Designing for How We Learn: One Simple Mantra

Designing for How We Learn: One Simple Mantra

In my last article I discussed what we have learned about learning over the last twenty years. At its purest level, the basis of learning between student and teacher is and has always been, “You know something that I need to know.”  That basis has not changed, although we understand a lot more now about how that transfer of knowledge happens. People can learn anytime, anywhere and at any age with multiple devices. So if a university is spending hard-won capital dollars on new academic facilities, both the teaching methods and the teaching environment have to provide students with experiences that they cannot obtain on their own.

See + Hear + Do = Remember. This is my very simple mantra for what a classroom environment must allow a student to do. There are very real configuration issues for classrooms and instructional laboratories that are often missed in the architectural divide of form from function. Sightlines and acoustics are critical for successful learning, and there are some simple rules of the road.



Every student in the room must be able to see the material being presented. We have rich technology available; there is a “magic” sightline of 90° to a focal point (e.g., screen), an acceptable sightline of 130°, and beyond that, as I had one faculty member tell me,

“I put crime scene tape on the seats because students who sit there can see nothing.” 

So if there are seats in a learning environment that are not usable due to insufficient sightlines, this is valuable square footage that is wasted over the entire life of the facility. In addition, material that is presented needs to be in text large enough to be able to read. One professional organization advises that no text under 16 point should ever be used on a screen.

Students not only want to see the instructor. If they are truly participating in active learning activities, they need to see each other too. This means crafting the seating so students are not in long straight rows. We all know the feeling of adjusting our seats and craning our necks to see the person three or four seats down as they are talking and the person beside us is blocking our view. Tables that are bowed out slightly in the middle, round tables and horseshoe-shaped rows in large rooms are all ways to provide greater ability for people to see each other.


Sightlines are not the only consideration for a good classroom configuration, however. 

One of the best resources to understand the importance of acoustics is a TED talk by Julian Treasure, an acoustics engineer, called Why Architects Need to Design with their Ears.  In his talk he discusses how a traditionally designed classroom, with standard acoustical practices and hard surface finishes, students who sit from the fourth row back can miss one of two words being said; that’s 50% of the material being covered lost due to poor speech intelligibility that has nothing to do with the clarity of the speaker.

We can all relate to Mr. Treasure’s example of trying to carry on a conversation in a restaurant with standard hard finishes and echoes. We have trouble hearing our companions due to peripheral noise and echoes; we raise our voices at our table and so does every other group in the room. This cacophony is due partly to the number of conversations, but also to the reverberation time in the room. 

The same logic applies to classrooms and teaching laboratories, where understanding the oral material is crucial to the learner. Simultaneously, the learners themselves often have issues. According to Treasure, there are several factors that can affect students’ ability to hear:

  • Up to one in eight learners have impaired hearing at any one time, due to colds, allergies, etc.
  • Students with English as their second language may need extra time to process what they hear.
  • Introverts, who make up as many as 33% of learners, find it more challenging than extroverts to process large amounts of stimuli at once.

Thus many students have enough to contend without the learning environment compounding the problem. There are several technical factors within the classroom that can aid or hinder students’ ability to hear.  The most basic factor is reverberation time, or the amount of time it takes for sound to decay 60 decibels from its initial level. When reverberation time is too long, the instructor is talking while her words from a few seconds ago are still echoing around the room, thus students are fighting to hear clearly. The new LEED v4.0 for Schools recommends reverb time of 0.4 seconds, yet in many classrooms reverb time is over 1 second. 

Simply putting acoustical ceiling tiles in a room with otherwise hard surfaces is not going to be sufficient to provide appropriate acoustics. Carpet and other sound absorbing materials, adding acoustic treatments on walls that are coordinated with screens and whiteboards, and attenuation of noisy HVAC systems and other outside noise sources are all tools to enhance the acoustic properties of a learning environment.


We know now that students retain information best when they are exposed to a concept and then actively participate in activities to apply that concept. This has probably always been true, but in today’s world of multitasking and information overload, active learning is more important than ever. In College is Dead. Long Live College!, Amanda Ripley states

“Studies of college students have shown that they can focus for only 10 to 18 minutes before their minds begin to drift; that’s when their brains need to do something with new information — make a connection or use it to solve a problem”  (Ripley, p. 39.).

With knowledge of that 10-18 minute window, instructors can structure the class to engage students in more impactful ways. That is the essence of active learning.

The first blog in this series examined how we got to the sorts of learning environments that have dominated our educational facilities. With the premises contained in One Simple Mantra, we have some rules of thumb about action items to make the classroom or instructional laboratory more conducive to learning. The next installments in the series will focus on ways to actually implement those ideas.


  1. Ripley, A. (2012). College is dead. Long live college. Time Magazine, 180(18), 33-41.