Study spaces

Does the look and feel of a classroom affect what happens inside it? Ella Taylor discovers how modern spaces can boost learning

Teaching pedagogy has evolved to respond to the fact that students need to play an active role in their learning; rather than merely listening to a lecture, they need opportunities to engage with principles through discussions, problems to solve and activities to develop their skills. So it’s no surprise, then, that modern classrooms must also respond to learners’ needs by providing them with stimulating and comfortable environments and the facilities that they need to enable them to take risks and trade ideas with peers to further their understanding

In his Classroom Design literature review, Princeton University’s Lawson Reed Wulsin Jr writes: “Classrooms should be profound places of revelation and discovery. Well-designed space has the ability to elevate discourse, encourage creativity, and promote collaboration.”

So what makes a learning space ‘well-designed’? One feature that Wulsin recommends is ensuring a connection to the natural world through daylight, views, and natural materials such as wood and stone. Wulsin also adds: “Learning spaces extend beyond classroom walls to every corner of the campus… Widening corridors and designating lobbies, atriums, and other common areas as educational spaces promotes spontaneous learning.”

Natural features

At Lancaster University, the recent library refurbishment integrated a striking natural element: a live Ficas tree that can be seen from all floors of the library through a central atrium, surrounded by grass, charcoal and granite-coloured flooring provided by Interface, and wood-panelled study spaces. 

Marie Leyland, interior designer at Sheppard Robson architects, who worked on the project, said: “We wanted to incorporate natural features into the space to bring a sense of tranquillity to students studying there… The nature-inspired influences captured in the flooring tiles really help bring the library’s design concept to life. By surrounding the live Ficas tree in the atrium with Urban Retreat 501 skinny planks, we were able to create dynamic patterns which complement the vibrant green colours beautifully”

The refurbishment sought to better connect two main areas of the library and add more spaces for interactive and informal learning, as well as private study space – all while aiming to meet BREEAM ‘Excellent’ standards of sustainability.

Anna Cockman, facilities development manager at Lancaster University, said: “Getting old buildings to perform to such high environmental standards isn’t easy – and the library was no exception. Every part of the design and build process needed to be carefully considered, and the products specified were a key part of this… We’re so happy with the finished result.”

Flexible features

In the guide Seven Principles for Classroom Design: The Learning Space Rating System, Malcolm Brown, director of EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative, writes: “Room layout and furnishings are to classroom design as rhythm and melody are to music. Successful learning space design anticipates not just what the learners will be using but how they will be using it. This includes considerations such as movement paths through the space, seating density, reconfigurability of the room, visibility of learning activities, and comfort of the furnishings.”

Reconfigurable seats better suit active, collaborative learning, as seen at Leeds University’s redeveloped Roger Stevens Lecture Theatre 8 and at two of Kingston University’s Penrhyn Road campus lecture theatres. “This seating design involves two rows of seats on the same level of a raked floor, so that the front of the two rows have chairs that can swivel to allow their occupants to work with students in the row behind,” explains Clarissa Wilks, Kingston University’s dean of learning and teaching and chair of its Learning Spaces Advisory Group. “It allows students and staff to use the space creatively for presentation, individual or group work.” 

While traditional classroom spaces are still needed, it seems that alternative learning spaces are increasingly in demand in universities. Southampton Solent University’s The Spark, designed by Scott Brownrigg architects, is a building with 84% of its classroom space dedicated to non-traditional teaching rooms. 

It features a central atrium with balconies jutting out surprisingly, glass-fronted learning spaces and even a huge red pod with a rooftop terrace. Flexibility in breakout areas, social space and group learning environments is key.

“We hope students will react positively to the agile learning spaces, feeling confident to collaborate, intuitive to the new technology, and stimulated by the unique configurations and design details,” says Lauren Bell, creative research and development manager at furniture company Broadstock, which advised Solent on The Spark. 

Broadstock used research from trials in the Broadstock Agile Lab at Coventry University, and mock classroom trials at Solent, to develop its design, following consultation with the university two years before the build began. The research led to the addition of tables and chairs that can move from group learning spaces to exam rooms, adapting to students’ changing needs at different points throughout the academic year. Accessible power sockets were also an integral feature of the classrooms.

Osama Khan, director of learning and teaching at Southampton Solent University, says: “The space is designed to promote a more collaborative and less didactic approach. We needed to bring the outside, practical world into our classroom… hopefully the fun scheme we created will encourage that.”

Colourful spaces

Fun The Spark is, with colourful murals splashed onto white walls, colourful furniture and the eye-catching red pod bringing strong colour to the walls of the lecture space in its belly as well as to its rooftop.

“The colour element at The Spark was vital,” says Andrew Moss, account manager at educational furniture company Broadstock, which advised Solent on the development. 

Indeed, colour can play a powerful part in learning spaces. Sharron Kapellar, national framework manager at Forbo Flooring Systems, said: “Colour is inherent in everything we see and do, with studies indicating that it plays a vital role in emotion, productivity, communication and learning. In fact, using a variety of colours in an educational environment can reduce boredom and visually invigorate students. For example, dark colours have a low Light Reflectance Value (LRV), creating a gloomier environment, which stimulates melatonin production and can cause tiredness. So, for a study environment keep it light and bright; choose a floor finish with a high LRV to keep occupants more alert and also save on additional lighting.”

Kapellar suggests using colour to differentiate between spaces, signalling whether you want students to feel relaxed and quiet or interactive and energised. “Red, for example helps bring out competitiveness in people, making it a great choice for areas where interaction needs to be stimulated,” she says. “Neutral tones are popular for flooring in university classrooms, so light greys, mushrooms and warmer neutral tones sit well with neutral walls, providing a restful, calming backdrop away from the teaching wall, which often features a stronger accent colour to command attention.”

At Kingston University’s two new STEM laboratories – which have individual IT stations to enable students to access and process data – colour was also, perhaps surprisingly, significant. “These sleek, functional spaces are designed to create an ultra-modern, attractive environment, and the green and blue colour schemes used in the labs play an important part in delivering this effect,” Wilks says.


To ensure classrooms are comfortable and responsive to students’ needs, Kingston’s Learning Spaces Advisory Group meets quarterly to discuss the design of its learning spaces, and commissions designers to look in depth at four or five spaces each year. “While every design is bespoke, these discussions look at a wide range of options, from creative furniture solutions and wall colours and carpets to lighting and support. This may involve incorporating charging stations for laptops and devices, space for coats and bags and breakout areas for larger rooms,” Wilks says.

Kapellar points out that a worn or tired-looking floor gives the wrong impression to visitors and can affect students’ morale and the pride they feel for their university. Similarly, discoloured, peeling or scuffed walls can be off-putting and distracting. Students need to feel valued and comfortable in classrooms, whether that’s with comfortable seating, connectivity, ample soft lighting or attractive soft furnishings, colours or materials.

Rooms that are draughty or too hot can also distract, so ensuring that spaces are well insulated is important, and giving occupants the ability to control their own room by opening windows or adjusting radiators improves comfort levels. Kapellar adds that reducing ambient noise – from people walking, moving chairs and bags, and speaking – with an acoustic floor covering will also help students to concentrate. 

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