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CLASSROOM DESIGN: ASSESSING USER NEEDS

Evelyn R. Babey PhD
Principal Consultant
Registrar & Enrollment Services Consulting
For Colleges & Universities

RESCCU

July 2002



Entering 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regulations, fire codes and the requirements of the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) these classrooms are acutely outdated.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.

With 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.

A 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?

This paper addresses how institutions can include the primary users of classrooms--faculty and students--in the classroom design process.


CLASSROOM COMMITTEE

One 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.

The 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.

The 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

There 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 group.

A 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.

The 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.

The 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. 

The 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.

The 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.

For 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.

For 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.

If 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.

Some 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

To 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.

The 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. 

A 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 replacing chairs,

The 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.

A 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.


ADDITIONAL STUDY

Survey 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.


FOCUS GROUPS

Focus 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

The 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 remodeling projects. 

At 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.


FEEDBACK

Once 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.)

 If 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!  

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