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Enhancing Student Success Through Principled Space Planning and Interior Design

Contract Magazine | March 2011

By Amy Kiefer, vice president, education market, KI

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Today's institutions of higher education are at the epicenter of evolution. A variety of factors, from changes in teaching methods, learning styles, and campus culture to the impact of the millennial generation and advances in technology, contribute to many colleges and universities seeking to transform the way they look, feel, and function. This need to transform has a profound effect on the planning and use of space. Educators, planners, and designers have a unique opportunity to collaborate on the adoption of new design principles that leave behind the familiar practice of designing space "by the numbers." 

Typically, facility planners use mathematical formulas to determine an "appropriate" amount of classroom square footage per student. These headcount formulas to set classroom space parameters generally are based on traditional teaching methods, with professors lecturing to students in rows of desks. The utilization rates determined by these calculations then are used to drive decisions about funding for items such as furniture and classroom accessories. However, given the many changes on college campuses, this formulaic approach to making decisions about classroom utilization has become outdated and doesn't address the new ways that students learn and teachers teach. 

Designing as an Art Form, Not a Science 

If mathematical formulas are no longer adequate for allocating and designing space, what criteria should be used instead? How should planners and designers determine size, configuration, shape and capacity of educational spaces to support student success? How can space be designed and furnished with learning as the goal? The answers are both simple and complex. 

One solution calls for using learning theory as the basis for design. The difficulty is that studies have only begun to assess the relationship between space and learning. In the meantime, educators have identified certain factors that contribute to student success. As measured by the National Survey of Student Engagement Clusters of Effective Educational Practice, colleges and universities whose students perform well adhere to principles such as Active and Collaborative Learning, Student Interaction with Faculty Members and a Supportive Campus Environment. In light of these categories, it is easy to see why the practice of "x number of students per square foot" is falling out of favor as a guide for designing educational space. 

Until more formal research is complete, reasonable assumptions can be made based on observational studies about the role of design in creating effective learning environments. 

A number of institutions now are transitioning successfully into space design that is based on achieving educational outcomes. Making this type of transformation involves a number of steps. 

Enhancing Student Success Through Princpled Space Planning and Interior Design Image 2.jpgEstablishing a Unified Vision

First and foremost, the entire campus needs to be considered a learning space. Today's technology-driven, wired students expect 24/7 access to information and the ability to study or work on homework anywhere, anytime. For example, a commons area historically has served as a place for students to gather for conversations and social activities. Now, when students meet in a commons area they're likely to bring a laptop, smart-phone, and other electronic devices that allow them to socialize and do academic work at the same time. 

Stakeholders such as administrators, professors, facility planners, and students must acknowledge this sea change in the campus environment and work together to develop a new approach to space planning and design. A good starting point is to form a team of learning-centered advocates, led by the president, which can provide insight and guidance on educational space planning. The group should act as a resource to facilities management and planning consultants about facility upgrades, renovations, or construction. Every project involving space should be considered an opportunity to create a learning-centered environment. 

It is also important that the facilities director establish a policy supporting the university's learning-centered strategies and directives. Facilities management should establish a leadership group within its organizational structure that has knowledge of the principles of learning-centered initiatives. This group will maintain a close and respected relationship with the academic learning advocates. What's more, they will play a key role in the transformation of learning spaces across campus. 

Ground Zero: The Classroom (Studio)

The spaces that are most effective for active and collaborative learning are those that create a flexible and fluid environment. A studio model, which resembles an open workspace for architects or artists, uses furniture such as movable tables and comfortable chairs. This enables more interaction than the typical classroom and supports student engagement and movement. 

Furniture's ability to provide motion and to support different teaching configurations is highly important. The typical class structure begins with a short lecture or instruction followed by group activities, presentations and discussions. The ebb and flow of these activities requires that furniture be placed in several arrangements over a short period of time. 

Furniture provides another important function. If it can be properly stacked or nested, it can quickly change the capacity of a room. For example, a room that normally serves 24 to 28 students could temporarily accept as many as 10 more if the furniture can be easily moved and stored against a wall. At other times just "getting it all out of the way" to completely open up the space works best. 

These arrangements mean that the normal student count can be increased for special group discussions or other types of activities that are part of active and collaborative learning. Such flexibility also can satisfy institutions that insist upon headcounts to meet mandates. 

Yet furniture also can have an intangible influence on successful student outcomes. Well-designed environments with pleasing proportions, colors, textures and lighting can profoundly inspire learning. 

Case in Point: Libraries

Traditional furniture in the library is giving way to environments that support electronic research, group functions, and interaction among students, library staff and faculty. Based on new concepts such as "Learning Commons" and "Portal of Knowledge," libraries are recapturing their place as vital campus centers. 

Much of this transformation is due to a greater degree of flexibility that's been introduced into these spaces. This primarily comes from better applications of technology and providing furniture appropriate for the activities of research and collaboration. Libraries increasingly use movable walls and other flexible furniture to create pods-natural places for students, staff, and faculty to interact. 

Design Exemplified 

The following projects represent real-life examples of institutions that understand the connection between space and learning and student success: 

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The Monroe Library Learning Commons at Loyola University New Orleans, by Mathes Brierre Architects

The new Monroe Library Learning Commons at Loyola University New Orleans provides a versatile space where students, faculty, and staff can come together to study, learn, teach, and socialize. 

"We want students to be able to collaborate in groups, create their own spaces, and be inspired by a technology-rich environment," said Mary Lee Sweat, dean of libraries, Loyola University New Orleans. 

Unlike the common library layout with rows of bookshelves, one-person study carrels, and standard tables and chairs, the Learning Commons features an 

open design. Several distinct areas within the Learning Commons include a Porch and Living Room, lounge areas with comfortable seating, tables, and marker boards; Common Grounds Café, which serves coffee and other beverages; the Snowflake Computer Area; and group study rooms. According to a popular graphic of the campus map where the library is highlighted: "It's the place to be!"  (Go to to view a virtual tour of this state-of-the art library.) 

Enhancing Student Success Through Princpled Space Planning and Interior Design Image 4.jpgThe Miriam B. and James J. Mulva Library at St. Norbert College, Designed by Performa, Inc. 

In more than 100 years, St. Norbert College never had a dedicated library building. Library space was located within existing buildings with the latest housed in a remodeled dormitory. To stay competitive in the education marketplace, the college determined that students deserve a state-of the-art library that expands the college's tradition of excellence. 

Original plans for the library included very traditional furniture and programming. Then, library director Felice Maciejewski attended a Council for Independent Colleges (CIC) workshop and learned the importance of flexible furniture for today's students. 

"New goals included plenty of flexible furniture and collaboration spaces for students," says Maciejewski. "The building was already complete, so we tweaked the spaces and furniture to create collaborative opportunities. KI was instrumental in selection and arrangement of the furniture." 

The new Mulva Library provides an educational environment that is intellectually, spiritually, and personally challenging. The design exemplifies new paradigms in libraries as learning spaces. It is interactive and collaborative, promoting group gathering and knowledge sharing. Each space within the library encourages creative thinking.  (Go to for a virtual tour of the Mulva Library.)


As studies and surveys confirm the educational benefits of space design, the findings will provide compelling reasons to move in new directions with the design of physical space supportive of student success. Colleges and universities will maximize educational opportunities by considering every square foot on campus as a potential learning space, and exploring ways to connect each area of learning.


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