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Creative Learning Spaces For Today's Students and Faculty

Today’s colleges and universities are re-examining the use of campus real estate.  They’re changing learning spaces to recruit and attract students and faculty.  Just as students are able to multi-task, spaces must be flexible, meeting student needs throughout the day for a variety of purposes. Informal learning should be considered when planning spaces on campus.  These are the spaces where students and faculty engage in continued learning outside the classroom.  Students complete projects and engage in lively discussions about project information.  From a library, lounge or in-between space, the classroom extends beyond its four walls.

Public spaces provide students with choices to support learning styles.  Furniture should meet the needs of both individual study and project groups throughout the day.  Research has discovered students study individually in the morning and afternoons, then meet in groups after classes and work, usually in the evening.  Study areas should be flexible enough to easily change as students’ needs change.

When planning these spaces, think about creating zones where students can choose and control the best setting for their current learning needs. Zones should be created for individual focused work, small group study and larger group collaboration.  Areas where students meet and socialize while studying also should be considered a part of these spaces.

Balancing individual and group needs can be difficult, but necessary for today’s multi-tasking student.  They may spend part of the time with the project group and the rest of their time studying individually until a friend meets or texts them.  Public spaces can be viewed as a continuum of alone spaces and together spaces.  Alone spaces are part of the larger space, but students need to feel they have privacy and quiet space.  Students want a social connection by being part of the larger group, but still need to focus on their studies.  Together spaces should support impromptu brainstorming sessions and sharing of ideas and information among a project group or among faculty and students.  Spaces should accommodate a variety of group sizes.

Among the spaces where students gather is the library.  It may be a central library or a smaller departmental library.  The library offers a range of information resources for group and individual study.  Traditionally, libraries have supported individual study very well with carrels and small study rooms.  But in order to support today’s learning, the library needs to support various groups who meet to complete projects assigned by professors. 

The library offers students a place where information technology, knowledge resources and subject experts come together for ongoing learning, teaching and research.  Students learn to analyze and evaluate information, and create new information based on their research.  Computer labs with specialized software have become more important in the library.  Space is needed for both individuals and groups working on projects.  Group project rooms may be needed for more than an evening.  Reserving library space for several days should be considered.  The library needs to continue providing space for individual study, as well as creating space for group study.  Students may spend a lot of time in the library or they may be passing through for a few minutes between classes.  Libraries will need to provide computer kiosks for a quick check of email or social media, as well as computer labs for long-term studying.

Café areas are an attraction for current students and prospective students.  If the library is the academic hub of campus, then the café is the social hub.  Café areas bring three factors together for the campus: community, comfort and study.  Campus community is something you feel on a campus, but can’t see.  It is seen in the camaraderie of students.  It is something all colleges hope to achieve.  The café is an extension of the dorm room and should provide a sense of security on campus.  The traditional dining hall is disappearing and giving way to fun, relaxing and welcoming spaces with bold and vibrant colors.  Studying takes place everywhere on campus. A café’s main purpose is to provide space for relaxing and dining, but can include study space, too. Tables should accommodate laptops, portable devices, books and everything else needed and carried in backpacks by students. 

Campus real estate is too valuable to allow a space to be used only three times a day at meal times.  Today’s students eat several meals a day.  The café needs to have longer hours and not only provide food, but other services as well.  The food court setup allows for eating, studying, socializing and relaxing.  Services along the perimeter of the area may include food, printing services, computer kiosks or a commissary store.  Besides eating, activities include studying, gaming, watching television and meeting friends.  The café should have a mix of spaces that allows all of this activity to take place.  Consider providing soft seating for the gamers, multiple table heights and sizes for dining, and booths for privacy. 

Newer emerging spaces on campus are the in-between spaces.  These may be small lounges, hallways or other informal spaces.  These spaces are an extension of the classroom and exemplify that learning happens anywhere and everywhere.  Students and faculty usually have to leave a classroom so the next class can begin.  Then the students and faculty are trying to hold a discussion in the hallway and are not able to really engage in continued learning. These spaces usually buzz with energy and the activity of students working on a project or continuing a classroom discussion. 

When creating in-between spaces, think about giving students the ability to control and change the space, make it comfortable, and create collaborative areas.  Control of the space allows students to change the space for their learning needs – can a table and chair be easily moved so I can study by myself or in a group?  Providing a variety of furniture for stand-up conversations, tables for focused work and lounge chairs for conversation provide students with the control to meet their needs.  Collaboration among students is a mainstay on campus.  In-between spaces can meet this need by supporting the group before and after class when this is the only time a group can meet.  Tools that support impromptu brainstorming and capture information are a must for in-between spaces. 

No matter where students meet on campus supporting their needs is priority one.  Campus-wide Wi-Fi is a must, as are electrical outlets.  Students carry a multitude of electronic devices that need to be recharged and powered up for their use.  Learning spaces should meet the needs of today’s students and faculty.  Colleges and universities are creatively meeting the needs of students and anticipating the needs of prospective students.

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