Cutting class size not grass size will get conversations going in cerebral havens

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An article claiming that there’s a lack of “learning through conversation” at Australian Universities due to the poor design of campuses popped up earlier this week in The Conversation. It was written by Robert Nelson, an Associate Director of Student Experience at Monash University and he claimed that the typical Australian University is located outside of the city, away from its community, in suburban land and turned into a park-like “cerebral haven”. He said:

“The progressive gardenisation of academic space has denied the presence of a concourse or piazza and has weakened the relationship between architecture and surrounding space”.

Well from the student perspective I don’t have a problem with the gardenisation of my university, in fact I welcome it. It is precisely because it is a “cerebral haven” that I really enjoy being there in-between my classes. I can’t speak for all students, but here’s my two-part take from what I see and hear on campus.

Nelson claims that you “can learn anywhere”. Well, maybe you find it easy to study “on the kitchen table” with all the family goings-on noisily around you but I assure you many, if not most, students don’t. He also mentions the local library is another place we can learn – really? Have you been to a local library lately? All the ones I’ve been to are usually full of children with their parents or carers unsuccessfully trying to get them to be quiet. It’s because my university is separated from the community that allows me to get my study done in-between and after classes. Many students quite like retreating to university so we can get our study done and actually learn something without the buzz of modern lifestyle up close to us.

The only quiet places left on my campus are the open spaces under the trees, in the open quadrangles, and on the lawn (and yes, he is right that any ‘keep off the grass’ signs should be abolished). I get some of my best thinking & reading done on campus in these areas. What about the university library I hear you ask? Well, my university has one of those wonderfully modern libraries with not too many books on the shelves. Most of the books are stored in a very large computerised retrieval system. This means our library has evolved into one that actively encourages group work and communal studying both of which involve a lot of talking. So walking into my university’s library is like walking into an enormously large cafe. Now this works fine if all your units require group work and discussion but not many of us fall into that category.

Yes, there are, ahem, ‘quiet study spaces’ in the library but you can still hear the conversations from the other parts of the library. In fact these quiet areas are usually located just a few steps from the communal study areas. Think of it like smoking and non-smoking spaces except that in this instance it isn’t smoke that’s wafting over to your area but noise pollution. So as universities are modernising so are their libraries which, for some reason, university decision makers seem to think means less individual study. I can only assume that those designing these new spaces think that you’ll do your individual study at home. However, I think if you asked a lot of students they find that home doesn’t necessarily provide a great environment conducive to study.

The wide outdoor spaces at my university are used by individuals and groups, some of it for study and some of it for socialising. The benefit is the space allows you room to breathe, to stop the busy-ness of your life and just focus on your studies or catching up with friends from class. It becomes a place where you can quieten your mind and allow the deep thinking involved in learning to occur. So yes, from a student perspective a “cerebral haven” can actually be a good thing.

Nelson’s other main point was:

“Because contemporary campus design discourages human assembly, it discourages conversation, which is the soul of socialised learning…..If there’s any point in having a physical campus it is to socialise one’s developing knowledge, which is learning through conversation. Outdoor space can be a powerful symbol of gathering for such purposes, but the opportunity is largely passed up in favour of gardening”.

Nelson is in favour of concourses or piazzas to encourage students to gather together and learn through conversation. Well I do love a piazza myself but I can’t imagine that a piazza is suddenly going to create a need in students to sprout forth and discuss what they’ve learned in class and debate topics relevant to their studies. Yes, you might bump into friends or class mates but any talking being done is more likely to be gossip orientated, pop culture and/or plans to meet on the weekend.

Nelson’s argument that university campuses need to redesign spaces to encourage learning through conversation is misguided. If you really want to encourage that kind of conversation then universities would be well advised to scrap plans for redesigning spaces and use the money they had allocated to a much more worthy cause that would really get the conversations going again: cutting tutorial class sizes in half. Not only would that improve productive conversations but it would also involve employing more staff, probably casual ones, so while you’re at it increase their hourly rate of pay too.

If anyone has been a student at university in recent years you’ll know that very frequently tutorial class sizes can be very large. I’ve had tutorial classes where too many desks are crammed into the small classroom to accommodate all the bums on seats that are now allocated in today’s tutorial classes. So physically it can be quite uncomfortable when you’re all packed in like sardines in a room designed for a lot less students and therefore the airflow in the room insufficient and creates an uncomfortable micro-climate. On top of that, and more importantly, the large number of students in the room tend to put you off wanting to talk and contribute to the discussion. You have more eyes peering at you, judging you. Sometimes even if you want to talk you may not get the chance because there’s just too many people in your tutorial class who also want to talk. On the other hand if you’re the quiet type and prefer to not talk you can do that too because usually there are enough students willing to talk so you can hide away and you’ll only suffer in your low participation score at the end of the semester.

When you are lucky enough to land a tutorial class with only 8 to 12 students it’s great. There’s enough people to get a good discussion going but not so many students that you feel nervous at the thought of opening your mouth. The more students you get in a class, like 18 or 20, the more daunting it is to speak up. The teachers do the best they can under the circumstances but I bet they’d prefer to have smaller classes too, to actually really see the difference they are making for each student. When teachers take notice of you and how you are learning, not as a group but individually, it can be a real boost of encouragement. You want to put even more effort in.

So if you are really serious about encouraging learning through conversation then please don’t get rid of the green havens on campus, either build one of those newfangled libraries or, better yet, spend the money where students expect it to be spent – in the class room.

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