9 Key Attributes of an Informal Learning Space

Updated: Mar 1, 2021

Learning can take place anywhere at any time.  In higher education settings specifically, a growing identification of Informal Learning Spaces across the campus landscape are proving to be an important opportunity for the absorption of class material and deeper learning.  Student preferences and the spaces in which this sort of freestyle academic exploration was examined in the research, “A Study Exploring Learners’ Informal Learning Space Behaviors, Attitudes, and Preferences” by  Sheffield Hallam University.  So what attracts students to these specific spaces?  See below for the 9 Key Attributes of an Informal Learning Space, derived directly from this research and articulated below:

1.  Destination

“The destination attribute focuses on where learners go to study…It became evident that learners selected spaces to learn based on their own personal list of requirements and preferences. These changed according to the learning activity being undertaken, leading them to use different spaces at different times and for different purposes.”  The research further suggests that certain spaces were selected based on the amount of time between classes; proximity of a space plays a role depending on the physical distance between classrooms, along with the amount of time.

2.  Identity

“The identity of a learning space is about the ethos of the space and how it feels it should be used.  Learners reported seeking a range of spaces, including those offering ‘studious, relaxed and informal’ ambience, as well as spaces typified by ‘buzz and activity’.  The significant numbers of students observed working in the Students Union and catering outlets, indicate that the identity of learning spaces is becoming increasingly blurred.”

More interestingly, the identity of a space can be changed depending on the physical layout, ”How a space was laid out influenced usage and there were many positive examples observed of spaces enabling the activities expected.”

Students also often take control of these spaces, manipulating them to best suit their needs, “It became evident when observing spaces that because learners select a space based on their own list of requirements and preferences, the space may not be used in the way anticipated by the institution…Spaces can therefore have multiple identities, with learners having differing and often contrasting views of a space and how it should be used…It was regularly observed that learners reconfigured their work areas, in particular by moving chairs, but also in limited incidence, tables and equipment.

3.  Conversations

Obtaining an element of relaxed conversation provides opportunity to explore subject matter more deeply and exchange ideas:  “Students described the importance to their learning of being able to talk, share ideas, discuss and debate. Conversations can be where ‘significant learning can occur’. It is therefore valid for learning spaces to support interpersonal communication from a learning

perspective as well as a social one.”

4.  Community

In some instances, students preferred to work in a more social setting: “Community is about social interactions, support and sense of common purpose which can be found in shared learning spaces…Working in close proximity to friends or peers to create a sense of community, for co-support and for someone to take a break with was a key learning preference expressed by learners…It appeared that shared learning spaces support the need for social and learning related conversations, both planned and unplanned…It seems that students are aware of what makes a space feel like a place. Place is about environment, but also about people and what is going on inside.”

5.  Retreat

Additionally, having the option to escape and focus by oneself is equally as important: “The idea of retreat was a central and recurring attribute encompassing preferences for privacy and quiet study. Learners with a preference for privacy expressed the importance of having ‘my own little space, no distractions’, or spaces where others could not see their work. Home was seen as a place offering private space and was associated with being relaxed, cosy, comfortable and with being able to sit how you like.”

6.  Timely

Flexible options depending on students’ schedules also had a hand in the location of informal learning:  “Just in time and on demand access to spaces and their resources and services were particularly important to users…learning spaces fit in with the schedule of a learner’s day. It became clear that spaces are often used for quick tasks before and between other activities as well as for longer periods of study.”

7.  Human Factors

Physical elements of the space are just as important to encourage optimal informal learning:  “Human factors refer to the ergonomics of work spaces and, in this context, also cover a 20 wider range of physical attributes including lighting and sound levels.”

Workspace Area: “Large personal work spaces were a common preference expressed by learners in the form of a desire for larger tables and space to spread out.”

Seating Options: “Some students expressed a preference for more relaxed comfortable seating, while others preferred formal chairs to help them stay motivated and awake. It is therefore appropriate to provide a range of furniture to support difference preferences.”

Light: “Lighting and natural light were frequently described by learners as important.”

Natural Views: “Outdoor spaces, spaces that replicate an outside environment, views of outdoor spaces and fresh air were also frequently referred to as a preference.”

8.  Resources

In the world of BYOD being able to charge up at any time and have easy access to the internet and technology resources is paramount:  “Access to IT resources was important to the majority of learners…More plentiful and visible plug points encourage and validate student use of personal technologies which support learning.”

9.  Refreshment

“In the observational sweeps, it was found the majority of learners had food and/or drinks visible on their desks or tables…Food and drink was also frequently mentioned in the qualitative research and learners preferring a home environment gave easy access to food and drink as one of the reasons…being able to eat and drink contributes to making a space attractive to learners. As well as a convenience and comfort element to the availability of refreshment, there is also a learning aspect. At Sawenee University 63% of learners reported that food and drink helped them to stay focused when studying.”

Overall, this research was extremely insightful with regards to how space design can compliment student needs and promote independent pursuit of informal learning environments.  To read the research in its entirety, Click Here.

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