not everyone likes it. (That could easily be because it makes students vulnerable and opens you up to weaknesses, and a lot of high-achieving students don’t like to have these weaknesses exposed.) It doesn’t mean that it works better than a good lecture, just that it works. Many of us have been educated in a system that measures knowledge and achievement by standardized tests. We all have been little vessels filled with facts. Facts that we then had to regurgitate for the final exam before we blissfully erased from our memory for eternity. Of course we all remember exceptional lecturers and teachers, and most of us will be able to recite situations and excerpts from such lectures with ease. If you are a great lecturer, you should lecture. But know that with our increased understanding of the brain and how we learn, it has become evident that there are alternative ways that might work just as well, if not better. And always be aware that not all of your students are like the fact-reciting Bitzer, a lot of them are indeed like Sissy Jupe, seeking to understand by doing.

In addition to novel findings about how people learn, the seemingly exponential explosion of technology and today’s “Net Gen” have brought about significant transformations and challenges within the learning environment. While this article is not about technology, we cannot deny that technology has fundamentally changed the way we interact, possibly the way instructors teach, and most certainly the way students learn. As Jamieson (2003) points out:

“The increasing integration of communication and information technologies, together with the shift to more student-centred and flexible learning approaches, is changing the way teaching and learning is experienced within universities. These changes affect the teacher’s role, increase students’ responsibility for their own learning, alter the ways students interact and communicate, and shape the demands and expectations of what the on-campus experience should be.”

There are indeed new ways of accessing material, which is now available from virtually anywhere on handheld devices. Students have new ways of interacting with each other and with the instructor. The instructor has new ways of delivering content, creating assignments, and marking exams. There is now a vast amount of information that is readily accessible and can be included into teaching approaches and learning styles.

With this paradigm shift in learning as well as the incorporation of technology into the class, a shift in the design of classrooms seems inevitable. As Felix and Brown (2011) point out: “Traditionally, the classroom was seen as the locus where knowledge was transmitted from the instructor to the students. The challenge is to completely revise this model, designing classrooms that support, encourage, and enable active learning engagements. Designing informal learning spaces.” Yet, when we look closely, other than with the addendum of contemporary technology into some rooms, maybe a switch in furniture or a new slab of colour (although rarely!), these rooms haven’t changed! U of L rooms such as many of the gemstones in Uhall have received little attention since their inauguration in 1967. More importantly, they have received no evaluation.

 

 

The Future of U of L Learning Spaces.

We can’t say that we have simply been ignorant about the design and implementation of formal learning spaces on campus, because the emergence of evidence is too recent to reach implementation, but that would be a lie. In Australia and the UK, learning space evaluations have been going on for over a decade (see for example Jamieson et al., 2000). The United States have been a forerunner in incorporating the learning paradigm shift into the classroom (see for example SCALE-UP; Beichner et al., 2000) and more recently, in developing classroom inventories, learning space rating systems, and classroom standards (Felix & Brown, 2011).

The good news is, we at the U of L are working towards all these things! More importantly, however, we are starting to evaluate our existing classrooms. This evaluation is not based on design or preference, it is strictly based on the utility of the rooms for both students and faculty members. Which rooms work? Which don’t? What works well and what doesn’t? Which furniture is comfortable? How far do the rows need to be apart to walk past occupied seats? Where should the whiteboard be? How big of a projection is needed to see from the back row? There are a plethora of questions LEE is trying to get answers to. We are very slowly shining some light into the dark cave that is classroom evaluation. We are learning that students need a comfortable space to sit in, and enough desk space for their binders, laptops, and coffee mugs. We are learning that faculty would like some more flexibility in the classrooms so they don’t have to climb over rows of desks to get to groups of students. We are learning that a seminar space can be one of three different things based on departments, and that few of our rooms conform to any of these ideas. Most importantly, we are learning that students and faculty members have come to tolerate our classrooms. Yet, classrooms should not merely be tolerated, we think they should be appreciated, and maybe, only maybe, even liked. First and foremost, they should enable instructors to teach and students to learn in a way they want, whichever way that may be.

Many believe that the future of learning spaces lies in their flexibility, and in their dedication to function. We are long past the Hard Times 18th century scenario of filling vessels, we are a liberal education university, but our rooms don’t reflect it. One thing we need are rooms dedicated to lecture. Our data indicates that those rooms work really well for their purpose, but nothing else. And they shouldn’t have to. Because the other thing we need      are rooms dedicated to active learning. As of Fall 2014, the U of L will have two of its very first true Active Learning Classrooms. And quite frankly, the most important feature in those is as simple as truly flexible furniture. And the third thing will be rooms in between that allow for all the other modes of teaching an instructor might want to employ. We are trying to shed light on the mismatch between the learning environment and the learning activity, and one day hope to remedy that. Evaluating our classrooms will be an ongoing project. We have stepped into the spotlight a little bit because the Destination Project has given this topic some relevance. Let’s take the next 45 years in an informed and updated direction and foster the culture of evaluation of learning environments, because as long as we are educating students, classrooms will always matter.

 

 

References:

Beichner, R. J., Saul, J. M., Allain, R. J., Deardorff, D. L., & Abbott, D. S. (2000). Introduction to SCALE-UP: Student-centered activities for large enrollment university physics. Presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Society for Engineering Education, Seattle, WA, Session 2380.

Bennett, S. (2007). First questions for designing higher education learning spaces. The Journal of Academic Librarianship, 33(1), 14-26.

Bodner, G. (1986). Constructivism: A theory of knowledge. Journal of Chemical Education, 63(10), 873-878.

Felix, E., & Brown, M. (2011). The case for a learning space performance rating system. Journal of Learning Spaces, 1(1), 1-7.

Jamieson, P., Fisher, K., Gilding, T., Taylor, P. G., & Trevitt, A. C. F. (2000). Place and space in the design of new learning environments. Higher Education Research & Development, 19(2), 221-236.

Jamieson, P. (2003). Designing more effective on-campus teaching and learning spaces: A role for academic developers. International Journal for Academic Development, 8(1-2), 119-133.