a framework for designing student learning environments for the future

Comfort in local and international settings

Informal Study Spaces – comfortable chairs, shelter from the elements, access to power, flexible open hours

Lamont Library Cafe Harvard University

The Lamont Library cafe at Harvard University is an example of  an old building being adapted so that it can provide comfort to students and other users of the library.  A student naps on one of the couches, while in foreground another student has plugged in his laptop.   A collection of periodicals are available to read at the back of the cafe.   The cafe is student run and provides barista service for a few hours.   During the off hours and late at night the cafe provides access to the self-service espresso and vending machines.

Meyer Library Stanford University

This photo of the J. Henry Meyer Memorial library at Stanford University illustrates how some cheap bright furniture can reform the aesthetics of a very formal building make students feel at  home and comfortable.  Placing beanbags and other comfortable chairs alongside the windows provides students with a sheltered space to study, and encourages them to spend more time at the library.  Interestingly both the library and at Stanford are open to very late during the academic terms.  Students are able to use the library resources and have a warm place to study late into the evening, or they can begin early in the morning – the library hours are designed to suit the variety of student study patterns.

The natural light coming in through the window which goes some way to compensate for the glare of the fluorescent lighting, and the bright colours soften the drab 70’s beige of the original layout.

TU Delft Library Pod

The learning pods built into the  top of a faculty building  at TU Delft (Delft University of Technology, Netherlands).  The roof above the pods lets in natural light, and although they are situated in a very large open space the walls of the pods keep the noise out.

TU Delft Lockers

Notice that the students are not burdened by their coats and bags and other paraphernalia?  This is because TU Delft provides lockers for students to store their valuables and winter coats.  For more on the use of Lockers in schools, and integrating them into the environment, go to DesignShare.com

In the classroom – comfortable seating, flexible work spaces, appropriate lighting,  collaborative learning

Of all the high tech additions to the classroom at Stanford University this lightweight stackable chair is the favourite of both staff and students alike.

Steelcase chairs

Steelcase chairs

The chair is ergonomic and very comfortable to sit on; the seat and back move, so that the user can lean back without the chair tipping.  Moreover, it can be stacked away so that the classes can change in size  without the room becoming cluttered with unwanted chairs.

If class sizes are going to be large, then it is important to consider how all students can have access to the learning experience, and feel part of the group.


The TEAL (Technology-Enhanced Active Learning) classroom at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology)  shows how comfortable chairs, group tables, and other technology can make 120 students feel as if they as if they are part of a small class.   When the SKG team visited, the class room was abuzz with the noise of students  working, but did not feel unduly noisy.   The instructor’s workstation is in the centre of the room, surrounded by 13 round tables.  Whiteboards and projectors line the walls.

The TEAL classroom was developed to improve the teaching of physics.  La Trobe University have adopted some of the principles of the TEAL classroom in their Learning Room – a room used to teach a variety of humanities and science subjects.

Media students using the La Trobe University Learning Room

This undergraduate media studies class is making the most of the flexible tools in the La Trobe University Learning Room.  The class has broken up into small groups.  Each group sits around a light weight table and can use wifi on a laptop and newspapers to work on class assignments  Each group writes their findings on a portable ‘huddle’ board – a lightweight whiteboard which they can hold up to the rest of the class when it is their turn to present their findings.    In this class, the blackboard on the mustard wall is being used as well as the whiteboards.

Behind the mustard wall is a small kitchen with tea and coffee facilities and filtered water.

Flexible configurations in the La Trobe University Learning Room

History lecture in La Trobe University's Learning Room

History students in the La Trobe University Learning Room

This History class uses a more traditional format.  In the Learning Room the distance between the lecturer and her students is minimised, creating a more intimate atmosphere than the traditional lecture theatre.  Using the smart board and a data projector the Lecturer and class are also closer to the images and therefore more involved in the subject matter.  Notice how the blinds over the window can be pulled half-way down – letting in natural light onto the students so they can write notes, while ensuring the room is dark enough for the images on the screen to be seen clearly.

Most people feel more comfortable reading in natural light, but in order to use data projectors the instructor must also be able to dim the lights. The TEAL Centre uses a variety of lighting rather than a uniform approach – down lights can highlight the whiteboards, the softer lighting throughout the room contributes to students feeling as if they are working in smaller groups.

For more discussion on the use of lighting in class rooms, see“Learning, Lighting and Color” by Randall Fielding.

Indoor/Outdoor – more informal spaces to study, meet, and collaborate

Our focus groups with students in Australia found that students wanted places where they could meet after a lecture and have a cup of coffee, and places in the fresh air where they could use their laptops to work or play.  They wanted shelter from the sometimes harsh conditions in Australia – the hot sun, wind, and rain.  This finding was echoed in international developments in University settings.

Student Street winds along the ground floor of the Stata Centre at MIT.  The street provides access to shops, childcare and classrooms.  It was important for the project developers that the street was ‘owned’ by the students; therefore significant consultation was held with the students and other users of the space during its development.  It is undercover to provide shelter from the extremes of cold weather in Boston and is designed to encourage networking and social interaction.

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