DESIGN: ASSESSING USER NEEDS
R. Babey PhD
& Enrollment Services Consulting
Colleges & Universities
the 21st century brings the realization to many campus
administrators that their classrooms, constructed in
the college building boom years of 1960s do not adequately
meet the needs of today’s teaching and learning environments.
These classrooms were designed and built before computers,
tele-communication networks and multimedia technology
were part of our everyday vocabulary. Built before
current energy conservation regulations, fire codes
and the requirements of the Americans With Disabilities
Act (ADA) these classrooms are acutely outdated. Built
in the “austere” design style of the 1960s, they also
tend to lack aesthetic value. Yet few colleges and
universities can afford to invest in new classroom buildings
to meet these new needs and regulations.
limited funds available, many institutions of higher
education seek to remodel existing classroom space to
meet the new requirements of faculty and students as
well to meet current building regulations and ADA requirements.
Remodeling costs can be significant depending on the
extent of the remodel and the cost associated with meeting
current regulations but they tend to be less than the
cost of a new building.
key criterion in any classroom project—renovation or
new-- is meeting the needs of the primary users, faculty,
and students. How do they perceive their current classroom
environments? Are they good teaching and learning places.
What would make them better environments?
paper addresses how institutions can include the primary
users of classrooms--faculty and students--in the classroom
way to garner user input in the classroom design process
is to charge a campus classroom committee with oversight
responsibility for classroom monitoring, design and
renovation. The membership of the classroom committee
usually includes representatives from the functional
areas that interact with classrooms and classrooms issues
on a daily basis, i.e., the registrar, teaching resource
center, information technology/ classroom support, facilities,
architects and engineers, planning and budget and faculty,
staff and students. The committee chair or lead is
usually a mid to high-level administrator from one of
the functional areas. To be effective the classroom
committee must have executive level support that understands
the importance of the teaching/learning environment
in the education of students.
charges to the classroom committee should be somewhat
specific but permit the committee ample freedom to meet
them as it sees fit. An appointment letter to the committee
might include responsibility for monitoring, on an ongoing
basis the conditions of classrooms, proposing corrective
action to remedy deficiencies, and establishing design
criteria including technology for consideration in future
classroom construction or remodeling.
committee should meet on a regular basis, perhaps once
a month. Minutes should be taken and distributed to
members. At the beginning, it is probable that the
committee will meet more often. This is because, in
most instances, the committee will have limited factual
data about classrooms available, but many anecdotal
stories. The first order of business should be to establish
baseline data about classrooms as perceived by their
primary users--faculty and students. Are the campus
classrooms good places to teach and learn?
PRIMARY USER INPUT
are several ways a committee can gather factual and
perceptual data on classrooms environments. Some campuses
have designed inventory forms. Members of the committee
or the Planning Office visit each classroom and check
off information included on the inventory form. This
method includes limited user input. Two methods that
allow greater user involvement in classroom maintenance
and design issues are the survey and the focus group.
Many campuses use a combination of survey and focus
comprehensive survey instrument that solicits information
from faculty and students on their perceptions of current
classroom conditions and future needs can provide the
classroom committee with much data. Survey data can
give direction to the committee in its roles as classroom
monitor, classroom enhancer, and classroom designer.
faculty survey items should ask instructors to rate
various conditions or features of their current classrooms
such as: visibility of students, acoustics, lighting,
window coverings, temperature, ventilation, outside
noise levels, instructor writing surfaces, furniture,
maintenance, aesthetics, size of room compared to class
size, technology capabilities and an overall rating
of the classroom as a teaching environment.
survey should ask faculty to indicate what type of writing
surface they favored, what type of student seating and
student writing surface they preferred, what type of
multimedia and computer equipment they would use if
available, and what additional furniture they would
like to have in their classrooms.
student survey instrument should ask students to rate
some of the same items as faculty. Other items for
students are visibility of teacher writing surfaces,
visibility of monitors or screens, amount of space between
seats, storage for personal belongings, suitability
for test taking and comfort of seats. Students most
often comment on the size of seats. Students today
must be bigger than 20 years ago because they always
want wider/deeper seats.
scales on both surveys should be the same for comparative
purposes. A rating scale of 5 to 1 where 5 is the highest
rating and 1 the lowest rating is a typical scale for
classroom condition surveys. As the survey is designed
and the rating scale determined a database should be
created to record individual responses. If at all possible,
the campus should set up a web-based data collection
system so data automatically populates the database.
Other methods of input would be manual data entry or
optical mark reading.
valid results, the surveys should be distributed to
all faculty currently teaching in classrooms on campus
and at off campus centers. Faculty should complete
a survey for each room in which they are teaching. If
a web-based survey is used, faculty should receive information
about it by e-mail or campus mail. For faculty who
use a course management system, information and the
survey might be distributed through that system.
student input, a random selection of classes held in
all rooms (including off campus sites) at different
time periods, should be made. Ideally, the faculty
members teaching the selected classes should have the
survey completed during class time. This is the best
way to get as close to 100 per cent student response
as possible. Filling out a survey in class also allow
students to look at and feel or sense the environment
they are evaluating.
students filling out a survey in a class is not likely
to happen, faculty could be asked to distribute the
surveys and ask students to return them to the appropriate
office (envelop included). To save data entry time,
a web-based survey form would be better. The draw back
to non-classroom completion is lack of response. How
many students will respond to the survey on a “purely”
voluntary basis? Mailing surveys to students' homes
would be a more costly and would not sustain the same
response rate as in-class participation.
campuses are using their student information system
to gather information from students. They add questions
to the registration component and ask students to answer
them before the student can initially register for a
term. To limit the time the questions might take, some
institutions decide to break down a long survey into
two or three questions per student. They ensure that
all survey items receive an adequate number of responses
through randomization of the questions. This method
probably would not ask about specific classrooms, but
it is a way to get information about student perception
of the teaching/learning environment (or any other subject
for that matter) from many students.
ANALYZING SURVEY DATA
distill and aggregate data from such a broadly distributed
survey, the classroom committee must have technical
support. As mentioned above a database is necessary
to collect the data. The chair of the committee must
arrange for any necessary programming and establishment
of needed spreadsheets. If the survey is not web-based,
data entry help is also needed. If the committee does
not have the expertise, it should seek the help of statistical
analyst to review the survey results.
information gathered usually divides into two or three
areas. One area is the identification of problems in
classrooms that can more or less be easily fixed or
resolved. Maintenance issues fall into this category.
For example, if chairs are broken, lights are out or
blackout blinds are broken, the facilities representative
can work with “repair” staff to fix them as soon as
possible. Rooms perceived as lacking cleanliness because
newspapers, flyers, cans and cups are strewn about,
the floors are dirty or if instructor writing surfaces
are dirty, can be called to the attention of the maintenance
division for remediation. For example, an extra trash
can be put in rooms for students to place newspapers,
flyers, and soda cans.
second “problem” area might be items that could be put
on the regular repair/replace schedule, i.e., painting
classrooms, replacing flooring, recovering seats, and
third area is issues identified that require long-term
solutions. These issues are perceived as negatively
influencing the teaching/learning process. These could
be ventilation, heating, air conditioning, and unacceptable
noise levels in and outside the classroom.
number of years ago classroom surveys of faculty and
students at the University of California Davis were
conducted. The results identified the lack of classroom
aesthetics as the most important factor that needed
remediation. In addition, the survey respondents considered
the classrooms overcrowded. The survey results clearly
indicated that faculty and students did not perceive
the classrooms as good places to teach and learn. The
classrooms lacked comfort.
results may lead to another study for additional information
before the classroom committee makes recommendations
on future classroom design. If aesthetics is discovered
as an issue, the classroom committee wants to know what
the specific issues are. A second survey, geared specifically
to ascertaining information about perceived aesthetics,
is the most likely way to proceed. The survey results
at UC Davis clearly indicated a need for more information
about the aesthetics of Davis classroom. The follow
up study on aesthetic perceptions provided much data
that was used to developed design criteria for future
classrooms, renovated or new.
groups are a direct way to solicit information about
classroom design issues. In a focus group environment
one can expand on issues, ask follow up questions, or
seek points of clarification that cannot be gotten through
the survey method. A focus group of faculty known to
use classroom technology, or who express a desire for
more sophisticated technology, can help in developing
multimedia technology guidelines for the future.
WHAT TO DO ONCE YOU HAVE THE DATA
most frustrating thing that happens to many committees
that work hard to gather information to meet their charge
is that nothing comes of the results. A classroom committee,
if it is to have the continued cooperation of faculty
and students, must be able to show tangible changes
to classrooms based on user preferences. In most cases,
that means the committee must have the financial support
from the administration to carry out minor or major
UC Davis, the survey and focus group findings resulted
in funds being made available to the committee to hire
a design consultant to develop a classroom design manual
for renovation of existing classrooms and building new
classrooms. The design manual is updated as design
criteria change. Funds were also made available to
renovate three classrooms based on the new design criteria.
In addition, several classrooms in a building being
constructed and a building undergoing remodeling were
designed according to the new design criteria.
a campus has developed design criteria and has renovated
classrooms using these criteria, it is equally important
to get feedback from the primary users--faculty and
students. Were the teaching/learning environments improved?
The classroom committee should ask faculty and students
who teach and learn in the remodeled classrooms to complete
the original survey instruments to compare against the
original survey findings. (Granted this is not a perfect
comparison since the faculty and students are different
but they are not likely to be so dissimilar to negate
the comparative results.)
the classroom committee did its work well, the “new”
rooms should reflect the preferences of faculty and
students and should be perceived as better teaching
and learning environments. This turned out to be the
case at UC Davis. You can also be sure that the users
will let you know where you made mistakes and what works
and what does not. The classroom committee can use
all this information to plan its next classroom remodeling
project or new classroom building. Classroom design
for the 21st century is an evolutionary process!