Skip to main content

Make a space: learning spaces in HE

26 Jun 2019 | Kathy Wright Ahead of today's Advance HE tweet chat, Kathy Wright, our Assistant Director in Knowledge, Innovation and Delivery, reflects on how to create great learning spaces.

Back in the early 1980s my teaching room fell victim to an arson attack at the school I was working in. The classroom was gutted by the fire, so into a demountable classroom on the school playing field, I was moved. With a lobby area outside the classroom providing extra space for group work, a walk-in resource cupboard which was also transformed into a makeshift student recording studio (I was a language teacher), display spaces for student work or learning support materials all around even fixed as bunting to the ceiling, and flexible furniture which could be reconfigured at a moment’s notice depending on the task, it was, surprisingly, a rather good place to teach. Space mediated learning is an enabling place (Bligh 2018).

Meanwhile, the architects were hard at work redesigning the damaged teaching spaces, but based on what knowledge and understanding of learning and teaching? Did they have access to any academic research on the impact of physical space on learning? At that time, probably not. Despite the lack of published research on the topic at the time, if they had consulted the teacher there would have been useful design ideas to share.

Despite offering my thoughts on how my old teaching room could be redesigned, the only influence I was allowed was on the location of numerous power sockets sited around the room to enable group work – modern language teaching was beginning to embrace self-regulated learning, or least portable cassette players and recorders and BBC computers, but for the rest of the learning space, I was not consulted.

Back in my new ‘old’ teaching space, I found the orientation of the room had been changed from portrait to landscape, thus causing a loss of eye contact with students on the periphery (non-verbal immediacy impacts on learning, Witt et al, 2004) and also with the consequence that I had to teach into direct sun. (I never knew that the sun made an appearance so frequently in the UK until this experience!) Health and safety regulations led to windows with a maximum opening of 4 inches at the base. It felt as if I was teaching in a greenhouse. Display of student work and outputs from learning activities were contained within small cork display boards to avoid damage to the newly painted magnolia walls.

If I was unaware before, then this experience brought home the impact of badly designed learning spaces on student learning and me the teacher. Maslow, you were right!

Fast forward 30 years, as part of the management team overseeing a university new build, architects and designers appeared much more cognisant of learning needs and consequently of learning spaces, physical and virtual, formal and informal.  Flexible furniture in flat spaces, Wi-Fi, power, walls painted in learning colours, all with the potential to enable collaborative, creative learning spaces, influencing our pedagogy and the student experiences. There is now a growing awareness of ‘built pedagogy’ (Monahan, 2002).

‘….the ability of spaces to shape and define how educators teach their students – and with it an attitude underlining the orthodox view of higher education learning spaces that has tended to treat space and learning as two related but separate domains of academic life.’

(Elkington, 2018) 

Students and staff in a practical Arts or STEM subject have their bespoke disciplinary ‘homes’: the studios, labs, workshops - these ‘associative’ spaces which evoke the discipline and the world outside HE. Stimulating spaces set expectations of what will happen, who will be there and model the way the discipline works (Bligh, 2018).

But for the rest of us, where are our ‘home’ spaces? Allocated generic teaching spaces, both physical and virtual, which have to meet many different and sometimes conflicting needs. They can be predictably uniform and each time we work there, they challenge us to co- create and co-design our own stimulating environment – and then take it away with us at the end – transient, ephemeral,  but ultimately meaningful to our learning communities.

We are getting better at learning space design, so what works for us and our students? In the next @AdvanceHE_chat and #LTHEchat on Wednesday 26 June 8-9 pm we are interested in finding out about the great learning spaces you have created or experienced, the best physical and virtual designs for learning.

Related to this tweetchat you may be interested in a recent Advance HE publication, Future Learning Spaces, a set of case studies which were presented at a one-day symposium which brought together both academic researchers, senior leaders and estates personnel for inter-professional and collaborative discussion to better and more fully understand and evidence the relationship and interplay between three established features of effective learning space design; namely, Space, Technology and Pedagogy.


Bligh, B. & Elkington, S. (2018) Future Learning Spaces: Space, Technology and Pedagogy, Advance HE.

Monahan, T. (2002). Flexible Space and Built Pedagogy: Emerging IT Embodiments. Inventio, Volume 4, Issue 1: pp. 1-19.

Witt, P., Wheeless, L. & Allen, M. (2004) A meta‐analytical review of the relationship between teacher immediacy and student learning, Communication Monographs, 71:2, 184-207.



We feel it is important for voices to be heard to stimulate debate and share good practice. Blogs on our website are the views of the author and don’t necessarily represent those of Advance HE.

Keep up to date - Sign up to Advance HE communications

Our monthly newsletter contains the latest news from Advance HE, updates from around the sector, links to articles sharing knowledge and best practice and information on our services and upcoming events. Don't miss out, sign up to our newsletter now.

Sign up to our enewsletter