Space for Learning

Across many fields, from engineering to fashion design, consumer behavior to public health, education to human evolution and countless others, researchers and practitioners rely on a fundamental principle in their work: our physical environments affect us. 

The spaces that we occupy and the elements of those spaces, whether intentionally designed or not, play important roles in shaping our behaviors, thoughts, feelings, and interactions. Some of these effects we understand intuitively—natural lighting can improve mood, bright colors can affect motivation, excessive noise can induce stress—and others we’ve gleaned over decades of careful research. The findings of this research are proving useful to those whose business it is to influence others. Health professionals now know what kinds of neighborhoods encourage exercise. Retailers know more about how to influence peoples’ purchases through showroom layouts.  Executives know how to position themselves in their board rooms to send particular messages or set a tone. Educators, and specifically learning space designers, know what kinds of spaces best support student learning.

Diana Oblinger (2006) wrote more than ten years ago that, as digital learning opportunities have emerged and our understanding of human cognition has advanced, our notions of where and how learning takes place have expanded. Knowing more about how our environments affect learning has had both practical and ethical implications for educational institutions, and classroom design has become a priority for colleges and universities worldwide in recent years. The research suggests many good reasons for this new area of focus.

Findings from the last 30 years include:

  • Students ask more questions when seated in a semicircle than in rows. (Marx, Fuhrer, and Hartig, 1999).
  • Reading comprehension and math skills decline when room temperatures exceed 77 degrees Fahrenheit (Lackney, 1994).
  • Sufficient classroom lighting is associated with higher attendance, higher physical growth rates, and better academic performance (Heschong Mahone Consulting Group, 1999).
  • Doubling ventilation capacity can double cognitive function (Allen, 2015).
  • The color of classroom walls affects the brain, learning, and cognition (Wohlfarth, 1982, 1984, 1985).
  • Learning environments that foster social interaction improve student achievement (Dori & Belcher, 2005).

One study out of Great Britain found that school design variables alone can explain 6% of the variance in English and social studies performance, 3% in science performance, and 2% in mathematics and writing performance (Ayers, 1999). Another found that students in active learning environments outperform their peers in traditional learning settings on indicators including student grades, attendance, attitudes, and reduced failure rates, particularly among women, students of color, and at-risk students (Beichner et. al, 2007). Failing to take this evidence into account in the design of our schools and learning spaces is becoming increasingly unacceptable.

At Dartmouth, educators are concerned with the environmental factors that either support or inhibit effective learning, but also with the ways in which learning spaces determine, through their designs, the type of teaching and learning that can happen there.

“We want our classrooms to reflect the ways that we want to teach and the ways that promote student learning. And right now, the classrooms that we have are of an old model that doesn’t necessarily map well with the way that faculty are teaching today,” says DCAL Director, faculty member, and Chair of the Classroom Committee Lisa Baldez.

“Many of our classrooms were built to support a learning model in which the professor stands at the front of the room and conveys knowledge to students,” agrees Instructional Designer Mike Goudzwaard.

Higher education scholar Nancy Chism suggests that the learning spaces of an institution are often a good reflection of that institution’s philosophy of teaching and learning. She says, “Examples surround us. A room with rows of tablet arm chairs facing an instructor's desk in front of chalkboards conveys the pedagogical approach 'I talk or demonstrate; you listen or observe.' A room of square tables with a chair on each side conveys the importance of teamwork and interaction to learning” (2006). Chism draws on advances in learning theory to suggest, "Environments that provide experience, stimulate the senses, encourage the exchange of information, and offer opportunities for rehearsal, feedback, application, and transfer are most likely to support learning.”

Baldez notes that for faculty to shift their teaching focus away from performance and presentation of knowledge to creating knowledge collaboratively with students, our learning environments will need to shift in kind. “Thinking about classroom design is pretty new to me, and to a lot of faculty members,” she says. Most often, rooms are assigned around scheduling constraints and faculty have little involvement in those decisions, and little awareness of the ways in which classroom design impacts their teaching. “But when faculty walk into a classroom that promotes optimum learning,” she says, “you see their eyes light up as they begin to see the possibilities."

"What we’re talking about is thoughtfully designed learning spaces," says Associate Director of Classroom Technology Services Andrew Faunce, who notes that as an institution, Dartmouth is just beginning to bring these insights to bear in the design of our learning spaces. “Up to this point, we haven’t focused on classrooms as important vehicles for teaching and learning—on providing sufficient working surfaces, good lighting, climate control, air quality, noise control, on enabling students to work on the task at hand, engage in the content, and with one another."

Follow a Dartmouth student through an academic day from one building and classroom to the next, and what you’ll find is a great deal of variety. From style to layout, resources to functionality, design aesthetic to era of origin, Dartmouth’s learning spaces run the gamut. Some, like Life Sciences 200 and Fairchild 101, were recently redesigned as "active learning classrooms." They have modern, movable furniture in bright colors, plenty of writable white board surfaces, ambient light, enhanced technology, and omni-flexible layouts. Others, like Dartmouth 105 and Silsby 28, reflect a more traditional model: dark wood pillars, heavily draped windows, and fixed, auditorium-style seating arranged before a crested podium or stately stage at the front of the room. Many others fall somewhere in between.

Faunce says, “Students are aware when there is a mismatch between the classroom and what they’re being asked to do. It’s frustrating to learn to code on a laptop balanced on an arm chair. It’s difficult to work in groups when the seats are bolted to the floor.” But he notes that student and faculty experiences in Dartmouth's redesigned classrooms reflect positive shifts in teaching and learning. “The kinds of learning spaces that align with student and faculty needs can be transformative,” he says. “And a redesign is not necessarily expensive and complicated. It can make things simpler and easier.”

Goudzwaard, who has worked closely on the redesign process of many of these spaces, confirms that the solutions are often not high-tech. “The most common request we hear from faculty and students is for more writable surfaces,” he says.

But making even simple changes can be a challenge, explains Faunce, and requests from faculty and feedback from students outpace classroom redesign. Since it was created in 2015, requests to use active learning classroom Carson 61 have far exceeded availability. For this term, the space is reserved for 60 hours each week for class sessions, x-hours, study sessions, and student meetings. And though individuals within Information, Technology, & Consulting and Planning, Design, & Construction are dedicated to learning about the needs and challenges that exist, they are not often empowered to do much with that information. An existing Classroom Committee comprised of faculty and staff focuses specifically on learning spaces, but the ad hoc group lacks a formal charge, governance structure, or budget.

“Dartmouth’s classrooms are misaligned with its status as a top-ranked undergraduate teaching university,” says Baldez.

“We have a real opportunity to redefine what our learning spaces say about who we are and what we believe in as an institution,” says Faunce. “It’s not so much about how these spaces look, but how people feel in them, what they are able to do there, and how much we care for the people using them."



Allen J.G., MacNaughton P., Satish U., Santanam S., Vallarino J., Spengler J.D. 2016. Associations of cognitive function scores with carbon dioxide, ventilation, and volatile organic compound exposures in office workers: a controlled exposure study of green and conventional office environments. Environ Health Perspect 124:805–812;

Ayers, P.D. (1999, December). Exploring the relationship between high school facilitied and achievement of high school students in Georgia. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Georgia, Athens.

Beichner, R.J., Saul, J.M., Abbott, D.S., Morse, J., Deardorff, D., Allain, R.J.,…& Risley, J.S. (2007). The student-centered activities for large-enrollment undergraduate programs (SCALE-UP) project. Research-based reform of university physics, 1(1), 2-39. 

Chism, N.V.N. (2006). Challenging Traditional Assumptions and Rethinking Learning Spaces. In D.G. Oblinger (Ed.), Learning Spaces (Chapter 2). EDUCAUSE. 

Dori, Y. & Belcher, J. (2005). How does technology-enabled active learning affect undergraduate students’ understanding of electromagnetism concepts? The Journal of the Learning Sciences, 14(2), 243-279.

Heschong, L., & Heschong Mahone Consulting Group. (1999). Daylighting in schools: An investigation into the relationship between daylighting and human performance. A study performed on behalf of the California Board for Energy Efficiency for the Third Party Program administered by Pacific Gas & Electric, as part of the PG & E contract 460-000.

Lackney, J. (1994). Educational facilities: The impact and role of the physical environment of the school on teaching, learning and educational outcomes. Multi-disciplinary model for assessing impact of infratructure on education and student achievement using applied research. Milwaukee, WI: Center for Architecture and Urban Planning Research, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

Marx, A., Fuhrer, U. & Hartig, T. Learning Environments Research (1999) 2: 249.

Oblinger, D. G. (2006). Learning Spaces. Educause. Retrieved May 2007, from

Wohlfarth, H. (1985). The effects of colour-psychodynamic environmental modification on blood pressure and mood: A controlled study. The International Journal of Biosocial Research7(1), 9-16.