A class act: creating the best in learning environments

Hannah Vickers discovers how flooring, lighting, furniture and technology all play their part

The classroom has evolved from the basic learning environment it once was and today is a flexible, changeable, multifunctional space that can adapt easily to the needs of the lessons. The modern-day classroom is a room that transforms smoothly from a quiet study room to a collaborative working space, from an assessment to a presentation room.

“Classrooms used to be configured with rows and columns of individual desks all regimentally facing the front,” says Duncan Perbedy, Seating Consultant for Ferco Seating Systems. “But not any more; all spaces on university campuses are now considered to be learning spaces; social spaces, classrooms, large cohort spaces, and all of them need to support small group collaborative learning activities.”

The impact of the classroom design on learning

Many factors affect learning: teaching style, personal motivation, socioeconomic background, to name just a few. But the impact of the classroom on a student’s learning has long been underestimated. 

The classroom affects a learner’s health, wellbeing and performance. Educators are now more aware of how much environment affects learning and the modern-day classroom is being designed more carefully to reflect this. 

A 2015 study by the University of Salford School of the Built Environment, ‘Clever Classrooms’ researched the impact of the environment on primary school pupils and found that classroom design has a huge effect on students’ learning. The study found an entire year’s worth of academic progress difference between the best- and worst-designed classrooms they looked at. All kinds of factors impact upon a student’s academic progress: heating and insulation, lighting, air quality and ventilation, acoustics and interior design and aesthetics all need to be taken into consideration. According to the study, classroom design has the potential to impact, positively or negatively, up to 25% on a learner’s academic progress. It’s worth investing in.

“All these environmental properties of a learning space impact the learning experience of students in many ways, and anything that impacts negatively on student wellbeing will reduce their ability to fully achieve,” explains Nicola.

However, a review commissioned by New Zealand’s Ministry of Education says that “a holistic approach is essential” when it comes to classroom design. “Achieving good natural lighting must be balanced against possible uncomfortable heat gain from the sun, and the need for natural ventilation can clash with outside noise control efforts. No single factor should be altered without assessing its effect on all the others.”

Natural light and variable lighting to promote focus and creativity

Editorial Director of DesignShare Randall Fielding explains the evolution of classroom lighting in his article Learning, Lighting and Colour. He says that the learning environment has come a long way from Henry Ford’s day, when uniform illumination with pools of focused brightness prepared pupils for future work in factory lines. “The future no longer belongs to students who look only straight ahead,” he says. Now, lighting is much more variable and innovative to suit the needs of the modern student.

Lighting is instrumental to creating the right kind of learning environment. Randall suggests that classrooms employ varying lighting to “reflect the character of each space” and full spectrum lighting, to take into account different lesson types and varying styles of learning. 

Light shelves are a clever way to make the most of the natural light available: these are highly reflective horizontal surfaces that are placed above eye level to reflect daylight onto the ceiling and into the room. 

And, the lighting considerations start before you get into the classroom, says Randall. Strategic placing of deciduous trees outside windows can be used to block harsh sunlight in the height of summer and allow in weaker rays in the winter. 

Flooring: bright colours create a vibrant learning environment

A feature of classroom design that is often overlooked is flooring. As well as affecting acoustics and temperature, colourful flooring is key to creating a vibrant learning environment, according to Bob Mortimer, UK & Ireland Sales Manager for flooring company Heckmondwike. 

“The [Clever Classrooms] report looked at how colours directly impacted on student progress and attainment and concluded that bright colours, when used on facilities like flooring, impacted most positively,” he says. 

Bright and fluorescent colours are on trend at the moment and differently coloured carpet tiles can be used to mark out distinct learning zones. Universities are increasingly using flooring to promote their brand, as does the University of Chester, which uses red flooring whenever possible.

Heckmondwike’s Forth Valley College installation has recently been shortlisted for an ‘Inspiring Learning Spaces award by the organisers of Education Buildings Scotland. It also uses colour for branding, with fuschia-coloured carpet tiles to border classrooms and mark out learning zones. 

Flexible learning spaces

Classrooms have come a long way from what they once were. The modern-day classroom is a more relaxed and collaborative environment, with flexible seating arrangements replacing the traditional forward-facing individual desks. 

“Universities are no longer just about teaching, learning and researching, but for living and working too,” says Andy Tatton, Sales Director at Boss Design. Because of the multitude of functions a classroom now has to perform, it needs to be flexible and easy to move around into different formations. Having a room that can change layout without hassle is key to making your classroom a space where ideas can flourish.

Boss Design have divided their soft furnishing into four types of learning that they say are commonly found in universities: learning-centred, collaborative, focused and assessment. Andy says that seating needs to be appropriate for the type of learning taking place. 

“It’s important to understand that learning is not merely about having our brains filled with information, but the development of ideas, application of information, contextualisation and collaboration with others. It’s also about personal development,” says Andy. 

Duncan says that seating that can turn 360 degrees, like the ones they’ve provided the University of Exeter, allow peer-to-peer interaction and group work without having to rearrange furniture mid-lesson.

“By supporting multiple learning and teaching modes in the same physical space, all without the need to reposition furniture, students can be engaged with different learning strategies that maintain their time on task,” he explains.  

Andy adds that the learning space needs to be able to be used for individual and collaborative learning, accommodating students working in pairs or groups with the tutor acting as a guide or mentor. 

“By creating a variety of learning spaces in which study can take place, it will foster creativity and personal development, build strong relationships, and offer students a sense of pride in what they do and the settings in which they learn,” says Andy.

“These are settings that can create positive feedback loops of development for those individuals that use them to collaborate.”

Technology in classroom design

One of the biggest ways that the classroom has evolved over the last couple of decades is in the growth of the role technology plays. As in every other area of university life nowadays, technology has a large role to play in the modern-day classroom. Flipped learning, BYOD, SMART boards, VR and wireless networking – among many other established and emerging technologies – are changing the way we learn, and the classroom has to accommodate these. 

Andy outlines some of the opportunities: “Rather than having a single projector at the front of the room, wireless networking enables everyone to act as a presenter, either projecting work from their own device, or sharing it remotely with others.” 

Top tips to enhance your classroom

1. Know what you’re looking for.

When you’re redesigning your classroom, the amount of choice can be bewildering. the University of Oklahoma’s Chris Kobza, manager of IT learning spaces, and Erin Wolfe, director of strategic initiatives, say that you need to ask yourself four questions before you start: 

 – What’s the vision?

 – What’s the focus?

 – What’s the budget?

 – How flexible do you want the room to be?

2. Make a classroom that can be anything. Flexibility is key to creating a space where ideas can flourish. Make sure your classroom can transition between purposes smoothly. 

“Spaces that support group work – in addition to didactic front-of-class transmission of information – are socially and emotionally inclusive for students, creating a more fulfilling and participatory learning experience,” says Duncan.

3. Make comfort and wellbeing a priority. In the midst of the exciting, hi-tech aspects to redesign, don’t forget that one of the most important characteristics of your classroom: that it is comfortable and that your students feel good there. 

“Wellbeing is extremely important across all environments, as when we feel well, we work and study so much better and our productivity increases,” says Andy.

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