Understanding the student

Applied research is a core component of our design approach across all sectors we work within. None more important than the Education sector and in particular higher education institutions, for which the drivers influencing design, delivery and maintenance of campuses are broad and in constant flux.

Even before the Auger report, Higher Education Institutions and their estates team have been under pressure to deliver learning and teaching accommodation that both satisfies changing pedagogy as well as improves utilisation and efficiency. This doesn’t just apply to formal learning environments as today’s student spends an equal amount of time in self-directed or informal study. The 2018 HEPI / Advance HE Student Academic Experience Survey (n = 14,000 students), found that the average timetabled contact hours are 13.7, and average independent study hours are 14 hours, indicating that students are splitting their time between formal and informal learning. But how do the spatial requirements for these different types of learning differ?

For a number of years we have been supporting the research initiatives of the Higher Education Design Quality Forum (HEDQF), through my leadership alongside a number of other professionals from design consultancies as well as higher education institutions. HEDQF is an independent organisation that exists to promote high quality design across university campuses, buildings and facilities, in the knowledge that this enhances teaching, learning, research and public engagement. Research is a core component of the charity’s activities, supporting the higher education sector to create, maintain and deliver high quality environments through greater understanding and knowledge of how they affect the people that use them.

Although maybe an obvious statement, the student voice is vital to the success of these research initiatives, as it is to deliver all building projects within the sector. HEDQF are committed to engaging with the student community and capturing their perspective across all our research projects. The charity has recently worked with an independent insights consultancy, YouthSight, who maintain a dedicated under- 30s opinion panel with 150,000 members, allowing the charity to take another step in this journey.

Last year the charity turned its attention to better understanding the design requirements of learning environments of the future as well as the present, responding to feedback from the sector. With many courses developing new approaches to pedagogy that incorporate blended learning approaches, using methods such as flipped classrooms or utilising virtual learning environments (VLE) students address a significant amount of the curriculum studying either with colleagues or on their own. Learning experiences that take place outside the ‘classroom’ setting have an increasingly important role.

Whether you call that ‘informal learning’ or ‘social learning’, ensuring that the University campus provides successful environments for these activities is becoming as important as delivering the right number of ‘rooms’ to satisfy timetabling requirements. Design teams are constantly reevaluating the success of the physical environments they create to support these informal experiences that range from impromptu to semi-structured.

Although the National Student Survey (NSS) creates a significant presence in the academic year, the learning experience for any student cannot only be captured by contact-time metrics. In order to get greater insight into the way students choose to study, the charity choose to go direct, and ask them. With the help of YouthSight over 1000 full time undergraduate student provided their views across ten questions for this survey on Social Learning Environments.

An overwhelming number of student respondents indicated that they would choose to study in the library and their study bedroom outside taught sessions. This could suggest that there is a preference towards using designated study areas rather than repurposing other spaces such as cafés or break out spaces. Both these spaces are also likely to provide silent or quiet studying environment and in the instance of their bedroom a space they can control.

The survey highlighted that students say they spend on average 45% of their study time on campus as opposed to off campus. Although this is a very slight preference, manyinstitutions would be keen to reverse this relationship or better still increase the amount of time spent on campus further, epitomised by the term ‘sticky campus’, prevalent in many discussions about the development of University estates.

When asked about reasons for choosing to study on or off campus it is evident that the decisions are also strongly influenced by whether they are working on their own or with friends and whether they require University resources. The most popular reasons for studying off campus were related to convenience as well as an ability to work on their own, suggesting a perception that there are not sufficient or suitable places to study alone on campus. Although many Universities are providing an increasing number of central desk spaces and computer access, if these are located in shared or open plan spaces this may have an influence on whether a student would choose to use them for focused work or not. This emphasises the important role that student accommodation and the study bedroom still plays in the learning experience of students.

In a sector where a good number of new buildings have been opened over the last 5-10years, specifically to respond to a changing pedagogy including informal, flipped or social learning, examining student perception of the range of spaces on offer and what they’re good for is critical. Capturing the student voice is imperative whether through user survey or observation, otherwise we’re just overlaying a series of often long-held assumptions in lieu of evidence-based informed decision making. If you’d like to see more of the study commissioned by HEDQF, please check out the charity’s website at www.hedqf.org/research/.

Whether as part of my work with HEDQF or leading Atkins Research & Innovation team, I am committed to providing the Education sector with research insights that support the delivery of environments that support learning both now and in the future. Hopefully one day the National Student Survey will also collect feedback on the role of the physical environment in the success of learning and teaching with the higher education sector.

Contact Information

Atkins Human-Centred Design

Atkins | Nova North, 11 Bressenden Place, Westminster, London SW1E 5BY

+44 (0)20 121 2000 | info.HCD@atkinsglobal.com

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