21st Century Learning Spaces Define Expectations, Shape Experiences

An increasing body of research shows that active, student-centered learning improves students' perceptions, motivations and performance-but how does physical space affect these things? It is important to create a space that matches educational goals because the environment will heavily influence students' activities. Bustling common areas invite student gatherings with comfortable soft furnishings and electric/USB ports to keep students' devices charged and running. Engaging makerspaces encourage invention by providing large workspaces for students to spread out their materials and spark ideas about what they can build. Collaborative learning areas stimulate participation with workspaces that allow all students to talk with each other without having to crane their necks to see everyone in the group. Research shows that intentional arrangements of physical space create expectations of active learning and yield educational benefits.

Seating impacts outcomes

It is well known that seating arrangements affect student performance. In traditional settings, research shows that students perform better when they are seated in closer proximity to the teacher. One might be tempted to think that this is because the more motivated students tend to sit up front, but even when seats are randomly assigned, students perform much better in traditional arrangements when they are seated in the front rows. The physical space in a 21st century learning environment can fix this by spreading the seating around the room in such a way that the instructor can teach from the center.

Researchers demonstrated this when they followed two different groups of students in two different sections of the same class. For one group, the lecture hall was arranged in a traditional, auditorium style with students seated in long rows with chairs turned toward the front of the room. For the other group, the room contained many tables that each seated 8-9 students. The tables for this second group were organized so that all students sat around an instructor, who taught from the center of the room. Course materials and pedagogical approaches were the same between the two groups. Students with the clustered seating arrangement surpassed their expected grades based on standardized test scores, while the students in the traditional seating approach did not. The cluster seating also affected the educators, allowing the instructor to interact with the students more and spend less time at a single lecture spot. Students felt the difference, reporting more engagement and more flexibility during class.

Educators can also structure seating to foster specific types of participation. For example, semi-circular seating elicits more student questions when the whole class is engaged in a single discussion facilitated by the teacher. In studies, students remain more focused when the seating arrangement better fits the specific experiences that students will have in the space.

Learning environments set expectations

Choices about the workspaces and the layout of the room also impact the perception of what is possible in a learning space. When researchers studied students and educators who had experienced classes in both a traditional-style and studio classroom, the students reported that more spacious work areas in the studio classroom alleviated the distractions of feeling crammed into individual desks without ample space to spread out. They reported their experience in traditional settings as "cramped" and "claustrophobic." Educators added that more space between the studio tables allows them to move freely about the room, providing more opportunity to keep students on task and involved. Students also felt that the arrangement of the studio space created accessible lines of communication, allowing them to own their educational experiences. The traditional arrangement, however, made them feel "alienated" and "excluded." Educators expressed the idea that when rooms are intentionally set up to foster more student interaction, a greater number of instructors will opt for their students to actively learn via group work. They also felt that mobile furnishings give educators the flexibility to create lessons that provide students with a variety of experiences in the same class session. When furnishings are flexible, educators can easily switch between teacher discussion and student group work.

Learning arrangements promote engagement and accountability

Twenty-first century learning requires collaborative work, allowing students to develop interpersonal skills and the ability to communicate knowledge to team members. The arrangement of workspaces affects the level of engagement and the amount of accountability from all the students in the group. In classroom observations, focus groups and journals, students expressed that they felt more accountable to other members of their discussion group when they were seated in round table arrangements that allowed all team members to clearly see each other at all times. Students reported that they would be embarrassed to disengage because their lack of effort would be so evident. Students also expressed that the arrangement created a more open atmosphere where they more intently listened to ideas that conflicted with their own. Educators noted that students would often stay beyond the class period to continue conversations that they had started during that session. Both educators and students reported that discussion would often spill out of the classrooms and into student common areas. Educators described the round table arrangements with terms like "student-centered", "egalitarian" and "Socratic". Both students and educators described the collaborative table groups as "interactive," with students adding that the arrangements were "engaging" and "open." From this study researchers recommended that effective learning arrangements should include: furnishings that can be flexibly arranged, with readily-available media such as whiteboards and informal gathering spaces that are close to the formal learning spaces.

Design with 21st century learning in mind

Learning environments define expectations and impact students' activities as they build their skills to tackle the challenges of an increasingly complex society. Research points to arrangements that make it easier for students to immerse themselves more fully in learning and allowing them to develop strengths and uncover talents. Educators can unlock this potential when they intentionally design their spaces for student-centered learning experiences.

Minchen, Brian. (2007). Effects of Classroom Seating on Students' Performance in a High School Setting.
http://digitalcommons.brockport.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1425&context=ehd_theses

Perkins, Katherina & Weiman, Carl. (2005). The Surprising Impact of Seat Location on Student Performance. http://aapt.scitation.org/doi/10.1119/1.1845987

Cotner, Sehoya; Loper, Jessica; Walker, J.D.; Brooks, Christopher. (2013). It's Not You, It's the Room-Are the High-Tech, Active Learning Classrooms Worth It?
http://www.cbs.umn.edu/sites/cbs.umn.edu/files/public/downloads/JCST-July2013.pdf

Marx, Alexandria; Fuhrer, Urs; and Hartig, Terry. (1999). Effects of Classroom Seating Arrangements on Children's question-asking.
https://link.springer.com/article/10.1023/A:1009901922191

Wannarka, Rachel & Ruhl, Kathy. (2008). Seating arrangements that promote positive academic and behavioural outcomes: a review of empirical research.
http://www.corelearn.com/files/Archer/Seating_Arrangements.pdf

Granito, Vincent & Santana, Mary. (2016). Psychology of Learning Spaces: Impact on Teaching and Learning. http://libjournal.uncg.edu/jls/article/view/882

Parsons, Caroline. (2016). "Space and Consequences": The Influence of the Roundtable Classroom Design on Student Dialogue. http://libjournal.uncg.edu/jls/article/view/1241

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