Chapter 1: Designing for Integrative Learning

by José Antonio Bowen, Ph.D., FRSA

Posted on October 04, 2016

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Teaching, building community and integrating learning are all design challenges. We know that faculty want students to learn, that students want to connect with each other, and that they desire to internalize their learning. Our role as leaders is to help guide the design of systems that will increase desired behaviors. An inclusive process will help create facilities that are welcomed by your community and designed to match the needs of your individual campus, but clear priorities for outcomes and the paths that lead there are essential.

If we want more interactive classrooms, then we should not be building raked lecture halls that face a front projection system with a massive podium. We can nudge faculty in the right direction with moveable tables and chairs, multiple screens that project from any laptop and abundant wall spaces for writing and sharing. Academic hallways and lounges are also seeing a makeover, as campus designers look everywhere to increase the spaces for learning. Could a whiteboard and a few chairs turn that corner into an attractive study or gathering space near your faculty office?

One of our primary goals was increasing faculty/student interaction—another key retention metric.  

Residence halls are, of course, an attractive target for the enhancement of campus learning and engagement. Students spend most of their time out of class, and we hope that our campus communities provide more than just a social experience. Still, we know that the quality of the campus experience is critical for retention. How do we design residence halls to improve learning and provide space for integration?

When we realized that we needed to replace some of our oldest residence halls at Goucher College, we started by looking both at retention and student development. Do the configuration of rooms (double, triple or quad), age of the building, proximity to the bathroom or the presence of faculty make a difference in retention? Looking both at our own data and at national data, we understood that first-year student retention was related to a sense of community. Students who feel engaged with the campus and have lots of friends are more likely to persist at the institution. Triples and especially singles tend to have lower retention for first-year students than doubles and quads, and long hallways with community bathrooms are good. It was easy to see that singles were socially isolating, but we could only hypothesize that triples often presented a constantly shifting two-against-one dynamic that doubles and quads avoided. Being furthest from the bathroom forces students to spend more time in the hall passing by other rooms and seems to increase social engagement.

We also asked students what amenities they wanted and when. Fitness rooms were not deemed a high priority. (Your campus might be different, but at Goucher, we have fitness equipment in the library, which is gradually being moved to the fitness center. Students seem not to want to sweat in this public place and want to be near showers. These issues may have colored our individual campus response.) Students wanted kitchens and food available, and they wanted lounges with amenities—they were adamant that such lounges should be unavoidable, in high-traffic areas, with inviting furniture, to draw others in. Students wanted fireplaces and patios, and the ideas for courtyard space included a community garden, an amphitheater and a fire pit. We also put a fireplace in one lounge, and a bigger communal kitchen near another.

Most older residence halls have laundry facilities in the basement, which seems counter to the reality that laundry rooms actually function as social spaces for interaction. Most of us remember the predicament of finding someone else’s washed clothes in the machine and trying to decide if we should just keep coming back downstairs every half-hour, or if we should risk touching someone else’s stuff, but not put it in the dryer. Who wanted to hang out in the laundry room? Our students suggested that if the laundry room was more visible, that people might stay downstairs while their laundry was being washed. We put it next to the main lounge, and this seems to be working, as the laundry room has become a more social place (and perhaps even works as an incentive for students to actually do their laundry more than once a semester).

The next step in the process was balancing what students wanted with what the data said was actually best for them, as well as the other goals we had. Students did not want quads, so we went with mostly traditional doubles. Everyone wants attractive lounges, but we also wanted lounges that were unavoidable; thus, there are only two ways in or out of our first building: students can either enter on the side and walk past the staff and faculty apartments (where there is also plenty of light and seating) or come in the front or back doors into the main lounge and up the main stairs, where they will encounter each individual floor lounge.

Students wanted a full kitchen on every floor, and they got it. We also require all first-year students to have a meal plan and did not want anyone relying on this kitchen for every meal, but the idea of sharing food is powerful, and so there is a constant stream of brownies being baked. Putting a microwave in every kitchen on every floor also eliminates the need to have a microwave in your room, which mostly serves as a conduit for burnt popcorn that sets off the smoke alarms. We anticipate that there will still be burnt popcorn and that microwaves will need to be replaced every semester, but hopefully this activity will move out of individual rooms and into communal spaces.

One of our primary goals was increasing faculty/student interaction—another key retention metric. Putting faculty apartments in each house was obvious (and tends also to improve behavior), but we also talked a lot about what other academic functions might harmonize well with residential life. We decided against a traditional classroom but added a dance and music rehearsal space near one lounge. (We have robust dance and arts programs, and students needed more places to rehearse.) We located the writing center next to a lounge in another building. Students also wanted an even larger community kitchen, and they got it, as the lounge feature in one of the buildings.

One of our experiments was to put faster Ethernet plugs only in the lounges. The building is obviously completely wireless, but the gamers use a lot of bandwidth. If they have the fastest Ethernet in their rooms, they might never leave, so we provided an extra incentive to come play games in a more communal public space, with Ethernet and extra-large screens. So far, students seem to be embracing this compromise.

All of us are cost conscious, and these new buildings are actually the cheapest per bed we have ever built at Goucher. The key is to ask which features have value for retention and which relate only to maintenance. Since the buildings and grounds people are often charged both with supervising construction and maintaining the buildings once they are completed (and our architect is housed in the same office), maintenance-oriented items may be prioritized. Most of our campus buildings are clad in stone, which is many times the price of the cheapest materials. More stucco and less stone meant a significant savings on the initial cost. It is true that the stucco will need to be painted, but spreading out that cost over decades allowed us to prioritize other retention-related details in the building.

A few takeaways:
Your process is key. A consistent steering committee is more likely to understand the need to balance current desires, processes and costs. For us, this was one project where a large committee with many current students was really useful. It needs to be led by someone who is well-liked, patient with process and also someone with a strong hand and good judgement. We have the tremendous good fortune to have all of those characteristics in our vice president of student affairs, Bryan Coker.

Find an architect who has both designed lots of recent residence halls at other institutions, yet still “gets” your individual campus. In the end, design experience with such facilities is the most important attribute of your architect. While the attractiveness of the building matters, residence halls live or die by how functional they are, so specific residence hall experience truly matters here.

Visibility and transparency of the process is key. You will need a public place (not just on the website) to publicize the members of the committee as well as the project progress. Open meetings, design charrettes, and lots of communication are important for getting the right end product, but they can also enhance the sense of momentum on campus. This is a place where everyone can contribute to improving something that matters to everyone.

Poll your students often about key decisions. We started our process by asking students what they wanted, but near the end we also gave students choices about the décor. We had the highest response rate to any survey administered in recent history. Students REALLY cared about the choices of colors and style of furniture—and they are the ones who will live there. (Students desired more of a homey and less edgy or modern style than we expected.) We also gave this poll to incoming admitted students, and this was a great way to engage them before they had even arrived on campus.

Be aware that the minute you open new housing, your older housing looks much worse than it did previously. You will immediately have new complaints about what seemed perfectly acceptable accommodations last year.

A key decision is pricing. Many campuses charge more for nicer and newer rooms. Charging more for larger rooms or rooms with air conditioning can be a tempting source of revenue, but it also tends to segregate the campus. Wealthier students will congregate in the more expensive halls. This seems to go against one of the key missions and educational benefits of our institutions: the ability to learn to solve complex problems with people from different backgrounds. If we are going to argue that diversity is important both for learning and for social justice, then it is hard to justify creating an internal class system. We decided to stay with our uniform pricing across the campus, even when we opened new buildings. Parents may argue with this logic, but being transparent about the reasons will help.

Housing should be designed with students’ developmental pathways in mind. Since first-year students still need to make lots of new friends, traditional doubles, long hallways and community bathrooms are appropriate. But seniors largely have an established group of friends, and they want to live in more adult conditions, such as suites or apartments. Every campus needs a balance of the various types of housing. We needed both newer facilities and apartments (we currently have none.) You can never build everything at once, and you also need to manage the amount of time when demolition will reduce the total bed count. You will need swing space, if possible, to build before you demolish or renovate. Our phasing of the overall housing master plan made it clear that a more compact large traditional first-year village was the best thing to build first. (It was also the physical space that was available on campus.) We knew this would make seniors unhappy, and it has. It must be written in some holy book that the good fortune of another is unfair, so messaging here is essential, but will not be enough. Once again, large and visible representations of the master plan and the end product—when everyone will have better housing—will help.

Every campus is different, but the response to our new residence halls has been spectacular. Students are not only happier, but seem to be spending more time building community. Hopefully, we have also built spaces that will enhance learning on our campus. We will be following the retention data carefully.