The Influence of Design on the Learning Environment

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While every prospective student has his own criteria for choosing a college, campus appearance influences the decision between 62 and 80 percent of prospective students.

Jenny West Architecture and Design Manager Knoll

Jenny West
Architecture and Design Manager

Savvy institutions are well aware of the role the physical environment plays in their marketing efforts and how it drives investment in their facilities. Not only do they seek to appeal to the best and brightest students, faculty and staff, but also they must accommodate – and retain – an increasingly diverse student body. Nontraditional students – minorities, adult learners, veterans, returning students, part-time students who work part or full time, parents of young children – comprise an increasingly larger percentage of the student population. Additionally, campuses must support new and varied pedagogies, including customized programs and learning styles that are collaborative, highly interactive and/or student-driven. Finally, administrators are keenly aware of the influence college rankings have on recruitment and that campus facilities and aesthetics can carry great weight in the reporting.

Goals of the Study

To learn more and create evidence about the link between facility design and student experience, Knoll conducted a two-part study with the Wake Forest School of Business.

The “Before” study took place while students in the graduate and undergraduate school of business were located in two separate buildings on the Wake Forest Campus. Construction was already underway on Farrell Hall, a new building that would house both the undergraduate and graduate school of business in a single facility designed to accommodate today’s learning and teaching styles.

The primary goal of the study was to compare students’ satisfaction, preferences and perceptions about their experience in the school of business before and after the move to Farrell Hall. The studies explored relationships between elements of the indoor environment and students’ satisfaction when using the spaces for individual study, group work, and learning among peers.

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Pre Move-in Phase

The pre move-in study revealed three notable connections between design investments and an improved student experience:

  1. A greater variety of spaces improves quality of study and socializing.
  2. Elements of adaptability enhance student satisfaction with space.
  3. Functionality of space, legibility (i.e., ease of way finding, understanding of building layout), brand and aesthetics drive the student decision to attend the school.

Based on the findings of Phase 1 research, Knoll suggested several broad recommendations for all higher education institutions to enhance student satisfaction with their learning experience. In Farrell Hall, planners were able to incorporate several of these recommendations into the new facility.

Findings from Phase 2 – Post Move-in

10 months after the move into Farrell Hall, students were surveyed again about their experience in the new facility and obtained the following evidence:

  1. Aesthetics and overall functionality of spaces had the greatest improvement in positive impact on students’ learning experience and expectations.
  2. The wall of windows and outdoor orientation proved to be among the most highly valued improvements.
  3. Satisfaction with technology, power and data access improved throughout.
  4. Ability to move or manipulate the furniture to accommodate learning needs significantly improved.
  5. Students felt the number of workspaces, particularly enclosed spaces for private or small group study, could be expanded. Fewer than 50 percent of students found such space readily available. Many students expressed a preference for less space allocated for congregating areas in favor of a greater number of smaller, more intimate spaces for independent or group study.
  6. Students prefer working on-site, which is a significant shift from the pre move-in survey, in which students noted they were more likely to choose spaces away from the school of business buildings for individual or group study.
  7. Farrell Hall better reflects the mission and goals of the business school at Wake Forest University.

Both the pre and post move-in studies showed facility aesthetics are linked to students’ overall satisfaction with their learning experience at their higher education institution. Knoll found three significant connections between students’ satisfaction and success and the higher education indoor environment:

  1. Students’ satisfaction with the learning environment is strongly linked to their perceptions of the facility aesthetics and spatial organization and whether a facility reflects their school’s mission.
  2. Satisfaction with learning experiences is associated with students’ ability to move furniture to accommodate their learning needs.
  3. Outdoor spaces, which students particularly enjoy, can build engagement and communicate the institution’s mission and brand.

Future Planning: Considerations for a Successful Learning Space

The results of this pre- and post-occupancy study intended to contribute evidence regarding the impact of higher education facilities on students. Based on the findings, Knoll presents four recommendations that any academic institution can apply when planning future learning environments:

  1. Provide a mix of individual, informal learning and group study spaces balanced with open congregate spaces.
  2. Prioritize flexibility in furniture to allow occupants to determine how it will be used.
  3. Develop outdoor spaces that encourage engagement.
  4. Utilize elements of the physical setting to communicate the institution’s brand and support marketing and recruitment efforts.

With a lifecycle of higher education facilities expected to span several decades, definitive evidence that informs facility design is critical to capitalize on the initial investment; and for the prospective student in search of study, socializing or something in between, a well-defined campus brings clarity to their decision-making.

Through research, we explore the connection between workspace design and human behavior, health and performance, and the quality of the user experience. We share and apply what we learn to inform product development and help our customers shape their work environments. For the full white paper, please visit \\

Featured in the March 2016 Building Dialogue

Edited by Building Dialogue