Designing College & University Spaces for Technical Learning

Traditional classrooms at colleges and universities around the world have been designed as “stand-and-deliver, sit-and-listen” spaces: a professor in front of the class speaking to an audience of students. While varying in size from small classrooms to lecture halls, nearly every learning space has been set up in this way.

The one exception has been the science lab. Labs are inherently designed for students working on experiments while a professor demonstrates at the front. They’re generally wider and larger spaces, allowing for movement through the classroom for observing and assisting. But lab learning spaces were generally limited to the sciences.

Hands on Learning is More Effective

Hermann Miller conducted a study with the National Training Laboratories and found that lectures are 5% effective for teaching college students, while “Practice by Doing” is 75% effective.

More and more, colleges and universities are moving to “hands on” learning, in particular when it comes to technical skills. “Learn by telling” has proven less effective than “learn by doing.” And spaces have to be adapted to reflect that.

“I never teach my pupils. I only attempt to provide the conditions in which they can learn.” – Albert Einstein

Space Design Needs to Allow For Access and Flexibility

Hands on learning spaces require instructors and students to work together—and move throughout the space. They often require collaboration on projects as well.

This means the spaces need to be configurable and easily shifted from group learning and collaboration, to centralized demonstration and discussion, to test taking and back again.

Work areas are often larger and modular, requiring more space for movement and configuration. Technology such as LED screens and white boards at workstations are useful in this environment (vs. one screen or white board at the front of the lecture hall.)

Power Needs and Locations Must Shift 

Hands on learning more often than not includes a computer or tablet. With a modular workspace, power requirements need to be rethought. Gone are the “outlets along the walls” mentality.

Innovative solutions can provide power from a dropdown cord from the ceiling or a pop-up module attached to the work station. Ensuring connectivity is crucial to learning success.

As higher learning spaces are built and adapted for hands on and technical learning, it’s more critical than ever to have a design team that thinks critically about how the space will be used and brings fresh ideas to the design.

On top of the challenges a hands-on space presents, there are still the common considerations of natural light, ergonomic functionality, storage requirements, and more. But with the right innovation, your campus—and students, faculty and staff—can be set up for success as the shift toward technical training continues.