Guide To The Physical Environment: Encouraging Collaboration and Learning

Version 2022.1

The physical environment encompasses the classrooms, laboratories, offices, hallways, and social spaces used by your department. These spaces may be controlled by your department or shared with others. The configuration and use of available space can limit or facilitate your department’s ability to realize its goals. This section provides guidance for departments working to optimize existing spaces and/or design new spaces within financial and institutional constraints. Because space needs and constraints are diverse and highly dependent on local context, this section does not recommend particular designs for instructional or other spaces. Rather, it provides recommendations on how to ensure that designs are driven by departmental goals for pedagogy, community, research, and other endeavors (e.g., support for students and their organizations) while making allowances, whenever possible, for future changes in uses and preferences. This section can be used to facilitate departmental discussions on how space is being used and how existing spaces could be changed to better meet department goals. For a table connecting pedagogies with physical spaces, see the supplement on Connecting Desired Student Behaviors and Optimal Spaces. See the section on Instructional Laboratories and Experimental Skills for specific guidance on how to design new or remodeled laboratory spaces that are collaborative, adaptable, and accessible. See the section on Implementing Research-Based Instructional Practices for guidance on pedagogical practices. See the section on How to Create and Sustain Effective Change for guidance on making large-scale changes in your department or program.


Aligning the physical environment with your department’s goals can be key to achieving those goals. A department and its

Instructional Staff

Faculty, instructors, adjuncts, teaching staff, and others who serve as instructors of record for courses. This term does not include instructional support staff who support the teaching of courses.

can maximize student learning and reduce barriers in classrooms and laboratories by creating a physical environment that facilitates diverse approaches to collaboration and learning. Providing spaces for non-instructional activities (e.g., meeting areas for student organizations, study areas, and research and project spaces) enhances the student experience, supporting recruiting and retention. Evaluating your department’s physical environment allows you to assess how well spaces are meeting your needs, how equitably space is allocated, the extent to which all groups (e.g., faculty, students, and staff) benefit from departmental spaces, and how well your spaces exhibit the culture, community, and achievements of your department.

The Cycle of Reflection and Action

Effective Practices

Effective Practices

  1. Inventory department spaces and their use at regular intervals, such as every five years

  2. Determine how current and future space can be used or modified to meet department needs within financial and institutional constraints

  3. Design new spaces or renovate existing ones

Supplements within the EP3 Guide:

External Resources

  • J. L. Narum (editor), A Guide: Planning for Assessing 21st Century Spaces for 21st Century Learners, Learning Spaces Collaboratory (2013): A report from the Learning Spaces Collaboratory, a community of academics and architects focusing on the future of learning spaces. Includes case studies of space renovations at a variety of institutions on pages 31–67.
  • SCALE-UP (Student-Centered Active Learning Environment with Upside-down Pedagogies): An approach to creating active learning environments using rooms with round tables to encourage student interaction. Includes links to many resources on how to implement SCALE-UP effectively.
  • S. Cheryan, S. A. Ziegler, V. C. Plaut, and A. N. Meltzoff, “Designing Classrooms to Maximize Student Achievement,” Policy Insights from the Behavioral and Brain Sciences 1(1), 4–12 (2014).
  • S. Land and D. Jonassen (editors), Theoretical Foundations of Learning Environments, Routledge (2012).
  • A. Taylor, Linking Architecture and Education: Sustainable Design for Learning Environments, University of New Mexico Press (2008).

Research has identified how some key features of physical spaces can impact both how

Instructional Staff

Faculty, instructors, adjuncts, teaching staff, and others who serve as instructors of record for courses. This term does not include instructional support staff who support the teaching of courses.

teach and how students learn [1–4]. The SPIN-UP report [5] identified the importance for thriving physics departments of common spaces for students and physical layouts that support faculty-student interactions.

  1. D. C. Brooks, “Space and consequences: The impact of different formal learning spaces on instructor and student behavior,” Journal of Learning Spaces 2(2) (2012).
  2. E. L. Park and B. K. Choi, “Transformation of classroom spaces: Traditional versus active learning classroom in colleges,” Higher Education 68(5), 749–771 (2014).
  3. M. L. Vercellotti, “Do interactive learning spaces increase student achievement? A comparison of classroom context,” Active Learning in Higher Education 19(3), 197–210 (2018).
  4. A. V. Knaub, K. T. Foote, C. Henderson, M. Dancy, and R. J. Beichner, “Get a room: the role of classroom space in sustained implementation of studio style instruction,” International Journal of STEM Education 3(1), 1 (2016).
  5. R. C. Hilborn, R. H. Howes, and K. S. Krane (editors), “Strategic Programs for Innovations in Undergraduate Physics: Project Report” (SPIN-UP report), American Association of Physics Teachers (2003).

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This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant Nos. 1738311, 1747563, and 1821372. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

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