Stanford Classrooms: one size does not fit all

| VPTL News

Students in the classroom

It’s 10:30am on a typical Tuesday morning at Stanford. All across campus, students pour into classrooms, having successfully navigated the maze of bicyclists and pedestrians along the way. Faculty and instructors prepare to introduce the day’s agenda — turning on projectors and writing on whiteboards or chalkboards. But what happens next is not uniform. The student experience, as well as that of instructors, may be quite different, in part due to the classroom they are in.

In a recent study by Stanford Classrooms Reimagined, a project commissioned by Stanford and managed by the Office of the Vice Provost for Technology and Learning, research found that 81% of faculty and instructors who responded to the survey have had to adapt their teaching to the classroom available to them. And while most instructors report a desire to switch between several types of teaching modalities (lecture/seminar/active) within a single class, the majority of Stanford classrooms do not support this interchange. In fact, only 9% of university classrooms are considered “flexible”.

These were among the preliminary findings shared by the Stanford Classrooms Reimagined project team in early December at two events on campus. Faculty and staff gathered both in person and via Zoom to hear the results from surveys, focus groups, and interviews of students, faculty, instructors, and department administrators. Those in attendance contributed questions, ideas, and additional feedback.

Mike Keller, vice provost for technology and learning, kicked off the meetings, emphasizing that “the learning environment is terribly important,” and that while Stanford has made many important investments in classrooms and learning spaces, there is an ever increasing need to support active and engaged learning as well as evolving teaching pedagogies. Ongoing input from all members of the Stanford community is vitally important, he said, to continue improving Stanford’s learning environments and advancing intellectual growth.

Challenges and Opportunities

The preliminary findings reported some of the biggest “pain points” among respondents including:

  • Difficulty seeing and hearing instructors as well as other students

  • The size of the classroom not fitting the number of students in the class

  • Instructors dissuaded from trying new teaching modalities due to classroom limitations

  • Insufficient  writing surfaces - both for instructors (boards) and students (tablet arms)

  • Not enough quiet, individual study and work spaces on campus

  • Multiple, difficult-to-use room scheduling systems

This last pain point could be alleviated by creating one simple tool to find and reserve classrooms. The others, however, may not be as straightforward. For example, classroom supply apparently does not meet demand. The project team found that this is particularly true for the times faculty report most wanting to teach, which is Tues/Thurs between 10:30am - 2:30pm. Additionally, 60% of instructors and/or their students report using spaces near the classroom (corridors and lounge areas) before or after class. Stanford Classrooms Reimagined is working closely with the Registrar’s Office to examine potential solutions. This includes taking a more holistic look at all of Stanford’s learning spaces — formal and informal — and exploring how learning spaces and the accompanying technologies come together to support the instructor and student academic experience.

Other possible solutions to pain points include incorporating more displays and writing surfaces, better acoustics (including amplification for lecturers), and enhanced wireless both inside and outside classrooms — all elements may make a significant impact on the student and instructor experience.

“Your life is more than the things you are supposed to be learning.”

Students also report that learning space design needs to consider the “whole person.” As one student says, they want “a place where you can study and concentrate but you can also remember that your life is more than the things you are supposed to be learning.” Undergraduate students in particular stressed the importance of physical and psychological comfort in learning spaces, which includes increased accessibility and the use of photos and imagery in space design that reflect the diversity of the student population.

Students indicate that they want to be in classrooms that inspire them—spaces that are airy, filled with natural light and movable furniture that allows them to engage and connect with fellow students as well as the instructor. Flexible classrooms that help faculty transition between lecture, seminar, and active learning are the most in demand, and so it is imperative that Stanford find ways to adapt its older classrooms to new teaching and learning pedagogies.

Looking towards the future

Ongoing research and continued feedback will help Stanford develop a working plan to inform the future design and adaptation of classrooms and learning spaces. In the near future the plan must work within Stanford’s current space constraints and outline ways to support projected costs for improvements. The appointment of a governance body to help shepherd recommendations into action is also recommended.

In the coming months, the project team will complete an inventory of all classroom and learning spaces and reach out to schools, departments, and other university stakeholders to invite additional feedback. Further analysis of the utilization data as well as additional data gathering, including benchmarks from other institutions of higher education, will help clarify outstanding issues. The Stanford community are invited and encouraged to share their thoughts with the project team. Contact the project team and learn more here.

View the preliminary findings slide show here.