Reprinted from the Loneliness and Social Connection issue of Visions Journal, 2019, 14 (3), p. 34
In 2016, the National College Health Assessment reported that 66% of 43,000 Canadian postsecondary students surveyed felt lonely at least once during the previous year. About 30% of those students reported feeling "very lonely" during the previous two weeks.1
In the past few years, there has been an increase in research exploring the relationship between social connectedness and higher education. Many studies have looked at teaching methods and means of student engagement, including changes to the curricula and facilitating classroom cooperation and participation.2,3 Fewer studies have explored the way the built environment shapes social connectedness. The built environment includes man-made structures such as buildings and streets, but it can also include smaller-scale items, like furniture.
Some theorists in architecture and urban planning suggest that the built environment has an impact on people’s social experiences within a specific space. Research has also shown that there is a relationship between the built environment and our mental health. For example, the lighting and physical configuration of a space can affect our mood.4,5 Street layout impacts how people move, which affects people's interactions with others.6 This can also shape our perception of social connectedness and isolation.
Arguably, the design of a classroom can influence how socially connected or isolated a student feels, and this can affect a student's learning experience. My undergraduate research at Montreal's McGill University's Samuel Centre for Social Connectedness explored how the physical layout of a classroom might impact the learning experience.
Changes in classroom setup and furniture make a difference when it comes to both social and learning experiences. McGill students surveyed indicated that they would like to see smaller classes, more opportunities to work in small groups, larger desks and work spaces and alternative seating options, and that these features enhanced both their learning and their connections with their peers.
In the past few years, many universities in Canada and the US have created Active Learning Classrooms (ALCs), designed to increase student engagement. McGill University, for example, currently has 14 ALCs. Active Learning Classrooms can take many forms, but they are generally smaller classrooms with integrated technology. Students sit in small groups, sharing table space, white boards and technology such as computers and microphones. Easily moveable chairs and tables allow students and teachers to move more readily around the classroom. This encourages students to interact with each other and with the instructor.
While changes to the physical classroom space can be costly, this cost should be weighed against the extreme cost and negative impact of students' social isolation. Less costly alternatives can also have a positive effect. Even with no budget at all, simply rearranging existing furniture can make a meaningful difference in students’ learning experiences.
About the author
Gal is a master's candidate in the urban planning program at the Harvard Graduate School of Design in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Her undergraduate degree is from McGill University
American College Health Association. (2016). American College Health Association-National College Health Assessment II: Canadian reference group executive summary, Spring 2016. Hanover, MD: American College Health Association.
Zhao, C.M. & Kuh, G.D. (2004). Adding value: Learning communities and student engagement. Research in Higher Education, 45(2), 115-138.
Finn, J.D. & Zimmer, K.S. (2012). Student engagement: What is it? Why does it matter? In Handbook of research on student engagement, 97-131. Boston, MA: Springer.
Halpern, D. (2014). Mental health and the built environment: More than bricks and mortar? London, UK: Routledge.
Evans, G.W. (2003). The built environment and mental health. Journal of Urban Health, 80(4), 536-555.
Gehl, J. (2011). Life between buildings: Using public space. Washington, DC: Island Press