May 24, 2016
THEME: Learning

Applied Learning, Maximum Impact: Creating a Campus Master Plan

That was then, this is now.

St. Olaf College recently took on the challenge of updating its 1996 Framework Plan and asked our Minneapolis campus planners to assist. Together, we asked how is learning today different than 20 years ago and how is it the same? What are today’s student preferences and what can students tell us themselves? Ultimately, how can planning the campus include applied learning?

We started with the last question first and identified a favorite professor in the Sociology/Anthropology department who structures her popular class around student-led research, rigorous statistical analysis, and real clients.

The relationship was mutually beneficial: our planners shared firm-wide experience and research in learning environments in return for data-driven information from the students.  As the semester unfolded, we met with the class and framed our question: Where do students really want to learn? They took it from there, organizing a deep dive into the expert literature and setting up multiple tracks of enquiry – creating learning space study groups to analyze formal, informal, indoor, and outdoor spaces. In the end, the class led eight student focus groups, authored the same number of rigorous surveys, and discretely analyzed the results according to accepted statistical norms. All the questions and processes were formulated and offered peer-to-peer across the student body of 3,000.

Educators, students, and planners worked together to create St. Olaf College's updated campus plan.

Educators, students, and planners worked together to create St. Olaf College’s updated campus plan.

The results were equally valuable to students, executive administrators, and our own campus planners. The experience of turning our planning into applied learning, engaging many more participants than a typical planning process ever hopes to, and learning lessons that enabled us to target our strategies to a finer level was one we hope to emulate again soon.

So what has changed in the past 20 years? When students considered formal learning spaces (classrooms, lecture halls, etc.), their opinions were largely uniform across gender, background, and ethnicity. They consistently and most highly valued:

  • User-friendly technology – so faculty can minimize their errors (!)
  • Good acoustics – reducing unnecessary noise, optimizing sound systems, and “hearing across the room” all ranked highly
  • Lighting – combining natural and controllable artificial sources

There were a few other interesting takeaways from the student-led research: one-on-one faculty attention, peer interaction, performance, and participation were perceived to be better in flexible classrooms, even when there was no “grade point” proof. Clear views of professors and classmates were more important than furnishings. Tiered semi-circles were rated highest for engagement but their fixed tables were rated lowest. Chairs with wheels topped the preferences for all other styles.

Students voiced a resounding desire to phase out tablet armchairs and any fixed configurations. They advocated for writable surfaces on every wall – preferring them to whiteboards, blackboards, and smartboards (in that order). There was a clear desire for computers that could be moved out of the way in lieu of the sea of desktop fixtures. Finally, students wanted attention paid to both aesthetics and artwork in their formal learning spaces – especially when they fit the pedagogy or curriculum.

Looking at the wide spectrum of informal learning spaces – from atria with study tables to department lounges to library carrels – it was fascinating to see there were far more values held in common than one might imagine. Ubiquitous Wi-Fi and flexible outlets were considered basic requirements by all. Well-lit spaces were most desired – both indoors and out. Work areas next to walls, windows, and writable surfaces were always taken first and “dining room-style” tables and “living room-style” seating were considered top amenities. This also extended to the out-of-doors: picnic tables, Adirondack chairs (the outdoor beanbag), and weatherproof outlets were the biggest draws for collaborating. Being in the main quad or natural environment were the most desirable locations for outdoor study, learning, and reflection. Students consistently wanted to know, “Is there any outdoor space for learning? Why isn’t it obvious? Why aren’t there better winter choices?”

For those who may be tempted to write off the importance of the library and traditional residence hall, the students were unanimous: after 20 years, these two places were still the #1 and #2 places for effective studying. At least one 24-hour study space was still desired – in addition to balanced and equal access to both quiet-study and noisy-study spaces. As students progressed in their majors, departmental libraries (especially with coffee) were most preferred by seniors but not by other class years.

Now that we are busy integrating these findings into our final planning strategies, the faculty and student-researchers are asking: “What’s next?” How can the 2016 Framework Plan help prepare St. Olaf for how students will learn in 2036? As we absorb all the implications in the student reports, we hope to explore how preferences are shaped by commuting patterns, curricular focus, institutional scale, and regional location – as well as how gender and ethnicity can be accommodated to create an inclusive environment.  We’re excited about the topics the students suggested, applying their learning and research to our projects, and reporting back on our continued work together.

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