Designing “Learning” into Living-Learning Environments

by Sara G. Stein

August 10, 2017

Can the design of a residence hall improve student outcomes? The simple answer is yes! The more complex question, however, is how? To shed light on the topic, EYP's Academic & Student Life Planner co-authored this article with Karen Kurotsuchi Inkelas, PhD, Associate Professor and Director, Center for Advanced Study of Teaching & Learning in Higher Education, Curry School of Education, University of Virginia.

What Students Prefer for their Residence Hall Spaces

Over the past several years, EYP has been working with social science researchers to study how physical spaces affect students’ learning, development, and other outcomes. Through studies at the University of Michigan and Michigan State University, we learned that while students may appreciate having the latest technological or retail “bells and whistles” in their residence halls, their primary preferences are much more basic: they want public spaces that are conducive to: 

  1. studying
  2. collaboratively with peers on either assignments or co-curricular activities
  3. socializing either formally or informally

These public spaces should also emphasize comfort and convenience, and therefore centrally located, provide good lighting, have comfortable furniture, and be flexible in usage with movable tables and chairs that can be configured depending upon demand – from private study to group projects to open space for parties.

What happens when residence hall spaces are intentionally designed to support learning? The University of Michigan and Michigan State University studies revealed that students living in living-learning environments are more likely than their peers in traditional residence halls to:

  • Have intellectual conversations with peers
  • Interact with peers from diverse backgrounds
  • Socialize with peers
  • Be more satisfied with their overall residence hall experience.

Alumni Hall at Pace University’s Westchester Campus exemplifies how incorporating the above elements into a residence hall promotes student learning and well-being.

Spaces Conducive to Studying and Working Collaboratively

Alumni Hall includes six study lounges dispersed on each floor of the building. The lounges feature both natural and internal lighting, as well as tables and chairs on casters that can be configured to accommodate private study or group projects. But perhaps the most creative attribute of the study lounges is a brightly-colored feature wall with a coating over the paint so that students can use the entire wall as a writing surface. Alumni Hall also features two sub-dividable classrooms equipped with an LCD projector and a writing wall as well. The classrooms are often used in the evenings by instructors and teaching assistants for exam review sessions, and by the University’s Writing Center for assisting students with their papers.

Spaces Conducive to Formal and Informal Socializing

Alumni Hall houses primarily first-year students. For these new students to feel they have a smaller, more intimate community to affiliate with inside their residence hall, Pace organizes the first-year students into theme-based interest groups or First-year Interest Groups (FIGs). The building design therefore includes several FIG-specific lounges in addition to the study lounges so that each FIG has its space in which to come together. Most of these lounges are located in the center of the building, visible immediately upon exit from the elevators. FIG lounges feature floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the campus’s new central green space. Each lounge is furnished and decorated appropriate to its unique FIG theme. For example, the Body and Mind FIG, which focuses on personal wellness, uses its lounge as a yoga studio, complete with yoga mats and cushions. The Extreme Sports and Pace Nation (ESPN) FIG has a lounge outfitted with a ping-pong table, a foosball table, and a seating and television viewing area shaped like a bowling niche.

How Students Use their Public Spaces and its Effect on Student Outcomes

These public spaces in Alumni Hall are the physical manifestations of what EYP has learned from previous studies about student preferences in residence halls. Pace students have shown their appreciation through their actions: all lounges are well-used by the Alumni Hall residents. Over a period of six weeks in 2015-16, Alumni Hall staff recorded 2,868 students using at least one of the seven FIG lounges, and 1,102 students using at least one of the study lounges. In a survey conducted in Spring 2017, 39 percent of students living in Alumni Hall identified their FIG lounge as the space they used the most often, after their own rooms. Thirty-three percent indicated that they used the study lounges the most frequently.

And how did students’ usage of these spaces affect their learning and related outcomes?

  • Intellectual conversations with peers

According to our Spring 2017 survey, FIG students at Pace reported that they did all of the following in conversations with their peers at least a few times a month of more in their residence hall:

  • Referred to knowledge acquired in their classes
  • Explored different ways of thinking about a topic they learned in a class
  • Referred to something one of their instructors said about a topic they learned in a class

FIG students also reported that they interacted frequently or all the time with students from different family backgrounds (76 percent) and different racial/ethnic backgrounds (80 percent):

  • Interaction with peers from diverse backgrounds
  • Socializing with peers

FIG students revealed that they spent an average of 11 to 15 hours per week socializing with peers – 81 percent of that time in Alumni Hall. Eighty-nine percent found Alumni Hall to have a friendly and supportive climate, and 70 percent agreed that they felt a sense of belonging to their residence hall.

  • Satisfaction with their overall residence hall experience

Finally, 88 percent of the FIG students in the Spring 2017 survey were overall satisfied with their experience in Alumni Hall.

The answer to our opening question is a resounding “yes.” Alumni Hall is a prime example of how residence hall design can improve student outcomes by providing the spaces and features that support meaningful interactions and conversations, fostering students’ sense of belonging to the campus community.

Sara G. Stein

Academic & Student Life Planning & Design