Picture by Tim Gouw

Campus planning – design for student experience

I’ve been talking to lots of universities over the past few months about measuring staff and student experience on campus to improve spaces, create healthy campuses & effective learning environments.

There are student hubs popping up to cater to the changing and diverse needs of the student population, as well as new types of work and study spaces.  Universities are balancing creating sticky, social and safe campuses whilst also providing online courses and digital connectedness.

Where should you focus? HDR spaces, student hubs, place activation, online courses? It comes down to understanding the student experience.

The physical environment and student experience

I have vivid memories piling into a lecture with 300+ other students, speaker up the front changing over the transparent overhead B&W slides (!!) while you battled to keep your eyes open in the stuffy, dimly lit room.

Things have come a long way in just 10-20 years. But, similarly to the commercial office space, there is a lot of research on how to design spaces to maximise learning outcomes. But when it comes to practice, we don’t systematically go back and check if spaces are working (aka post-occupancy evaluation).

So how do universities know if the investments they have made into their buildings actually deliver increases in learning outcomes or student experience?

What do we know about student experience and space now?

Domestic and international rankings put constant pressure on university performance to attract and retain students. These are one of the main indicators we have to measure student experience.

The Australian Quality in Learning and Teaching (QILT) is one such survey, measuring student satisfaction across a number of areas.  Looking below, at first glance, it seems the physical spaces rate very well (note this doesn’t include student accommodation).

A little caveat here, this is a very general rating of spaces considering the vast mix of ages and infrastructure across universities. It doesn’t give solid feedback about particular space types and learning/ experience outcomes…but that’s for another article.

What if we dig a little deeper into student experience? Things look a bit different…

Below is an abstract of some of the positive rating data related to ‘learner engagement’ and ‘teaching quality’ in the QILT survey. Performance drops as compared to the direct questions about physical space.

And it changes across stage of study and demographics

Ratings are also broken into those just commencing studies, and those in their last year. Note there is a drop across all categories in the last year of study.

The results are similar for student support (below).

The point of this is that there is a lot of discussion about attracting and retaining students. These are two separate strategies and as students transition through their studies. Their needs, and the types of spaces to fulfil those needs will change.

A first year HDR has very different needs to a final year HDR student. Are research and student spaces serving across these student needs, or pushing students to work elsewhere?

It is also interesting to look at this student experience data from age demographics, indigenous/non-indigenous and international/ domestic students. One that really stood out was international vs domestic ratings on Learner Engagement, almost a 40% difference.

Learner engagement covered a lot of the aspects around interactions, and would create a sense of belonging. If trying to attract a lot of international students, understanding how to facilitate this engagement within buildings is imperative. Spaces that don’t consider the softer elements of social interaction, access to support services etc are missing out.

How can the physical space facilitate better student experiences and healthy campuses?

Space and campus planning needs to be able to consider real estate costs and space constraints, but also the often neglected user experience, comfort and satisfaction which will bring long term ROI. 

  • Do they have spaces where they can relax and socially interact?
  • Can they easily access support services?
  • Are they comfortable?
  • Are they too intimidated to use some spaces?
  • Does the digital environment lead to isolation or are they mixing with other students?

We often assume the needs of building users, we need to really understand these human factors in real depth.

Consider, for instance, the low QILT score of interacting with students outside study requirements and the design of a traditional university. Departments (and buildings) are very silo’d. How can spaces be designed to overcome the silos? Or if a student feels there is a limited connection to academic or support staff, the solution is not a building placing staff behind multiple locked doors and hard to find offices.

We know the connections between health and physical environment exist. This is areas such as natural daylight, facilitation of movement, air quality, acoustics, thermal comfort, connection to nature etc. These elements needs to be considered in every design of campus spaces.

Healthy built environments are especially relevant considering the top 2 reasons university students consider leaving: health or stress, and study/life balance (QILT).

Design of space is starting to merge psychology, health and architecture towards human centred spaces and universities have an incredible opportunity here. I went and saw the University of Adelaide student hub. A summary below on how this space understands student (undergrad) needs, both through the design and ongoing management.

The University of Adelaide – Hub Central 

I walked into Hub Central at the University of Adelaide at 11am on a Thursday, it was buzzing. It was hard to find a seat so I walked around observing students. Some were seated in a quiet corner with headphones working on a laptop, groups pulling the tables together for project work, eating with friends, chatting to student support, tutoring in a booth or wandering through the masterplan exhibits.

How did they do it? The manager, Ian Thomson kindly sat with me to explain the process, a few key takeaways below.

Challenge Business As Usual design

The Hub broke all the traditional design rules, after initial design consultation, what looked good on paper didn’t resonate with the students – so the university bravely handed over the reins and had students actively participate in creating the space they need and want. This went beyond the traditional 1 or 2 students on a design committee.

Ian comes from a customer service background, and I could tell that speaking to him. He had a different take on user experience and sees himself as the representative for student needs. He doesn’t report to a properties department, and constantly engages with students to tweak and improve this space.

Trust and ownership

5pm rolls around nothing changes in the Hub. The furniture isn’t locked down, areas closed off or doors shut. It is open 24 hours with student access to all areas and there is no problem with items getting damaged or stolen. Ian said he can sometimes come in and find the whiteboards covered with intricate brainstorming maps from students constructed during the wee hours of the morning.

There is a kitchen maintained by students, and a garden with their own herbs and veggies. The uni doesn’t interfere, this is their space, their decisions and they are trusted to look after it.

The materials used and furniture have all been selected by students, included the ‘Dad’s garage’ collaborative room downstairs, with a roller door! Each area has unique character.

Flexibility and choice

The space is flexible, furniture can be moved easily. Ian takes a prototyping method to the madness, setting up cheap furniture to trial new initiatives before investing in changes. The furniture changes across the different spaces, allowing individual work and privacy or group discussions in a range of settings.

As well as the mixed spaces to choose from depending on the tasks, this space provides students an option to stay on campus for longer – the main driver behind sticky campuses. They don’t need to find someone’s house to go and work at, or a nearby café, it’s seamless to meet.

They are able to chat to student support anytime, and the support team aren’t behind counters where you need to take a number (the students were against any counters). It is an open and welcoming space. And then after hours, students can use these desks to work at if they choose.

It feels liberating, there aren’t rules about where food can go, or where they can sit, or where they should walk, or signs up on the walls reminding them what they can and can’t do. It truly is their space.

Continual feedback and communication.

Surveys, feedback over a pizza lunch and constant chatting keeps Ian abreast of student needs.  Students change, new ideas come in as graduates leave.Humans aren’t logical, what we think will work with a design sometimes does not, so this ongoing tweaking and is imperative.

When the uni did a recent Masterplanning consultation, students were able to give feedback using stickers on the plans of what they’d like to keep (green), change (orange) or remove (red) across the whole campus. The plans were filled with colour over a few days. Consultation at universities is difficult. It is hard to get people excited, plans will often sit on a uni website with limited participation. Students feel empowered and a part of the decision making, so consultation becomes easier. This hub is where students go, it becomes easier to communicate and engage with them.

Understanding the job this space needs to do

Original discussion had all amenities on campus, hairdressing, pharmacy etc but students said it’s not necessary – they are right next to the CBD for those services. Just some basic food offerings and a kitchen was enough. This really demonstrates the gap between assumptions and need, we often assume what people need in a space and how they will use it.

This space caters not just to social needs, but to learning and support.  In addition to university and technical support services, there is a space where academic staff can meet with students. Sections are set up for different disciplines. It isn’t intimidating to ask for, or find, help. There is even mobile computing trolley where they can watch pre-recorded lectures, which they can watch at their own pace while discussing with other students.

The total student experience

Addressing assets and facilities obviously won’t solve all the issues around student experience but this is a really exciting area which has the potential to expand.

It is dangerous to copy ideas and trends directly from industry. We can look at movement and utilization data, conditional and functional audits and other traditional mechanisms for master planning and asset management. By replacing traditional consultation with deeper, wider engagement you can understand user experiences and tap into a whole new layer of data to improve usability.

Understanding the user experience can inform all stages of the building lifecycle.

This ‘why’ can help find the answers to the organisational problems you are trying to solve…Are you trying to attract international students? Retain students for longer? Improve HDR research outcomes? What works now? What doesn’t? Why?

We are developing a number of student experience projects and measures. Please get in touch if you’re interested in partnering with us, and sign up to our newsletter for updates.

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Dr Sam Hall

Dr Sam Hall

Sam is the founder of Spaces Alive. She's an advocate for re-imaging our cities and buildings to prepare for the future of work and study.