Learning spaces, connection and community

Natasha Kenny, Educational Development Unit Director, Taylor Institute for Teaching and Learning
Nancy Chick, Academic Director of the Taylor Institute for Teaching and Learning

By Natasha Kenny and Nancy Chick, Taylor Institute for Teaching and Learning

In December, we attended a celebratory lunch and debrief with instructors who taught in the learning studios in the Taylor Institute for Teaching and Learning (TI).  After the first official semester of fall course offerings, staff at the TI were interested in learning more about instructors’ experiences teaching in the TI.

What surprised us most throughout this discussion was how many times the themes of community and connection came up in the discussion.  Yes, the instructors reflected that the flexible furniture and technology allowed them to experiment with new collaborative learning strategies. However, what was most resonant was how the intentional use of these spaces fostered a new and noteworthy sense of community and connection among the students and instructors.

With the flat floors, no “front” of the room,  and typical configuration of 4-6 students sitting in groups around movable tables and chairs, instructors were embedded within the students’ space, rather than positioned in the traditionally separate space of the teacher. Instructors also noticed the highest attendance rates they had ever had in their classes. The level of participation during class, according to one instructor, felt like students were interacting around dining room tables.  Everyone knew each other’s names, and many students arrived early to class with the sole purpose of talking with their classmates. Even in larger classes of 120 students, instructors and students got to know a little more about one another throughout the semester, resulting in a greater sense of presence and engagement by everyone.

Research suggests how important social connection and a positive sense of community is to supporting university students’ success and well-being (Schreiner, 2016). There is little doubt that universities can do more to provide opportunities for students to network with their peers, interact with faculty, and build positive relationships with those across our campus. What we are beginning to learn, even in the early days of teaching in the TI, is how important learning space design is to facilitating these positive connections.

What are the features of a learning space that create create connection and community? Simple design strategies that disrupt traditional classroom configurations.  No stage for any sage.  Chairs on wheels and flexible furniture that enables conversation, dialogue and collaboration. Spaces that are infused with light and allow those inside to see that they’re connected to the surrounding campus.  Flat floor seating areas that break down traditional classroom power structures. Screens and white boards positioned around the room to enable multiple sight lines to reinforce small group contexts and allow learners to share and get feedback on their work.

There is certainly more research to be done, but what we are learning quickly is that space matters.  It is time to re-conceptualize how university classrooms are designed.

Reference:

Schreiner, L. 2016. Thriving: expanding the goal of higher education. In D. W. Harward (Ed.), Well-being and Higher Education: a Strategy for Change and the Realization of Education’s Greater Purposes. (pp. 135-148). Washington D.C.: Bringing Theory to Practice.

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