It's been a long time since learning opportunities were limited to the four walls of the classroom. And yet, many campus residences don’t fully maximize their potential as a place where residents can learn, grow and become happier, healthier, more successful students.

Students spend nearly three-quarters of their day in their living environments, so it’s not surprising that the environment in which a student lives becomes critical to academic success and achievement. Study after study shows that students who live on campus are more likely to graduate within four years. They also are more likely to engage and build relationships with their peers, use the academic resources available on campus, study with other students and interact with faculty outside the classroom—behaviors that all have been linked to academic success.

By understanding and applying design and academic research, campuses can build—and adapt—residential environments that contribute actively to that success.

Integrating academics

The obvious way to promote academic success inside a residence is to bring the academics into the building, whether through a formal community learning center or other design and programming options. When the University of Northern Colorado built its most recent residence hall, it included designated music rooms with soundproof walls to enable performing-arts students to practice close to home. In addition, the building incorporated classrooms and community rooms/flexible learning spaces where students can learn, study and hold meetings. The school’s academic leadership uses these same spaces for meetings, which increases the opportunities for informal student-faculty interactions outside class.

The key to incorporating effective academic spaces in a residence is to build the partnership between housing and academic departments early in the process. This may mean involving faculty in the planning and design stages, and working toward consensus on which academic needs can be met by which types of residential spaces.

Academic supports also may include learning laboratories that offer access to advanced technology and tools, such as software, printing facilities and interactive whiteboards, as well as faculty offices and residences. Or, it may take the form of rethinking the residence all together.

At the University of Michigan, a new open office graduate learning community has been designed expressly for serendipitous knowledge capture and modeled on the changing workplaces exemplified by Google and other technology companies.

Connecting students

Academic supports, however, are just one way to change a residence from a "place to sleep" to a "place to learn." Social skills, research shows, are as important as study skills in fostering learning and the type of campus engagement that promotes academic success. An environment that naturally facilitates active learning and social development creates deeper understanding and growth.

Design features such as multiple entrances and long corridors can reduce socialization, whereas a welcoming main entrance, visible common spaces and shorter corridors are shown to promote interaction among residents. Hybrid spaces, such as suites with 10 to 12 rooms opening onto common living, dining and kitchen facilities, and traditional-style halls that have been redesigned to cluster 10 to 20 students in rooms that share a common bathroom, are ways to use the building’s floor plan to encourage residents to socialize and build community.

In years past, "hotel-style" layouts have been popular on campuses. Yet, many housing directors have found that setting up a residence like a hotel only encourages students to treat it as such.

In a 2007 study in The Journal of College and University Student Housing, researchers discovered residents of suite-style residences perceived 23 percent fewer opportunities for social interaction than those in a traditional residence hall, a perception they attributed to the hotel-like layout.

Even when working with existing buildings and limited budgets, it’s possible to promote social and academic development by changing how the building functions. New Mexico State University’s 884-student Garcia Hall, which is organized around four separate patios, is being transformed into four separate academic-interest communities, each with faculty offices, classroom spaces and interest-specific features.

Other design features that promote social development:

•Small individual living spaces that foster interaction and involvement.

•Buildings of five or fewer floors with fewer than 500 residents, which encourage community traffic and interaction.

•Visible social/study spaces that provide a sense of "neighborhood" and enable students to study without missing out on social opportunities.

•Flexible rooms that make space for formal study, meetings, informal learning and faculty interaction.

Academic research has shown that younger students require opportunities to meet people and explore their social identity. As they develop, needs for privacy, control and independent living increase. A successful residential program must include buildings that are designed to accommodate these natural stages of growth.

Designing for the busy, wired lifestyle

For a busy student, lifestyle matters. In-residence wireless access—and the energy-efficient mechanical systems to drive increasing technology needs—are moving from innovation to expectation. As more professors give assignments electronically and students spend more time connected to technology, this trend will continue.

The ability to personalize rooms through furniture placement also is important. Flexibility encourages psychological integration, enhances feelings of personal security and deepens the connection that students feel to their temporary "home." But flexible, modular bedroom furnishings, such as a desk, bookshelf and extended workspace that can be configured in a number of ways, also serve a practical purpose. An engineering or art student, for example, may need a larger, flat surface on which to work, whereas an English major may prefer a smaller desk space and more room for books.

Students spend hours in front of screens and books; they benefit emotionally and psychologically from living spaces that make effective use of daylighting and views of naturally landscaped areas. And with increasing demands on their time, students place a high value on daily conveniences that free up more time to focus on what’s important to them.

Laundry facilities on their floor instead of in the basement, casual furniture for reading while still in view of what’s going on, green spaces close by to relax and rest, and a convenient place to park their bicycles all create a sense of ease at home, enabling students to focus on learning.

Defining success

To create an integrated learning environment on campus, residences must be designed and invested in as sustainable 25-year-plus buildings where students can live, work and play in ways that enhance their ability to be successful and graduate. For housing directors, achieving this goal requires a deep understanding of the student body as well as an understanding of who is living on campus and who is not. Every school’s culture is different, and the needs of students themselves evolve as their academic life evolves. In making decisions about what goes into a residence building and how it is designed, it’s important to begin with the end in mind—graduating successful students.

A residence that is designed from the start to align with students’ social, academic and physical needs turns a place to sleep into an environment that is actively helping students learn and grow. It also enhances the effectiveness of residence life staff and programming. The result is a living environment that offers a value to students that cannot be found in any off-campus option.

Zhiri, AIA, is an architect and principal-in-charge of Treanor Architects', Student Life Division, Lawrence, Kan., which has been creating environments for students’ personal, social and academic success since 1981. She can be reached at nzhiri@treanorarchitects.com.

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