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Archives > January 2013 > Design for Active Learning

Design for Active Learning

In the 1960s, a generation of Baby Boomers was encouraged to embrace cultural change with the phrase “turn on, tune in, drop out.” Forty years later, changes in technology and cultural communication have altered the phrase to “power up, connect, hang out.”

By: CF Group

Generation Y has grown up in a world of increasing social interaction and collaboration. This is as natural to them as the rotary dial telephone was to their grandparents, but with a greater level of connectivity to friends and interaction with their social networks.

It’s no longer enough to find a local coffee shop in order to plug into the world surrounding this generation, also known as the Millenials. Their expectation is that any environment will provide the digital and social interaction necessary. It’s as basic as the air they breathe and more essential than the gasoline that powers their car. They’re always connected.

Additionally, cultural norms have evolved into a highly integrated method of communication. This is powered by fast-moving technology, where discussion, problem solving, and everyday conversation create the foundation for learning and societal advancement.

Campus Café or Multipurpose Space?
According to James Williams, the president of IIDA International Board of Directors, “The days of purely aesthetic design are behind us.  Of course, interiors should look good but, beyond that, they must also provide a greater level of effectiveness. In a campus dining space, that might be enhanced student collaboration or a more inviting place to share food and information, a place to relax or more likely all of the above.”

Active and social learning doesn’t end when students leave the classroom. Today’s learning environments extend to every part of the campus, including the cafeteria, where students recharge before heading off to their next assignment.  In fact, today’s college cafeteria is usually the social hub of the campus. Food may be the centerpiece, but it’s about creating an informal setting where innovative design concepts can bring highly efficient, multipurpose activity zones to your cafeteria, extending the classroom and creating an interactive social hub. Williamson adds, “We know college students love food. Wherever you have food, people will gather. Students’ time spent in the dining space will be enhanced by leveraging this space to more easily adapt and change from quiet seating to small group seating to large group seating.”

Multipurpose Use

Improved effectiveness begins by understanding that food service spaces, which are an important part of the contemporary campus, are typically used for a wide variety of important functions. Here are three to consider.

1.Community Hub
“The ‘cafeteria’ as a single space with one major purpose (eating) is on its way out,” says Dr. Stephani Robson, a senior lecturer for the School of Hotel Administration at Ithaca, N.Y.-based Cornell University. “Multi-purpose social spaces that combine food service, individual work space, group meeting space, recreation and relaxation, and even research facilities are the wave of the future. “Think of a food court environment,” Robson continues: “several self-service options around the perimeter and a big shared space in the middle. Those self-service options are not limited to food; one could be computer printing stations, another could be a Kinko’s-like operation; another could be a reference librarian with stations for accessing discipline-specific databases or tools (think Bloomberg Terminals for a business school, for example).”

2.Classroom Extension
A study by Sheryl K Kimes and Stephanie K. A. Robson called “The impact of restaurant table characteristics on meal duration and spending,” revealed a definite relationship between layout and client behavior.”  These spaces are more than they once were, where engaged learning takes place in beyond traditional classroom studies. “Food service spaces are increasingly becoming extensions of the classroom,” says Michelle Maestas, senior designer with the Denver office of Ricca Newmark, a specialty design firm. “They not only provide an opportunity for social interaction but also for continuing education in an environment outside the classroom — and that happens three times a day. It’s all about providing a space that offers not just delicious food, but also a pleasant atmosphere that extends the classroom learning experience.’” 

3.Living Room Extension
Students expect to come in not just to get food but to hang out and live. “It’s one of the big living rooms on campus now,” says John Fabelo, AIA, a partner with LWC Inc., a Dayton, Ohio-based architectural firm, “and people come in to use it for different purposes and with different expectations.” For example, one student may drop in between classes for a cup of coffee and to check his email. Another student may come in for a meal and to study for an upcoming exam. A group of students may gather mid-afternoon to collaborate on a project.

“No one ever sits and eats,” agrees Williamson. “They come to eat and talk, eat and read, eat and check email. You can’t plan for a student to simply sit and eat. And that raises an interesting challenge in that there must be a surface to eat on, but also ample space for laptops, books, pens and paper.”

Collaborate, Study, Dine In, Hang Out
Because the food service space is a campus destination that’s used around the clock, the increased use is causing designers to redefine the seating zones, which again increases use. “It becomes a chicken-or-egg design issue,” says Fabelo. Here’s how the zoning works.

Upon entering a dining venue, students should find themselves in a “deceleration zone,” an entry area where users can get a good visual sense of the space and what opportunities it affords. “Think of what it’s like when you first walk into a big store,” says Robson. “You tend to slow down and figure out where to go first, what kinds of products the store has and whether you can afford to look.”

Next, students choose the product or service zone that brought them to the space. If it’s a cup of coffee, they’ll head to that kiosk; if it’s a sandwich, they’ll head to the sandwich bar. Finally, students choose their seating zone.

Deceleration Zone
The student’s choice of a seating zone is based on the intended purpose: multipurpose social space, classroom extension or another of the many possibilities open to them. Interestingly, because dining spaces accommodate a multitude of activities, students may visit for one reason and end up staying for another. “For students,” says Fabelo, “the idea is that they can choose the kind of interaction they want and, depending on whether it happens deliberately or accidentally, this creates a different dialog. As the space becomes full, it creates different interactions and improves the ability to interact.” He also notes that, because people process data and learn differently, the different zones allow students to meet their individual needs in the optimum way.

Bear in mind that the effectiveness of the entire dining space and each seating zone will be greatly improved by the use of biophilic design elements since plants and other life forms are understood to foster higher levels of human health and productivity. If nothing else, “connectedness to outdoor spaces and/or views via big windows is a highly desirable design feature” asserts Robson.

While each seating zone may have its own specific functional requirements, experts agree that power availability and easy access to campus networks or the internet are essential requirements of every zone. In fact, Williamson notes that, while technology hasn’t often been harnessed within dining spaces to date, it is rapidly becoming an important new feature: “As students work together in dining spaces, they may want to upload images to a whiteboard, share information on a large screen and generally have more active and collaborative use of technology within the dining setting”. Rapid adoption of all kinds of new mobile devices and applications will only serve to greatly increase the student’s desire for dining spaces which support the use of technology. ”

Four important seating zones: Collaborative, Quiet Study, Dining, and Lounge
Collaboration is a hot topic in the field of education and, more and more, it’s being used as an important teaching tool, since much learning occurs through peer to peer conversation and interaction. To that end, tables that seat six are often used to allow students to work together. “Tables allow students to create a more diverse setting,” Maestas states, “since they can be moved around and grouped together for community-type seating.” High-top tables, for stand-up collaboration, work very well for more informal groups, allowing students to easily move around the table. In both cases, direct overhead lighting is ideal to accommodate the work at hand.

Booths can also serve as a space for collaborative learning where students can have discussions and share ideas on more sensitive topics, while maintaining privacy despite the overall larger open space of the typical dining facility. Softer lighting is usually appropriate here.

Quiet Study
Quiet study areas allow students to work alone yet still feel socially included. Booths create a cocoon for safety, which is the second of Abraham Maslow’s five levels of humans’ hierarchy of needs. It is followed by belongingness and love, which can be encouraged in a diverse dining venue that allows for student gatherings of various sizes and interests.

Like booths, high-top tables can provide privacy and a sense of being away from the crowd while still being a part of the community. Here the student is able to do tasks that he can’t easily do in the group seating areas. “The message,” says Fabelo, “is ‘I’m focused; I’m studying.’”

For dining, whether individually, in small groups or in large groups, durable tables that are easy to clean and can accommodate trays are required. Options may include seating for two, four, six or eight, again with the understanding that they can be moved together to accommodate whatever size group necessary. Dining can also be accommodated within booths, which send a message of comfort. “ ‘Loungey-type’ seating invites students to stay a little bit longer because they feel more comfortable,” says Maestas, “and that lends itself to better digestion because students don’t feel rushed.”

Soft seating, with or without sightline to a television, is ideal for informal student gatherings and should be completed with medium-level light. Fabelo describes it as a living room with chairs around a coffee table and lamps on side tables, a place where students can feel at home and put their feet up. The message is “Let’s talk,” and the dialog will be open and comfortable within this kind of space.

Make your campus into an active learning zone.
Each seating zone requires specific types of furniture, and some furniture serves more than one purpose. More than that, however, if the furniture is well planned, it affords the mobility and flexibility the Millennial Generation demands. If the overall space is well designed, the fact that the zones provide options give students a sense of control. “I think technology has given us a desire for a sense of control,” says Williamson. “If you can so easily adjust your desktop and phone, you should be able to tailor almost everything to your specific needs.”

Clearly zoned dining areas work to improve food service effectiveness. “From a student experience perspective,” says Robson, “research suggests that spaces with high visual interconnectedness and various setting types (varying from completely public and open to tucked away and private) encourage the interaction and collaboration, which are so important for a positive, productive and successful college experience.”



About The Author
CF Group

staff produced Design for Active Learning; CFGroup is the parent company to the following brands: Falcon, Thonet, Howe, and Shelby Williams. For more information, visit or email




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