By Julie Williams Lawless
Learning, particularly for college students, is not limited to the knowledge acquired from a book or class. It is a social action where acquiring social skills is as important as acquiring study skills. Providing an environment to facilitate active learning and development of social skills creates a depth of understanding that passive observation cannot replicate (Stimpson 1994).
An estimated 80% of college students persist through the first year of study, yet only 55% on average will ultimately complete a degree after six years (Brandon, Hirt and Cameron 2008). The persistence needed to complete a degree may be attributed to the level of integration—academic and social—that a student perceives with an institution. College students spend approximately 70% of their time within their living environment; therefore, it is a logical conclusion that students need an environment that contributes to academic and social well-being. For many students, the center of this environment is the residence hall (Brandon, Hirt and Cameron 2008).
The design of a residence hall can influence how students interact, the quality of these interactions, and the effect they have on the well-being of the students (Brandon, Hirt and Cameron 2008; Strange and Banning 2001; and Terenzini, Pascarela and Blimling 1996). In a 2007 study, researchers noted that residents of suite-style residence halls experienced 23% fewer opportunities for social interaction than residents of a traditional style residence hall (Brandon, Hirt and Cameron 2008). Participants in the study attributed the difference in quality of the interactions to the building layout, likening the suite-style design to a hotel. While the suite-style building was highly desirable for the perception of increased privacy, the traditional-style hall is perceived as being more community oriented and social. Specific attributes mentioned included the ease of interaction with open door activity in the traditional hall and the perception of ‘invasion’ in the suite-style. In addition, residents of the suite-style halls indicated they knew fewer residents of their own hall and perceived less welcoming attitudes to engage in interactions within a room that was not their own. In contrast, residents of the traditional style hall expressed positive interactions based on casual stop in traffic in individual rooms and the opportunity to meet and know more residents based on traffic patterns through the building (Brandon, Hirt and Cameron 2008). However, the longer the corridor is in the traditional-style hall, the less socialization becomes a positive correlation (Chickering and Reisser 1993).
The space within the environment matters, as well. Halls with multiple entrances alter the flow of interaction-inducing traffic patterns. Students are presumed to use the entrances closest to their rooms, thus a building with fewer points of access can direct traffic to points designed with the opportunities for socialization (Brandon, Hirt and Cameron 2008). However, multiple common spaces will promote increased social interaction (Terenzini, Pascarela and Blimling 1996).
In addition to design research, education researchers have evaluated the housing and social needs of students based on academic standing. Younger students require opportunities for incidental socialization in order to explore their social identity. As students increase in class standing and age the needs for privacy and independent living facilities increases. Opportunities to meet new people are less important than opportunities to control their environment (Chickering and Reisser 1993).
The available literature on the impact of design on behavior and activity points to a set of rudimentary design ideas for creating academic residential spaces that benefit both the physical and social well-being of the student. Derived from design and psychology research, these ideas include:
- Small individual living spaces to foster involvement and interaction
- Overall, low to mid-rise buildings (five or fewer floors) with no more than 500 residents total to foster community oriented traffic and interaction patterns
- Multiple, small social and study spaces to increase incidental social opportunities and increased sense of secondary, neighborhood-like personal space
- Use of hybrid style spaces, for example a suite designed with 10-12 rooms opening onto common living, dining, and kitchen facilities
- Space to complement the academic programming, for example flexible rooms for formal study space, social activity, or informal learning opportunities
- Flexible opportunities for customization by residents, for example adaptable furnishings, paintable surfaces, bulletin or white board walls/ doors
Other aspects of the space should also be addressed, including but not limited to the availability of natural lighting and view-sheds through appropriately placed and operable windows. Daylighting and views of nature have been shown repeatedly to increase both the physical and emotional well-being of people. In addition, the ability to personalize or customize space through the movement of artifacts, decoration of surfaces, and the use of personal mementos encourages a resident to psychologically integrate into the environment and adapt a sense of entitlement to the space. This entitlement has a two-fold effect: close monitoring of the space for personal security and personal pride in the activity and connection to the space, or more loosely defined it creates a sense of belonging (Hagerty, Williams and Oe, 2002; Kaya and Weber, 2003). Students who develop a close sense of belonging to their college environment are not only likely to remain in student housing, but also to complete their degree and become active alumni.
Beyond the fixed environment, there are issues involved in student housing that promote academics and personal satisfaction through the attitude of the student as a ‘consumer’ of housing. Student housing competes directly with off-campus housing and as such, must increasingly become marketable in a real estate sense. While location is often not flexible, how the building is oriented and addresses the adjacent environment can attract or detract from the interior options and should be considered as important as the interior layout and design. The availability of technology, lighting, and connections to nature are also intrinsically associated with the success of residence halls (Hill 2004).
If design options are limited by cost considerations, the next step is to attempt to address the psychological needs through programming (Brandon, Hirt and Cameron 2008). For example, if it is not possible to re-design a hall to accomplish the layout fitting to the student, programming activities such as a hall-wide scavenger hunt or holiday celebration can provide opportunities that are both formal and informal to increase socialization. Alternatively, the inclusion of artifacts in the space may be used to promote socialization; as an example, the inclusion of a game table or entertainment unit in a lounge space.
The design of a residence hall can be effectively used to moderate activity and behavior to promote a successful outcome. By providing spaces that fit the social as well as the physical needs of a college-aged student, the building itself can become a successful tool for retention and academic success.
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