Collaboration Station: Designing an Effective Group Study Space-Whether It's out in the Open or Behind a Closed Door-Takes a Team

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PROFESSIONALS WHO HAVE HELPED b create inviting places for groups to study on campus have vivid memories of the uninviting study spaces of yesterday. "When we studied as a group, if we studied as a group, it was typically in the dining hall," recalls Jeff Vredevoogd, director of Herman Miller Education. Michael Prifti, managing principal of BLT Architects, remembers studying amidst the library stacks by himself or sitting "in a rectangular six-seated desk that really only held two people." And Mike Briggs, president of Bretford Manufacturing, says the set-up for collaborative work may have simply meant having chairs on either side of a table and, if you were lucky, a pop-up for electrical.

"I've seen students seize any corner, conference room, any floor, any hallway," says Elise Valoe, a researcher for Steelcase.

But within the past several years, more attractive collaborative study spaces have been appearing on campuses. Perhaps it's in part because, with expanded wireless coverage and mobile devices, an individual can study anywhere, which may mean more space in libraries and student centers for officials to play with. In addition, planners are taking "traditional pass-through spaces" in buildings that may have contained a few benches and a planter and creating engaging spots where students might meet to study, says Vredevoogd. With the stronger emphasis on learning in the past five to seven years, leaders are looking at how classrooms, labs, dining halls, and other places might sway student success. "The research shows more learning takes place outside the classroom than inside the classroom," he explains.

With more team assignments being asked of students, they need places to meet--even during class time. "One group may go out into the hallway or public space," says Vredevoogd. Pulling people out of the formal learning space provides a chance to connect and share ideas. As Brian Irwin, a principal at Sasaki, puts it, in the past, "scholarship was a solitary activity. The market demand and the information age has forced the change. A person needs to be cross-disciplinary and collaborative and everything needs to be team based," he says.

Take the field of teacher preparation as an example. The conceptual framework of The College of William & Mary's (Va.) School of Education puts an intentional focus on collaboration "within our classes and between our classes and the field," explains Associate Dean Tom Ward. Because teachers collaborate with counselors, psychologists, and others as part of their jobs, the school has long required collaboration within classes. That's why, when planning for a new facility that opened in 2010, officials were sure to include open public areas designed for collaboration on each side of the buildings classroom level, as well as a learning resource center with several open areas plus an enclosed tech-equipped room for group study, he shares.


The business case for creating collaborative study areas revolves around recruitment and retention. "By creating informal learning and 'casual tasking' spaces, universities can attract and engage students, encourage student-faculty collaboration, and keep students on campus," says John Michael, a vice president and general manager for Business Interiors by Staples.

Convinced of the need for intentional collaborative study areas? Then it's time to think about where to place them and how to design them for maximum effectiveness.

Study Buddies Across Campus

When considering new construction or a renovation, the question may come up about how much space to dedicate to group study. There's no single right answer. According to Herman Miller, research on hub zones which Vredevoogd says refers to places where people can meet, greet, eat, refresh, or work, and tend to allow for collaborative work for up to 10 people--shows administrators are commonly allocating at least 20 percent of a facility to them, with student centers and libraries having up to 40 percent of space for them. …