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While teaching and working from home during the pandemic, I developed a new respect for staying active and getting outside; new studies prove how much physical movement and nature matter to human wellbeing.

This is a takeaway worth applying to campus environments: academic spaces tangibly affect the experiences of teachers and learners. In recent years, learning science research has been amassing evidence around some key principles. For example, we know that

We also know we’re competing with tremendous demand from other forces in students’ lives for their attention, time, and energy. I’d like to recommend that we try something simple as a way to amplify learning science principles and to invite our students to experience learning as joyful, restorative, and intrinsically rewarding.

Let’s rethink academic space

Human beings respond to built environments. The qualities of any indoor space—size, shape, ceiling height, color, sources of light, materials, furnishings—send signals that shape our interactions within it. Consider how design can shape your felt sense and behavior as you move among different spaces on a college or university campus: a formal conference room, a lecture hall, the library, or outdoor green spaces. 

Neuroscience research is establishing that prior experiences and expectations dominate our perception of physical spaces and diminish the degree of alert attention we bring to familiar environments, including those we’ve seen on screens. So a standard virtual space or physical classroom with rows of seating facing a large screen or whiteboard has the unfortunate effect of dulling our students’ attention before class has even started. They’ve been in this configuration before, and their brains are wired to conserve energy by predicting what they will see and hear. Maintaining alert attention during an uninterrupted slideshow or lecture, especially while sitting still, will demand intentional activity, such as handwriting or typing notes; even students who have developed expert note-taking skills will lose focus periodically. If they’re tired or hungry or dehydrated, they will struggle to overcome their brains’ propensity to adopt default prediction mode, which can cause them to see or hear what they already know rather than fully apprehend new terms or concepts.

While many of us employ interactive methods to capture students’ interest and attention, my point is that the familiarity of our spaces is working against us.

The good news is that the state of low alertness prompted by a familiar physical (or virtual) space is easy to change: it just requires us to do something unexpected. In a traditional classroom, something as simple as asking students to sit somewhere they haven’t sat before redirects their visual focus and offers mild novelty that can stimulate alertness. Recommending that students toggle among view options during a virtual session works too; human eyes are designed to scan the environment and change up our perspective continuously (a trait that filmmakers mimic by giving us close-up and wide-angle shots). Give students in person and online regular opportunities to stretch. Moving around the physical room while you address the class or while they’re working on an activity breaks down the mind-dulling configuration of “teacher in front.” Opening the blinds for natural light and cracking the windows (if possible) for fresh air takes advantage of evolutionary responses to heighten alertness. Let students know that you are practicing these strategies specifically to improve their cognitive functioning during class, and ask them if it makes a difference.

Ready for next-level variations?

Cutting-edge architecture and furniture firms have been rethinking the connection between nature and health in such institutional spaces as hospitals and schools. Fresh air, movement, and indoor-outdoor design can revitalize human interaction, not to mention provide healthful airflow. Environmental psychologists are demonstrating through experimental studies how varying degrees of light, ceiling heights, and views of nature affect cognition and behavior. How can we leverage these insights?

Ideally, our class sessions offer opportunities for students to stand, to move to different areas of the room or outside of it, to write or draw on multiple surfaces, and to examine objects with their senses: to study documents or images, to listen carefully to sounds or voices, to handle instruments or tools or artifacts. A carefully designed learning experience allows for solitary reflection as well as social interaction. As students circulate among one another, they often develop an increased sense of connection through simple proximity. As the principles of Universal Design for Learning (UDL) guide us, providing multiple means of engagement, representation, action, and expression offers all learners a chance to succeed. Inclusive design means offering students equitable options that all work toward the goal of a learning activity. Humans like choices.

So as you plan future class sessions, consider these questions as a way to make your space work to support teaching and learning:

  1. What are the key takeaways—about the material and about the experience of your class—for students at this moment?
  2. Are there alternative options for a convenient meeting space that would help to support those goals? Could you plan to use your normal space and spend time somewhere else? (Explore nearby spots in the building or outside for small group conversations; consider sending online students on a visit to a relevant public site any of them could find nearby, like a park or a library.)
  3. If you’re staying in your normal space, how can you change up the way it looks and feels? (Can you adjust the lighting, the air, or play background music or nature sounds as students work on a task? Can you enlist volunteers to rearrange furniture?)
  4. How might you help students to physically navigate the material by moving around the space, handling objects, or taking a short walk to discuss a problem or question with partners?
  5. How will you introduce these strategies to your students so that they understand the connection to their cognitive functioning? How can you support their sense of agency and ownership of their learning as they choose among options and practice metacognitive reflection?

Coming back to academic learning spaces offers us a valuable opportunity to rethink how we use them. Spaces should support activities to build relationships, create inclusive community, and construct meaning because that’s how students learn and grow.

Further reading

Ambrose, Susan A., Marsha Lovett, Michael W. Bridges, Michele DiPietro, and Marie K. Norman. 2010. How Learning Works: Seven Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Garrido-Cumbrera, Marco, Ronan Foley, José Correa-Fernández, Alicia González-Marín, Olta Braçe, and Denise Hewlett. 2022. “The Importance for Wellbeing of Having Views of Nature from and in the Home during the COVID-19 Pandemic. Results from the GreenCOVID Study.” Journal of Environmental Psychology 83 (October): 101864.

Dewsbury, Bryan M., Holly J. Swanson, Serena Moseman-Valtierra, and Joshua Caulkins. 2022. “Inclusive and Active Pedagogies Reduce Academic Outcome Gaps and Improve Long-Term Performance.” PLOS ONE 17(6): e0268620.

Felten, Peter, and Leo M. Lambert. 2020. Relationship-Rich Education: How Human Connections Drive Success in College. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Lang, James M. 2022. “The Healing Power of Learning.” The Chronicle of Higher Education, March 23, 2022.

Susan Hrach, PhD, is the author of the Silver Nautilus Award–winning book Minding Bodies: How Physical Space, Sensation, and Movement Affect Learning (WVU Press, 2021). She is currently serving as Fulbright Canada Distinguished Research Chair in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning at Carleton University in Ottawa, Ontario.