Core Issues to be Addressed in an Ideal Learning Space

Return to Theories and Concepts which Underpin Contemporary Learning Space Design

The Define phase (the second of the two ‘Understand’ phases of Design Thinking) combines Empathy phase research and observations of where user problems exist while also highlighting opportunities for innovation (Gibbons, 2016).  Given that student perceptions of the academic environment influence both ‘hard’ (academic achievement) and ‘soft’ (satisfaction, development of key skills) learning outcomes the Empathy stage activities provide an important insight into the perceptions of the users of the learning space (Lizzio et al., 2002).  Students reported that the group learning spaces in LIB3 allowed for effective collaboration with their peers in small group situations.  Data gathered does indicate that there are a number of user-identified problems with the identified learning space (Lizzio et al., 2002).  Poor seating options whereby students needed to turn to face the teacher or the board and limited visual transparency across the space inhibited interpersonal interactions with their class mates was frequently identified as a problem for students.  The problem with the lack of visual transparency was also echoed in data from teachers.  Pedagogically, teachers also felt limited by the inflexible layout (fixed, over-sized furniture) and inability to easily move about the space.  Given that libraries need flexible layouts to support the range of activities carried out in the library, it is not unexpected that this was a highly critiqued aspect of the space (Harrison & Hutton, 2013).  It seems apparent that flexibility will be one of the non-negotiables with the learning space design in the future (Kobza, 2015).

Students at the College all have their own devices and the success of integrated technology within the space was evident in the lack of any comments from stakeholders about limitations of access or use of technology.  The space seems well-appreciated by stakeholders for collaborative learning and therefore aligns well with the school-wide learning goals which promote engaging and inquisitive learning.  Data gathered through teacher interviews supports the value of collaboration too, with numerous interviewees indicating that students throughout the College seem to work best in pair and small group situations.  The visual obstruction of the wall and pillar within the room as well as the unused bookshelves made users feel “cut off”, cramped and claustrophobic.  These issues will need to be addressed in any re-design of the space, especially how to maintain the feeling of privacy if the wall is removed (the pillar cannot be moved for structural reasons).  Furthermore, physical settings should be congruent with the type of material being learned, class goals and characteristics of learners (Topçu, 2013).  Given that one of the greatest uses of this space is for teacher librarian information literacy instruction and discussion, the re-design of the physical layout of the room needs to keep this in mind.

Using the data gathered from observations, surveys and interviews, the following pros and cons table was constructed (adapted from Finley & Wiggs, 2016) (see Figure 4).

Figure 4: Pros and Cons Chart for Library Area 3 (hover over image or click to enlarge)

Problem Statement

In order to create a problem statement, the four Ws technique and Point of View Madlib were used (Stevens, 2019).  The four Ws technique asks:

  • Who is experiencing the problem?
  • What is the problem?
  • Where does the problem present itself?
  • Why does it matter?

After grouping the responses in the empathy map and creating a three-column chart that describes the pros and cons of Library Area 3 (adapted from Finley & Wiggs, 2016), it seems that the biggest user-identified problems with the space are:

  • The relatively fixed layout and inflexibility of the space
  • Lack of visibility for the teacher and students throughout the space, and
  • Restricted movement within the space.

From this summary of the problems, the Point of View Madlib template was used (see Figure 5) to structure the problem statement (Interaction Design Foundation, n.d.).

Figure 5: Point of View Madlib (Author/Copyright holder: Teo Yu Siang and Interaction Design Foundation. Copyright terms and licence: CC BY-NC-SA 3.0)

PROBLEM STATEMENT: Teachers and students who use Library Area 3 need greater visibility and layout options because users want to be able to move about and see throughout the space and use it in flexible ways so that a variety of formal and informal learning activities can occur (individual, group and whole class).


Design Thinking emphasises that end users should be active participants in the design of learning spaces in order to ensure that any changes are based on real, rather than imagined, user needs (Casanova et al., 2018; Gibbons, 2016).  Data gathered as part of the Empathy and Define phases of Design Thinking for Library Area 3 revealed that users do perceive a number of issues with the social, pedagogical and physical space, especially inflexibility of layout and movement and poor visibility across the room.  Contemporary library spaces are designed as information and learning commons, whereby flexible zones, strong, connected physical and virtual resources, accessibility and innovative pedagogy are given precedence (Holland, 2015; Loertscher & Koechlin, 2014).  At present, users have identified that they feel that these goals are largely not being met by the space.  Analysis of the social, physical and pedagogical concerns of stakeholders has enabled the creation of an actionable problem statement which can be used to guide iterative innovation efforts throughout the Ideate, Prototype and Test phases (Federation University, 2020).  Library Area 3 is only one of many areas within the library in need of re-design.  It is possible that the human-centred design thinking principles applied within this space could act as a “catalyst for wider change” and innovation throughout the remainder of the library spaces (JISC, 2006, p. 31).