LSC/Sloan Project - Cognition and Context: How Space Affects Learning and Creativity in the Undergraduate Setting

Evidence-based facilities design is just beginning to gain attention by those responsible for what, how, and where undergraduates learn. There is a growing and significant body of research from pedagogical and curricular pioneers about how and why particular experiences strengthen student learning, and comparable data connects this research to how spaces can contribute to robust learning. There is also a culture of assessment taking root on most campuses, reflecting external and internal pressures to make certain that institutional investments of limited resources have highest possible impact on learning over the long-term. Further, contemporary theories of cognition are establishing frameworks for making decisions about learning space design that go beyond intuition or experience. For example, cognitive scientists are coming to understand how social, affective, and cognitive processes are intricately entangled in the process of discovery and problem-solving for undergraduate learners.

Planning undergraduate learning spaces should rely on clear evidence that spaces with certain attributes and affordances serve institutional goals for learning. There is not yet, however, a research-based and field-tested conceptual framework for evidence-based design accessible for use by the diverse communities of stakeholders. That is, collegiate learning environments are not yet up to the task of preparing 21st century students as 21st century leaders. The quality and character of much of the physical environment on our campuses is one barrier to that transformation. These issues reflect in a small way the interests of the Sloan Foundation to understand the dynamics of human interactions and the innovation process in thinking about our nation’s future.

We began with a key, overarching learning outcome: creativity

It is the highest point in Bloom’s taxonomy of learning outcomes, the synthesis of goals at lower levels of the pyramid. It is goal that can be embraced by faculty at all disciplines and by the institution at large; it offers a lens to examine all spaces in all disciplines on a campus, formal and informal, natural, built and virtual. Creativity is a familiar concept. It is thus a good starting point for new kinds of communal explorations about how space matters and how do we know. Most important, a focus on creativity opens the door to the future, grounding this process of exploration on a deep understanding of what 21st century students are to become and to be able to accomplish upon graduation, given the challenges and opportunities in the world in which they will live and work upon graduation. 

Project Team:

  • Dan Dressen, Professor of Music and Associate Dean for Fine Arts – St. Olaf College
  • Meredith Bostwick-Lorenzo Eiroa, Associate Director – Skidmore, Owings & Merrill LLP
  • Katharine E. Leigh, Professor of Interior Design – Colorado State University
  • Phillip D. Long, Director of the Centre for Education Innovation & Technology – The University of Queensland
  • Bruce Mackh, Mellon Research Project Director – University of Michigan
  • Laura H. Malinin, Instructor, College of Architecture and Planning – University of Colorado at Boulder
  • John Marshall, Assistant Professor, School of Art & Design – University of Michigan
  • David Narum, Principal – GreenWay Partners, Inc.
  • Jeanne L. Narum, Principal – Learning Spaces Collaboratory
  • Wendy Newstetter, Director of Learning Sciences Research, Wallace H. Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering – Georgia Institute of Technology
  • Keith Sawyer, Associate Professor – Washington University in St. Louis
  • Susan Whitmer, Research Lead, Education – Herman Miller
  • Alison Williams, Honorary Lecturer in Creativity – University of Strathclyde; Doctorate student at SMARTlab – University of East London


Papers from the Project Team


Funded Proposal