Volume 83 | Issue 5
September/October 2015

ACUI Reads: Designing for Learning: Creating Campus Environments for Student Success

By Carney Strange and James Banning | Reviewed by TJ Willis

If you are like me, Carney Strange and James Banning’s (2001) hierarchy of environmental design is as fundamental to your daily work in the college union as “challenge and support.” This hierarchy emphasizes inclusion and safety as necessary elements prior to involvement and engagement, which are both conditions for creating and building community. This is central to our work in the college union and student activities field, thus the expansion and revision of Educating by Design (2001) was a welcomed late addition to my summer reading list.

Much has happened in society and higher education in the almost 15 years between release dates of Educating by Design and Designing for Learning (2015). This second edition includes foundational literature that still resonates, DesignginForLearningbut also updates and reinforces the conversation with more than a decade of new research. Much like the first book, Designing for Learning is structured in two parts; Part 1: Components and Impacts of Campus Environments, and Part 2: Designing Campus Environments that Foster Student Learning and Success. Part 1 lays the foundation for examining human environments and their impact in the context of higher education. Through a focus on the physical, aggregate, organizational, and socially constructed environments, Part 1 illustrates the role that every person on campus plays in building community. From facilities staff to administrators, each aspect of our daily life and work on campus affect the environment and influence students’ (and others) behavior.

The renaming of Part 2 from “Creating Environments that Foster Student Success” signals a much more intentional approach when considering the campus environment and also places a stronger focus on the role of the student in this environment. This is reinforced by the addition of a new chapter dedicated to “Learning through Mobile Technology.” The authors include this chapter noting the rapid pace at which technology is changing and how it is affecting students. While Strange and Banning do acknowledge higher education is embarking into a new frontier, they note with confidence that the hierarchy for environmental design will hold true in an online environment. Students need to feel safe and included in a digital space if they are to be involved and engaged in that space, and “learning is inherently a social activity, so the power of community will always be the ultimate capstone of the learning experience.” If you have had the opportunity to take an online course and reflect on your participation in the forums, discussions, and group projects, Nancy Schlossberg’s concept of mattering may come to mind when thinking about the community you may have built among peers, a concept Strange and Banning draw from for environmental design.

Throughout the text, the union is referenced in a variety of ways (i.e., the campus union, student union, university union), providing a context for not only what we do but also the variety of approaches and facilities we use to accomplish the college union idea. While the outsider may not pick up on this descriptor, the authors’ intentional use of the word “union” shows a strong understanding of the role it plays on campus. Another example of the college union in the text is found in the chapter “Building Communities of Learning” in which design considerations for today’s student union are mentioned. Each example’s contribution to the “architecture of community” is described, highlighting a collection of intentional features, spaces, lighting, and activity that together comprise a “location of community.”

Strange and Banning underscore the concept of community building and the college union idea (though they do not reference it directly or indirectly), with their statement about a “synergy of components” that exists in strong communities: “What is impressive about any community is not the nature of any singular component but rather how all their components resonate to form a more complex and seamless whole—the community.” This statement connects the preceding six chapters and illustrates how the many levels of environments collectively shape a student’s membership in the campus community.

Though only a page is dedicated to environmental competence, it is a relatively important concept, particularly salient to our work, and could have used more attention in the book. For this discussion, Strange and Banning draw from a noteworthy resource, Rudolf Moos, who suggested the influence that environments have on student behavior and attitudes. In Designing for Learning, the authors assert that when students are environmentally competent they can “create, select, and transcend environments” to find both environments that provide support and challenging environments that provide growth. The intersection of physical space design with students’ competence in this area merits further exploration.

Do not let the 368 pages—92 more than the original—scare you away. This book is a quick and interesting read, especially if you are familiar with the original text. The 34 pages of references are a solid collection for the graduate student or scholar-practitioner working to stay up to date on current literature or discovering seminal resources valid decades later. At the conclusion of each chapter, Strange and Banning provide yet another valuable component, discussion questions as prompts for deeper understanding and reflection upon the content. These questions allowed me to contemplate how the concepts apply to my role, in my organization, on my campus. These questions could also be helpful to guide a conversation if reading the book as a group.

No matter what your role is on campus or how long you have been in the field of higher education, Designing for Learning has something for you to consider and act upon to create an environment that fosters student success. Specifically in the college union, this book presents numerous concepts to consider when advising or supervising students, developing policies and practices, renovating or reconfiguring. Regardless of our area of responsibility, we each have a stake in helping individuals feel safer and included, involved and engaged, and part of a community dedicated to learning.