A Balanced Mix: The Story of Four Learners

How Colleges and Universities Can Provide Environments to Meet Diverse Learning Needs

December 7, 2017

Architect, NBBJ

As pedagogies evolve from traditional lectures to a more active, team-based learning approach, higher education institutions are beginning to allocate space to emphasize active learning interactions both inside and outside the classroom, with the belief that this will help students learn and retain more. Colleges and universities are beginning to recognize the need for learning environments outside the classroom, but many times these manifest themselves as “in-between” spaces in corridors and student lounges, without specific attention to the kinds of environments that better foster learning.

As curriculum expands beyond the scheduled classroom, the demand for these spaces increases. Therefore, it is necessary to narrow in on the students who use these spaces, who they are and how they learn, in order to increase retention rates and produce successful graduates. Then institutions, in partnership with architects and designers, can begin to tailor learning environments outside of the scheduled classroom to a more targeted user scope.

 

Who Are the Learners?

The first step in defining these spaces is to understand who these learners are and how they learn. There are many types of learners and hybrids of sorts. Pedagogy experts Peter Honey and Alan Mumford of the University of Leicester identity four types of learners: Explorers, Thinkers, Observers and Testers.

Explorers try anything once. They like to tackle problems by brainstorming and fully immersing themselves in the moment. They are open-minded and not skeptical.

Thinkers assimilate disparate facts into coherent theories. They have a linear thought process that follows a step-by-step procedure. They are logical, detached, and analytical.

Observers collect data through their own experiences and observations of others. They consider all possible outcomes and angles before making a decision. Their philosophy is to be cautious.

Testers experiment with application. They seek links between training and current needs in the search for immediate applicable benefits. They are practical.

 

How to Design for the Learners?

Classroom learning environments will continue to be a mix of traditional and team-based space types. However, as the four types of learners digest knowledge in very different ways, they need different types of spaces outside the classroom.

An Explorer seeks variety as they act on impulse. They may be perfectly adaptable in any environment they happen to be in; however, they may be drawn to an environment that allows for open thought and brainstorming with a team, such as an active, open student area with writing surfaces. They are not habitual and may try different environments each day.

A Thinker seeks a logical rationale and may be drawn to an internal reflective space that secludes them from the outside world. This provides a focused environment that is consistent and reliable. They may be content in a small enclosed room or nook that provides a sense of privacy with acoustic isolation and visual separation.

An Observer seeks all information possible and may position themselves in a space that allows for conducting research through observation of others and reflection on their own experiences. They may be drawn to a more active team-based room where they can work with others and exchange information based on past experiences. They may also require access to research information, either analog or digital. These environments may be best positioned within a library or learning center.

A Tester seeks learning through action and will be more drawn to environments that allow for hands-on application, whether in a laboratory, studio or maker space. They may require more space and tools to allow for simulation or making.

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Institutions may struggle with the idea of providing such individualized space within the constraints of money and space allocations. A key to finding this balance and allowing for such user-centric spaces outside the classroom is to provide a level of flexibility and user-adaptability within the range of the learner-defined environments, in order to encompass the larger variety of learners.

For instance, a student lounge may appeal to a larger range of learners with the addition of mobile furniture, writing surfaces and movable walls. Spaces can also be made more flexible by allowing the room use to shift throughout the day: scheduled breakout rooms become team project rooms; faculty huddle rooms become enclosed study rooms. Small shifts in the programming and details of these spaces can provide flexibility and user-adaptability to address the range of learners.

Colleges and universities will help the broad range of learners to be more successful and encourage retention by understanding the inherent qualities of how students learn and by implementing, in partnership with architects and designers, a balanced mix of learning environments in and outside of the classroom that speak to these learning traits.

All images courtesy of NBBJ (photo by Benjamin Benschneider).

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