How College Students Use their Residence Hall Spaces and its Contributions to Student Learning

by Sara G. Stein

February 05, 2016

The earliest residence halls in American colleges and universities were designed to be at the center of student learning, “to bring the faculty and students together in a common life which was both intellectual and moral” (Brubacher & Rudy, 1968, p. 42). Modeled after the British university system, the residential college model combined into one space students’ sleeping quarters, dining halls, lecture halls, tutor residences, and common areas. However, that model was not to be sustained, as the growth in student populations due to the Morrill Land Grant Act of 1862, changes in postsecondary education toward a more German inspired and discipline-focused model in the latter half of the 19th century, and finally, a vast population swell of students in the post-World War II era as a result of the G. I. Bill changed the nature of the American university residence hall considerably. By the 1960s, the role of the residence hall had become relegated to that of a living quarter only: residence hall functions were described as a place to “secure housing, and maintain standards of hygiene, safety, and behavior” (Student Personnel Services in Colleges and Universities, 1961, p. 31).

Yet, university leaders in the latter half of the 20th century began to question whether the residence hall was merely a place to house students, or if it could be a place where living and learning were integrated. Moreover, as universities began to recognize that an education involves the “whole student” and not just students’ minds, out-of-classroom environments became places where young adults could grow and develop, practice interpersonal skills, and possibly put to use that which they learned in their coursework (Schroeder & Mable, 1994). Since then, numerous studies have examined the effects of living in a residence hall on various student outcomes, and a recent summary by Pascarella and Terenzini (2005) of research published between 1989 and 2002 showed that:

  • Students who live on-campus tend to be more satisfied with their college experiences, which lead to greater persistence in college. They also exhibit greater growth in several areas of development, and tend to change their values and attitudes more significantly;
  • Students who live on-campus tend to interact more often with their peers and participate more frequently in co- and extra- curricular activities, which often leads to a greater likelihood to persist in college and eventually graduate; and
  • The above effects tend to be more pronounced in living environments that are intentionally designed to achieve those goals. For example, students who live in residential environments that intentionally encourage student interaction with individuals from different cultures tend to generally hold more inclusive and open attitudes toward diversity.

The physical design of the residence hall can play a major role in shaping how successful a residence hall staff can be in facilitating certain learning goals. For example, if a residence hall staff wished for students to interact more frequently with their peers, it would be difficult to enact those ambitions in a facility with few public gathering spaces. Thus, as higher education moves back to the belief that the residence hall can be a central force in student learning and development, the architectural design of residence hall buildings is a critical element in shaping the learning environment in American colleges and universities.

Sara G. Stein

Academic & Student Life Planning & Design