The Architecture of Learning

This past week, a local architecture firm, JLG Architects, revealed the winners in their first annual “Think Outside the Desk” video contest.  This competition asked local university students to answer the question: “Where do you learn best?”.  My wife dragged me to see the award presentation and it proved to be a pretty enlightening perspective on how students learn.  Here are all the videos submitted and the videos at the top are the top 10.

This blog has touched on the topic of learning environments in the past when I discussed our department’s move from Merrifield Hall to O’Kelly Hall.  In series of posts, I asked what makes the professional office in this day in age (and mourned the painting over of graffiti while at the same time celebrating the existence of an obstructed view seat).  Recently, a generous donor offered the department some money to remake our graduate student offices.  The dean suggested that the graduate students might like some nice new carrells or even cubicles in their office. I can only assume that she made this suggestion in jest. The graduate students actually requested the opposite: open spaces, better lighting, different spaces with different types of seating.  In other words, they wanted a more flexible space suitable to different kinds of activities and to shed or disguise features in their offices that evoke the dull monotony of institutional architecture (e.g. florescent lights, cubicles).  It is perhaps unsurprising a group of adults who have decided to pursue graduate education would not want a space that mimics the worst kind of corporate environments.

The students whose videos featured most prominently in the JLG show on Thursday echoed these sentiments.  The students’ recommendation went in three directions:

Many students wanted study spaces that evoked spaces of consumption outside of the university. The most commonly evoked image was the coffee shop or cozy college town bar which featured comfortable furniture, well-modulated lighting, warm smells, and the gentle buzz of background noise.  Some students clearly wanted to study at a slightly upscale Starbucks. Others, perhaps with a more practical bent, wanted the kind of space that was equally suitable for collaborative work and solo studying.  Producing spaces that encourage collaborative work would echo sentiments from all corners of the academic world. In fact, the Arum and Roska’s Academically Adrift has suggested that students who study together in groups tend to perform better in general, but the reasons for this are more complex that simply available spaces.

The next group of videos critiqued classroom space as boring and uninspiring. This is undoubtedly true. The need for institutional flexibility has made the traditional seminar room (at least as envisioned by 19th century historians) an endangered species.  The most adventurous meditation on learning outside the desk came from a graduate student at the University of North Dakota, Ted Bibby, who said that he learned best in Antarctica. While this is perhaps extreme, the idea that our classrooms do more the capture the spirit of what we study is valuable. Many of the contributions came from the School of Architecture at North Dakota State University and many of these students celebrated their studios as spaces of real learning (an opinion echoed in some way by Ryan Stander’s reflection on his studio in our fine arts building here on campus).

The final group of proposals emphasized the need to have distraction free space to work. They tended to celebrate their rooms or apartments or the quiet corners on campus.  When I was a student, I found the quietest corners of the library to do my work so I can sympathize with these students sentiments.  I can also see the tensions that administrators face when trying to imagine an ideal campus that combined consumer culture (e.g. a Starbucks), with the creative spaces of the studio (or, say, Antarctica) and the secluded corners for distraction free studying.


  1. What’s great about this is that Starbucks is itself a watered-down commercialized cookie-cutter copy of the college coffee shop, so what some students want is a copy of a copy of the local college-town cafe… even though they are University students.


  2. Dimitri,

    There is a kind of irony here, yep. Third hand consumerism. Original coffee shop -> Starbucks -> College Campus Starbucks Knockoff.



  3. Dimitri,

    There is a kind of irony here, yep. Third hand consumerism. Original coffee shop -> Starbucks -> College Campus Starbucks Knockoff.



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