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School of Design: The Connection Between Architecture & Learning

It’s been proven that people learn in a variety of ways. Some of us are visual learners. Some are auditory learners, while others do best with a hands-on approach. Regardless of how we learn, we all need a building in which to receive the lesson. This begs the question: In what types of built environments do people learn best?

Shah Kawasaki Architects’ Designer Olivia Asuncion set out to determine just that through a collaborative research project at the University of Oregon’s School of Architecture and Allied Arts. The first two phases of the study compared how students and teachers behave between two lecture halls on the University of Oregon campus: 150 Columbia Hall and 156 Straub Hall.

The team’s preliminary findings, which she presented at the Environmental Design Research Association’s 47th annual conference, EDRA47Raleigh – Innovation: Shifting Ground, in Raleigh, in North Carolina, revealed how design affects student-teacher interaction, student attentiveness and overall student / teacher satisfaction.

Phase I involved a behavioral study focused on students and teachers at Columbia Hall, a 550-seat lecture hall built in 1960. Teachers complained about the lack of media benches. There was only one, which meant transition time between lectures was difficult and cut into valuable class time. The incoming professor would have to wait for the outgoing professor to unplug all media before they were able to set up for their lecture. Adding to the time of transition, there were only two entry/exit points to the hall and one was used significantly more than the other. Columbia was also dark, the seats were rigid and uncomfortable, and poor acoustics made it difficult for students to hear the lecturer and other students’ questions.

Phase II focused on the newly built 500-seat Straub Hall, which has three points of entry — utilized equally — and two media benches, allowing teachers to set up/pack up simultaneously, cutting down on class transition time. Straub was designed to let in an abundance of natural light, has comfortable auditorium seating and significantly better acoustics. Straub also has more aisles and cross aisles, allowing instructors to maneuver easily to interact with ground-floor students.

Though the project is still in progress, initial data analysis suggests that natural lighting, the addition of more entry/exit points, increased aisle space and the quality of seating in these lecture halls has a positive impact on the school’s end users, elevating student attention span and overall learning / teaching satisfaction. For example, the natural light let in from large windows and skylights in Straub Hall cuts down on the glare of cell phone and laptop screen lights, which helps students to better focus on what’s going on in the front of the room as opposed to what’s around them. State-of-the-art noise-cancelling acoustics significantly reduces the din of a large crowd, also helping those who want to learn focus on what the professor is teaching.

If you are considering implementing a school renovation project or are planning new construction, we encourage you to reach out to the experts at Shah Kawasaki Architects. We pride ourselves at staying abreast of new design applications and universal design for learning.

The Environmental Design Research Association is an international and interdisciplinary organization that encourages design research to help those in the design and construction profession better understand relationships between people and the built environment in order to build a better world.

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