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Recent research has been examining the connection between learning environments and learning outcomes: A team consisting of a pioneering designer, a design educator, and a researcher have worked to ‘prove’ that the design of learning places matter. Mounting empirical evidence by multiple authors indicates that the higher the level of student engagement, the higher the probability that he or she will do well in many aspects of his or her academic life. The research question was, “Does the design of the built environment impact student academic engagement success?” This case-study will share some robust empirical evidence answering this important research question.

We are 18 years into the 21st century, and teachers and designers still struggle with moving to more active learning practices and solutions. Designs supporting active learning are “innovative,” and innovation causes members of the academy to pause. It comes down to a system’s challenge—all levels of decision-making from teachers, to principals, to superintendents must acknowledge this, and then address each to positively move forward.

Modern Ideas and Knowledge for How the Environment Impacts Learning

  • We know too much to continue to operate and teach the way we did hundreds of years ago:
  • Modern brain science has revealed that we should move to learn and be OK with a change from novelty to direct focus and back again, and recognize our brains grow as our bodies grow.
  • Biophilic design principles extol the connections we all require to nature—proven to enhance wellbeing.
  • Design solutions afford lots of windows to the exterior and to interior spaces putting “learning on display,” but sadly, more often than not, teachers cover up windows with student work, or brown paper, as they are afraid of distractions, taking away students’ chance for a small connection to the natural world from the classroom. Actually, our brains need these brief breaks in our perspective in order to stay more fully engaged.
  • Environment Behavioural Psychology has identified that row-by-column seating begets a passive audience. Why? In this arrangement, students don’t see eye-to-eye, nor experience ease in communicating.
  • Ergonomics is the science of human to ‘machine’ interface. We know our bodies change physiologically as we age. However, we practice purchasing one-size-fits-all seating solutions perhaps because it’s easier to maintain and keep count of. Choice and control over comfort supporting and giving permission for postural changes are important.

Outdated Practices Still Dominating

The 50-minute (give or take) class session structure continues to dominate in most schools. Even if a teacher wanted to take students into a breakout area, there isn’t enough time to “herd the cats” in and out of the classroom. Innovation has provided breakout spaces, in-between areas for collaboration, and hallway designs that encourage collision and connection. Due to this systemic issue described above (fear of distraction, control of students), these spaces go under-utilized, or worse yet, not used at all, and even more distressing, become storage zones. Square footage is lost and utility compromised.

We also see teaching to the test is not getting us where we need to be. Too often, these practices (although demanded “from above”) do not allow teachers the freedom to adapt a more personalized learning experience for each student.

How Designers Can Usher in Change

What designers bring to the dance is the knowledge of how people need to learn, how to work, and collaborate with multi-disciplinary teams in the “real world.” Thus, “innovative” spatial designs are developed to challenge the status quo of a teacher centered practice, to one that is student centered. Research begins to share the “proof” that these 21st-century practices yield higher levels of student academic engagement.

The following are examples of empirical work vetted in peer-reviewed journal articles, describing the work this researcher has led, and the yield at both the higher education level and at the grades 9-12 levels. It is recognized in all of this research, that doing action research in an actual setting is not working in a petri dish! Given the multiple constraints and variables impacting people in a setting, the research team always does it’s best to put in “control” measures into survey instruments. Both students and teachers are responding in ours.

Fixed Versus Flexible Furniture Study

The first article shared is, “The built environment impacts behaviors: Results of an active-learning post-occupancy evaluation,” published in the Planning for Higher Education Journal10 (2015). This research focused on the classroom at higher education facilities comparing two scenarios: (1) a traditional classroom furniture arrangement of row-by-column, and (2) an active learning environment using a chair with casters and a swivel seat.

We asked the respondents to think back upon their time in a traditional classroom setting and compare that memory to the active one they are in presently. The majority of students and faculty rated the new classroom significantly better than the old classroom on 12 factors.

Active learning practices and the impact of the physical space significantly improved in the new classrooms for both students and faculty.

The major finding was an overall mean improvement in the learning practices that support engagement between the old and new classroom conditions.

Spatial Design Study

The second study aimed to see if we might find similar results in grades 9-12. We continued the practice of post-occupancy evaluation. In 2018, the “Beta” version of this study was published in the European Scientific Journal, “Spatial design makes a difference in student academic engagement levels: A pilot study for grades 9-12.”11 The findings revealed that both students and educators agreed that the design of the built environment made a difference, relative to their engagement in the overall environment and the classrooms at a high level of significance.

Essentially, spatial design makes a difference.

Mounting empirical evidence reveals that the design of space makes a difference. However, teaching practices matter as well, and our work clearly demonstrated that educators need training and practice to understand how these new “tools” for the classroom help them and their students achieve greater success.

Case Study References

Scott-Webber, Lennie, et al. “Built environments impact behaviors: results of an active learning post-occupancy evaluation: the study shows that rigorous research methods embedded in the design of product(s) and contextual solutions result in measurable improvements.” Planning for Higher Education, vol. 42, no. 1, 2013. Scott-Webber, Lennie, et al. “Spatial Design Makes a Difference in Student Academic Engagement Levels: A Pilot Study for Grades 9-12.” European Scientific Journal, ESJ 13.16 (2017).

About this Research and Methodology

State of the K-12 Market 2018: The Impact of Learning Spaces on Student Success, is based on an online survey conducted by MDR, with a nationwide sample of K-12 public school educators. Teachers and librarian/media specialists were sent an email invitation to take the survey and 1,685 completed it. Data collection occurred from May 24 through June 17, 2018. Respondents were asked if their school had undergone a construction or renovation in the past five years, or if their school has a renovation planned in the near future. If neither was the case, they were asked if their school is in need of a renovation. Throughout the report, how the respondents answered this question will be referenced for perspective. Nearly one-fourth of the respondents work in schools planning a renovation, over one-third reported construction took place recently, and nearly two-thirds believe their school needs construction or a renovation in the next five years. This points to the importance teachers place on having modern, updated learning spaces in which to teach. Learn more about MDR Education reports at