Strategies for Promoting Student Achievement

Focusing on student success, colleges are designing facilities that promote collaboration, productivity, and wellness.

The Wond’ry at Vanderbilt University Engineering & Science Building.
Three Higher Ed Facility Strategies to Improve Collaboration

Today’s academic institutions are facing a shift in both enrollment and academic structure. With a decreasing college-bound population and the rise of online courses and degrees, higher education communities are facing urgent pressure to reimagine their institutions. We see such responses in a variety of ways, from widening criteria for acceptance to remodeling spaces to be more conducive to collaboration and wellness. By investing in design to impact occupant experiences positively, these institutions can see growth in student learning as well as student and faculty recruitment and retention, curbing the liability of attrition.

When drafting design plans, there are a handful of principles and practices that will help promote a more positive experience.

Once a rather individualistic setting, higher education—particularly STEM programs—have embraced a more collaborative approach to learning curriculum and spaces. Students learn faster and with greater retention working with their colleagues as opposed to independently. With environments like maker-spaces, tiered classrooms, and various types of flexible informal spaces, students and faculty have options for greater connection to facilitate problem-based learning.

This approach is supported by the trend for corporations to focus on a workforce accustomed to group settings, reflecting their culture of building community and partnership. For example, Google, which historically ranks highly in Fortune’s 100 Best Companies to Work For, provides environments that encourage casual collisions, promote employee engagement, and reinforce an open culture.

Maker-spaces—More and more, maker-space is becoming a staple in higher education institutions. Designed as a creative environment that brings students together, this type of setting engages students in hands-on learning and promotes group activities. Whether high-tech, low-tech, or no-tech, students can explore ideas with tools and materials, in a productive setting ideal for innovation and creativity.

The Digital Media Commons project at Northeastern University transformed 100,000 square feet of the Snell Library from traditional book stack space to a flexible learning commons with state-of-the-art media capabilities. As an innovative model that supports collaboration in digital creation, design, and analysis, the Digital Media Commons reaches beyond the traditional library mission to include resources as diverse as 3D printing labs, an innovation center, and audio/video/post-production studios. The strategic ground floor location now includes one of the signature spaces of the project—a dramatic 10,000-square-foot open plan commons. Students have the option to work independently or in small teams. Thirty media-capable collaborative rooms provide the tools and setting for students, faculty, and researchers to create and share content.

Tiered classrooms—Once littered with large auditoriums and lecture halls, campuses are now looking to leverage these spaces to accommodate varying pedagogies. Transitioning from the antiquated model of the “sage-on-the-stage” to a multi-purpose tiered classroom provides both a traditional lecture style setting and a group work format. Each tier, with two rows of moveable seating and a wide table between, allows for a different format in which a lecture can be combined with breakouts for small group work.

Range of community and informal learning spaces—In learning, one size does not fit all. Providing a variety of environments encourages and supports collaboration. Students now experience spaces that allow for a range of postures like high-top and standing configurations and casual layouts reminiscent of living rooms, as well as traditional desk and table areas. Not all students learn the same way and having a choice in one’s setting can make a difference in an individual’s comfort level and participation.

The Wond’ry at Vanderbilt University is a 13,000-gross-square-foot campus resource dedicated to fostering an innovative and entrepreneurial culture. With programs that include a speaker series, hackathons, networking events, and the Innovation Garage—for testing disruptive technologies—the Wond’ry works with diverse resources to accelerate the transfer of laboratory discoveries and academic-based concepts to the marketplace. As host of the PreFlight/PostFlight programs, the Wond’ry provides student for-profit and non-profit venture ideas with entrepreneurial support. Features of the three-story space include co-labs, teaming rooms, media presentation lounge, and maker-spaces for 3D printing, foam fabrication, rapid prototyping, and robotics. On-site staffing, training, and mentoring support leverage these technologies. The Wond’ry draws on its adjacency to the new 235,000-gross-square-foot Engineering and Science Building, which expands interdisciplinary research in biomedical engineering, energy, and materials science.

Four Facilities Strategies to Improve Student Productivity

Institutions often resort to looking for statistics about completed credit hours and matriculation rates to determine their productivity and performance. Instead, imagine a productivity evaluation based on lessons learned and retained, emphasizing the quality of education rather than the quantity. What settings might best accomplish this?

The University of Kentucky TEAL (technology-enhanced active learning) spaces facilitate small-group learning.

Flipped classrooms—This is less a physical event than a way that institutions are rethinking learning and instruction. Students learn the lecture material independently so that class time is used for discussion, debate, group work, and problem-solving. This style creates a highly productive and engaging environment.

TEAL (technology-enhanced active learning)—These spaces are a dynamic way to facilitate small, group-based learning. Large tables with monitors located at one end provide space to gather and display information and ideas, working in tandem with the flipped classroom approach. Professors can circulate throughout the room and engage with different groups as they work through solutions. This setup also allows for a role reversal, where students present their findings, as they mirror screens and showcase work on a larger monitor, bringing the class together for discussion. While technology enhances the experience, collaboration and connection are still at the center.

The first TEAL classroom was innovated and designed for the MIT TEAL/Studio Physics Project in the early 1990s and accommodated working groups of three with nine students at each of the eleven tables. An assessment of this model claims that it improved learning by a factor of two, over traditional methods. This model was incorporated into the University of Kentucky’s Academic Science Building project, which featured multiple TEAL rooms hosting 24, 36, and 42 students, as well as a larger TEAL room which can accommodate up to 132 students at tables for six.

Tunable electric lighting—LED lighting has become a norm across many households and institutions. Tunable artificial lighting takes the benefits of LED to the next level through the customization of quality, color, and intensity as it relates to the natural lighting within a space. Lighting quality can be automated to match the time of day and time of year, which has been shown to reduce fatigue.

With STEM in mind, there are scientific environments in which extremely specific lighting is required. In the case of Lehigh University’s Health, Science and Technology Building, there are plans to use tunable artificial lighting in the open office and communal and collaboration spaces. Laboratory environments will not employ tunable lighting, as certain research will require specific lighting criteria.

Open environments—An open environment encourages connection and fluidity. Intentionally designing a variety of open space environments provides students access to spontaneous interaction, which can lead to increased communication, creativity, and collaboration.

Three Ways to Improve Facility Sustainability, Student Wellness

Healthy, well-nourished students are more likely to be able to focus on their work, miss less school, and academically perform at a higher level. Student social, emotional, cognitive, and physical development can be positively influenced by a supportive learning environment. What environmental factors can positively impact student health and productivity?

Vanderbilt Engineering & Science Building reused many natural site features, including a stone drilled out of the ground for a tunnel that was carved into a stairwell sculpture.

Healthy food programs—When considering health and wellness, food is a natural place to start. Including “live” and raw food options for students and staff is becoming not just a selling point, but a necessity. Foods such as grains, vegetables, and fruit (commonly found in smoothies) bring increased energy and likely include enzymes, antioxidants, and assorted nutrients to support minds and bodies. Even simple changes like healthy options being offered in vending machines can make a notable difference to students’ well-being.

Designing for movement—Colleges and universities are creating spaces that encourage movement. Rethinking routes to promote purposeful movement can be done in a variety of ways. For example, consider the alignment of the facility’s stairwell. Instead of designing stairwells that go straight from the bottom of the building to the top, look for opportunities to create more communicative stairwells that shift floor-to-floor from one side to the other. This not only aids in flow but provides the potential for chance encounters. Offer biophilic touches like gardens or green walls where stairs land at a floor level, emphasizing locations where vertical connections are made.

Certainly, safety is part of the equation. When planning for fire stairs, consider small but impactful design features like utilizing natural light and providing hold-open access doors. This allows for unobstructed visual and physical access to perimeter fire stairs that are bathed in natural light. When in alarm mode, the fire doors close and provide the required protection.

Biophilic environments—Biophilic design has become prevalent in the building industry and provides connectivity to the natural environment; the strategy is known for its positive effects on the body and mind.

Including nature in design promotes wellness and improves mood and performance. By incorporating plants and foliage into interiors and blurring the distinction between inside and out, higher education institutions are creating more comfortable, collaborative, and productive spaces.

Another way to incorporate biophilic design is to capitalize on landscape views and optimize natural lighting through appropriate fenestration. Plants, animals, and water features can contribute to occupants’ health and productivity, via sight, smell, and sound. Combining an ensemble of these components can move the wellness agenda throughout the floor plate and be used as a wayfinding tool. A great example of this is currently under design at Lehigh University, where a communicating stair and associated floor openings on each level are complemented by gardens. The floor opening, stairs, and garden define distinct areas throughout the floor plate, emphasizing the wellness agenda while establishing a wayfinding tool in the process.

If nature itself isn’t available, manufactured nature is an alternative. Including natural materials, nature in art or imagery, or biomorphic shapes and patterns—also known as biomimicry—are all ways to design for increased emotional wellbeing and stress reduction.

Using design techniques to promote collaboration, productivity, and wellness, in tandem, help shape a holistic experience at higher education institutions. Whether a renovation or a new build, these principles can be incorporated to ensure a major impact on institutional recruitment and retention, and student preparedness for a career after college.

Read the full three-part article in Building Operating Management.