Design Elements in Learning Spaces

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Section 1: Learning Spaces


            Gfeller, Butterfield-Nagy, & Grignon (2011) define learning spaces as “any space that students can use to learn, whether virtual or physical”. In this regard,  Jamieson, Fisher, Gilding, Taylor, & Trevitt (2000)asserts that a learning space ought to encourage learning as an activity while at the same time motivating students to learn. Learning spaces should also encourage collaborative learning and guarantee both an inclusive and personalized environment. Flexibility is also an important factor to be taken into consideration during the design of learning spaces. According to Jackson & Hahn (2011), a learning space, whether virtual or physical, has a significant effect on the learning process. At present, learning institutions are gradually moving away from the conventional teaching methods towards pedagogies that are effective in meeting the needs of the 21st century student. There is no doubt that the current student population is characterized by diverse backgrounds, different learning styles and preferences, and increasing use of digital technologies. In this regard, Jamieson, Fisher, Gilding, Taylor, & Trevitt (2000) maintains that learning spaces should be response to the individual student’s needs and the needs of the diverse pedagogies. As a result, having an understanding regarding the elements that constitute an effective design is imperative when designing learning spaces for the 21st century student. In most cases designing learning spaces often entails constructing a new building or completely remodeling an existing building, which are all costly (Oblinger, 2005). In the design of learning spaces, people often make compromises or mistakes, which can be attributed to time and budget constraints, not anticipating the potential use of the learning space, and space limitations. The critical success factor when designing learning spaces is to take into consideration the needs of the individuals who will teach and learn in the space as well as support individuals. Oblinger (2005) reports that best learning spaces are often as a result of a close relationship between the users, support staff, builder and the architect. However, most decision makers tend to disregard the fact that contemporary learning is significantly different; therefore, it is imperative to understand the manner in which students will make use of the learning space, the technology needs, and how the space and technology affect student learning and teaching.

Types of Learning Spaces

Different types of learning spaces exist to cater for different needs of the students and ensure that the appropriate teaching and learning style is adopted. Krause & Coates (2005) identified the most common types of learning spaces, which include libraries, social commons, classrooms and studio classrooms; each learning space is designed in accordance with the type of learning and the student needs.

Oblinger (2005) defines a library as a learning space where in artistic and literary materials are stored for lending, reading or reference. Some of the learning materials present in a library include tapes, records, prints, pamphlets, newspapers, periodicals and books. Fundamentally, the aim of the academic library is to serve the research and teaching needs of staff and students through supporting the curriculum of the learning institution as well as supporting the research undertaken by students and the faculty. Oblinger (2005) notes that the academic library is the most preferred learning space outside the classroom. According to Krause & Coates (2005), the core attributes that influence the success of an academic library as a learning space are access and linkages, uses and activities, sociability, and comfort and image, which are shown in figure 1 below showing the hierarchy of learning space attributes. Access and linkage us described by the location of the library as well as its information and collection. According to Krause & Coates (2005), the geographic placement of the library plays an important role in motivating the students to make use of the library learning space. In addition, the library learning space should be divided into sub-spaces to cater for diverse activities such as quiet study, computer access, mobile phone use, group study and socializing (Krause & Coates, 2005). The academic library should also have diverse learning resources in order to facilitate diverse learning activities such as reading, consulting with peers, writing, literature search, and completing assignments. Oblinger (2005) points out that access and linkage is in line with the conventional mission of the library, which is to enable students and faculty staff to have access to recorded knowledge. With respect to uses and activities, Jamieson, Fisher, Gilding, Taylor, & Trevitt (2000) points that ethnographic studies have proved that academic work constitutes a significant percentage of time when students are in the library. Nevertheless, an effective academic library ought to address the diverse student needs such as writing assignments, reading and literature search, which need differentiated spaces, tools and furniture. Regarding sociability, there is no doubt that the library learning space acknowledges the interconnectedness of knowledge. Oblinger (2005) asserts that the level of sociability of an academic library plays a vital role in determining how students will utilize it. A study by Jamieson, Fisher, Gilding, Taylor, & Trevitt (2000) pointed out that most students still value the reading area as their most preferred location of the library; this is because of its communal setting that enhances both sociability and serious study.


Social commons is the second type of informal learning spaces, which refers to a comfortable and active learning space that allows students to create and discover knowledge by collaborating with peers. Oblinger (2005) considers social commons as a learning space that inspires students to be successful and productive. Empirical studies have affirmed that informal social learning provides students with the opportunity to network, debate and discuss, which all encourage student engagement. A survey by Jamieson, Fisher, Gilding, Taylor, & Trevitt (2000) pointed out that social learning spaces increases student engagement, which is a crucial variable for academic achievement and student satisfaction. The traditional lecture halls and classroom provides minimal opportunities for social engagement between students, as a result, social learning spaces were designed to cater for this deficiency associated with the traditional learning spaces. The significance of social interaction in facilitating learning cannot be overlooked and has been widely acknowledged in literature (Gfeller, Butterfield-Nagy, & Grignon, 2011). Social learning spaces draw upon the socio-constructionist learning theory, which refers to the view that social interaction plays a pivotal role to the construction of learning.  An example of a social learning space is shown in the following figure.

The classroom is a formal learning space where most of the student’s learning take place. Classroom learning spaces have received a lot of criticism owing to the fact that the learning environment is mostly teacher-centered and provided minimal opportunities for student participation in the learning process (Jackson & Hahn, 2011). Recently, the classroom learning space has witnessed significant transformations, especially following the integration of technology in the classroom, which has transformed traditional teaching methods and allowed more group learning, interactions between students and between students and the instructor, and student-centered learning. Jackson & Hahn (2011) notes that the design of the classroom learning space plays a pivotal role in influencing the effectiveness of learning. The physical arrangement of the learning space often reflects the teaching style. For instance, arranging students in clusters of desks or around tables fosters collaborative learning. Similarly, whole-group discussions can be facilitated by a U-shaped or circle configuration of desks. In addition, the physical space should be organized in such a way that it can accommodate diverse students while at the same time fostering student interaction (Jamieson, Fisher, Gilding, Taylor, & Trevitt, 2000). Other important factors that ought to be taken into consideration in the design of the classroom learning space include sufficient lighting as well as controls, adequate cooling and heating systems, good acoustics, and sufficient workspaces. Depending on the number of students, the classroom design can either be slanting or flat.

The other type of learning spaces is the studio classrooms, which is increasingly being used as a substitute to the conventional lecture approach (Jackson & Hahn, 2011). A studio classroom is characterized by relatively few lectures, students working in groups, activities that place emphasis on cooperative and collaborative learning, hands-on project-oriented learning, students having the responsibility for learning, and an integrated and dynamic learning environment that places emphasis both content learning and individual intellectual development (Jackson & Hahn, 2011). Several empirical studies have affirmed that interactive engagement, a core characteristic of studio classrooms, is vital for intellectual development and meaningful learning. In addition, group activities, and active and cooperative learning is the most effective and efficient way of encouraging student learning and developing high order thinking skills. In addition, Krause & Coates (2005) points out that studio learning spaces are ideal for assisting student develop lifelong learning skills. The kinds of activities associated with studio learning spaces include projects, class discussions, presentations and debates. Fundamentally, studio-based learning spaces are typified by instructors offering information in the form of short lecturers rather than full-length lectures.

Types of Learning Styles in the Learning Spaces

            The following table shows the types of learning styles in the various learning spaces.

Learning space Learning styles
Academic Library 1. solitary/Independent learning, which involves self-study
  1. Collaborative learning, which involves discussions with peersSocial commons1. Social learning, which involves learning in groups, or with peersClassroom1. Teacher-centered learningStudio classrooms1. Student centered learning

  2. Just-in-time teaching

  3. Discovery learning

  4. Project-based learning

  5. Problem-based learning

  6. case-based instruction and inquiry-based learning


Section 2: Studio Classrooms

Background and History

Obeidat and Al-Share (2012) define studio-based learning as an apprenticeship and inquiry learning model that draws upon problem-based learning, although it has room for more pervasive student-centered approach. Weinstein (1979) described studio-based learning using the architect’s learning studio, which is characterized by a shared learning environment whereby students tackle ambiguous problems using critique, proposition, and multimodal analysis. In the contemporary education system, studio-based teaching and learning are based on the need to deviate from the conventional lecture-based pedagogy towards a model where the instructor plays the role of a facilitator by issuing projects, students working in groups, activities that emphasize on cooperative and collaborative learning, and placing the responsibility to learn on students (Aydin, 2007).