The Classroom: Physical Environments That Enhance
Teaching and Learning (An investigation of the teaching/learning
environment at the University of California, Davis)
University of California, Davis
presented at the annual meeting of the American Association
for Higher Education, March 26,1991. Washington, D.C.
and maintaining a classroom environment that facilitates
teaching and learning is so important that we should
wonder why we even have to discuss it. It is axiomatic.
Halstead (1974), however, in his classic book on state
planning in higher education says:
design of the physical environment of the learning
task is often neglected yet science has established
a close correlation between the amount of work people
do and where they do it. It stands to reason that
a student sitting in an unbearably hot, stuffy room
listening to a lecture on cryogenics would not learn
as much as he would in a cool, comfortable space.
Unfortunately, most college buildings have been planned
to impress people from the outside, not necessarily
to provide comfort of the users (p. 485).
Davis campus has been interested in the physical environment
of its classrooms and their fitness for teaching and
learning. In 1979 the first classroom survey was done.
The survey instrument asked faculty and students to
evaluate the 110 general assignment classrooms and their
suitability for teaching. The results showed that 30
percent of our faculty found classrooms, in general,
"ill-suited for their teaching purposes" (Estabrook,
1989, p.5). Ventilation, temperature and aesthetics
were indicated as particular problems.
rated classrooms higher than faculty did. One third
of them, however, found them ill-suited for test-taking
purposes (Estabrook, 1989, p. 8). Students also indicated
that the rooms lacked storage space for their belongings.
"problems" uncovered by this study were somewhat
remedied over the years by Physical Plant and the Instructional
Media Center; however, no on-going, coordinated, monitoring
function other than Physical Plant's twice yearly inspection
for broken furniture, blinds, missing chairs, etc.,
and painting when needed, was established. The Registrar's
Office was considered the "owner" of general
assignment classrooms but had no budget to improve them.
If something was wrong in a classroom, a faculty member
might call the Office of the Registrar to complain.
The Office then contacted Physical Plant to fix the
problem. Numerous times Physical Plant would say they
had no money in the budget to make a repair. If it was
to be done, the Registrar's Office would have to pay
for it. So it didn't get done!
lack of coordination was addressed in the Fall of 1988
when UCD's new chancellor established an Instructional
Facilities Work Group (Davis is famous for its well
developed committee structure). The Executive Vice Chancellor,
the Associate Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs,
the Associate Vice Chancellor for Planning and Budget,
and the Assistant Vice Chancellor for Facilities formed
the workgroup. It was decided that the workgroup needed
some way of establishing the quality of our classroom
environment. There were lots of anecdotal stories and
grumbles about the poor conditions of our classrooms
but nothing definitive except our that classrooms were
"Some way" was the establishment of another
committee, the Instructional Space Advisory Group. The
members of the group consist of representatives from
the Teaching Resources Center, whose representative
chairs the group and conducted the 1979 classroom study,
the Registrar, Architects and Engineers, Academic Senate
committee on Academic Planning and Budget Review, Instructional
Media Center, Office of Planning and Budget, Academic
Senate Committee on Teaching, an at large member of
the faculty, Physical Plant, and both an undergraduate
and a graduate student. An impressive group of people!
appointment letter from the Chancellor stated:
group is being established to monitor, on an ongoing
basis, the conditions of classroom and other instructional
facilities. It would propose corrective action to
remedy deficiencies and establish design criteria
for consideration in the construction of future instructional
Chancellor further said:
see the work of the Instructional Space Advisory Group
as critically important in addressing concerns that
are central to the instructional mission of the University.
began meeting in December, 1988. Since we had no real
data on the state of our classrooms, we decided that
the most appropriate form of action would be to once
again survey faculty and students regarding classroom
quality. Were our classrooms good places in which to
teach and learn?
survey instrument was designed by the Advisory Group
that was much more comprehensive than the 1979 survey.
of twenty items to be rated on a 5 point scale ranging
from excellent to very poor, five items asking faculty
to indicate what features (furniture, equipment, etc.)
they need or prefer to have, and one item asking the
faculty to identify the factors that contribute to
lack of cleanliness. Furthermore, faculty were also
asked to comment and offer suggestions for improving
classrooms (Estabrook, 1989, p. 1).
survey was sent to the 1600 members of the Academic
Senate and 300 lecturers. They were asked to complete
a form for every room in which they taught during the
Winter 1989 quarter. We received responses from some
400 faculty members. This represents between 30 and
40 percent of the faculty actually teaching that winter
quarter. The 400 responses resulted in 308 useable ratings
of 101 of the total 109 general assignment classrooms
and 170 non-general assignment classrooms. I am only
discussing the information gathered on the 101 general
assignment classrooms. The Advisory Group hopes to review
non-general assignment classrooms in the future.
The responses showed that 55 percent of the faculty
evaluated their classrooms as good to excellent teaching
environments and only 16 percent evaluated them as poor
to very poor teaching environments, an improvement over
the 1979 survey results. The average rating of all classrooms
as a teaching environment was 3.45. In 1979, the average
rating was 3.1 (Estabrook, 1989, p. 4).
survey did identify four major problem areas. A problem
area was defined as 25 percent or more of the faculty
rating the feature as poor or very poor. Two of the
identified problem areas were the same as those identified
in 1979-aesthetics, and temperature and ventilation.
aesthetic quality of our classrooms was identified as
the number one problem area. The overall average aesthetic
rating of general assignment classrooms was 2.66. Of
the classrooms that received an aesthetic rating, 29
rooms (29 percent) received average ratings of 2 or
less and 75 percent of the rooms received evaluations
of 3 and less. Rooms were described as ugly, stark,
cold grim, spiritless, windowless, and colorless. Compared
to the 1979 findings, there was a ten percent increase
in the number of rooms rated as lacking aesthetic value.
Halstead, (1974) discusses the importance of aesthetics
in the teaching/learning process when he says:
a greater extent than perhaps any other type of institution,
colleges and universities need to create environments
suitable to living and working. The largely indoor
pursuit of teaching and learning requires that the
character of instructional space--its shape, climate,
lighting, color, acoustics, and seating--be conducive
to the highest level of communication and mental productivity
(1990), addressing the needs of office workers said,
"People are greatly influenced by the visual aspects
of their environment. . .. People are able to perform
best when they are visually comfortable" (p. 78).
The data from the survey strongly indicate that our
faculty and students are not visually comfortable in
their classroom environments and this can lead one to
conclude that they are not performing at their best.
and blackout capabilities were also identified as problems.
Faculty were particularly frustrated because they could
not dim rooms leaving sufficient light for students
to take notes and at the same time have the room dark
enough for students to see the screen projections. Poor
lighting conditions in general were commented upon throughout
the survey responses.
rooms (55 percent of the rooms rated) received average
ratings of 3 or less for dimming capabilities and 32
rooms (46 percent of the 70 rooms rated) received average
ratings of 3 or less for blackout capabilities. We have
many internal classrooms and they have no blackout problem.
This fact may help explain why only 70 rooms were rated
for blackout capabilities.
and ventilation were identified as problems in numerous
rooms. One of our main classroom buildings has a noise
problem caused by the ventilation system. Faculty members
with hearing aids have particular difficulty because
hearing aids amplify sound. Faculty teaching foreign
languages have also complained. The noise prevents students
from hearing fine sound differences in other languages.
The administration has already received a petition from
15 instructors of oriental languages requesting something
be done about the problem. The heating and ventilation
system of this building is scheduled for repair in Summer,1992.
were particularly critical of poor ventilation. In many
cases they could not open windows or did not have windows
to open. If they opened classroom doors, noise from
the outside created distraction.
the 98 rooms rated for temperature and ventilation,
41 (42 percent) received ratings of 3 and below and
19 (19 percent) received ratings of 2 and below. This
situation is far from ideal. Halstead (1974) writes:
is generally recognized that high temperature and
humidity produce physiological and psychological stress
that accelerate fatigue, causes people to work more
slowly, exert greater effort, and make more mistakes.
The classroom climate in particular should be carefully
controlled not only to provide physical comfort but
also to serve as a positive factor in the learning
process by engendering alertness and attention. To
maintain such a climate, the air must be treated to
simultaneously controlled temperature, humidity, cleanliness
and circulation (p. 503).
or the lack thereof was the other major problem identified
by faculty. There were two questions on cleanliness.
One question dealt with overall cleanliness of the room
and the other with the cleanliness of chalkboards. Faculty
were mainly concerned with chalkboards. They commented
on dirty chalkboards chalk dust, dust-saturated erasers
and the lack of chalk, Faculty also complained about
the number of announcements marked "DO Not Erase"
left on chalkboards. Evidently faculty do not erase
terms of overall room cleanliness, in addition to chalk
dust, faculty were concerned with newspapers. Inserts
to the student daily newspaper were identified as the
major problem. Lack of trash cans and lack of maintenance
during the day were considered problems by over 30 percent
of the faculty respondents.
the 99 rooms rated on general cleanliness, 50 rooms
(50.5 percent) received average ratings of 3 or less.
Of the 98 rooms rated on chalkboard cleanliness, 40
rooms (41 percent) received average ratings of 3 or
less but only 8 rooms (8 percent) received average ratings
of 2 or less.
faculty were also asked to identify features they require
or would like to have in a classroom. The Advisory Group
was particularly interested in these responses because
of its advisory role in future classroom design.
is interesting to note that 70 percent of the faculty
respondents to the question about desired type of chalkboard
wanted the "traditional" blackboard. The white,
magic marker board does not appear to be acceptable
in a general assignment classroom, at least as far as
the UC Davis faculty is concerned.
terms of equipment, 60 percent of the faculty use or
would use slide projectors and/or overhead projectors.
Approximately 40 percent indicated they would use VCR
players and TV monitors and 20 percent indicated they
would use 16mm film projectors and large screen video
projectors for computer images.
survey also solicited information about the type of
furniture faculty would like added to classrooms. No
more than two faculty asked for the same thing, i.e.,
pointer, stool rather than chair for faculty to sit
on, clock (UC Davis does not put clocks in classrooms
because they have the habit of disappearing all too
frequently), hook for hanging instructor coat, etc.
Some wanted things removed, particularly student chairs.
Crowding in classrooms will come up later when I discuss
student responses to the state of our classrooms.
were also asked to respond to the type of student seating
arrangements they prefer in classrooms. The responses
indicate that about half of the faculty want fixed,
auditorium-style seating and the other half want movable
seating. Presently 18 percent of UCD's classrooms are
auditorium style, and ten percent are seminar style,
which is exactly the percentage of faculty who indicated
they wanted seminar-style rooms. Some ten percent of
the faculty would like the continuous desk seating common
in professional schools.
student evaluation of general assignment classrooms
was conducted in the Sprinq, 1989 quarter. Two classes,
one morning and one afternoon, were selected for each
of the 109 general assignment classrooms. Faculty were
asked to distribute the survey in class and to return
the completed surveys to the Advisory Group. The Advisory
Group received 3,998 student survey responses. This
is estimated as almost a 100 percent response rate since
the surveys were completed and collected in class.
were asked to evaluate many of the same things about
the general assignment classrooms that faulty evaluated.
They had many of the same complaints as faculty, but
their number one complaint was about crowding in the
classroom. They were particularly critical of the space
between seats, column and row. Thirty seven (37) percent
rated seating as poor to very poor. Commenting on our
lecture halls, students said their knees touch the seat
in front and their arms touch the next person. The crowding
phenomenon has become more evident over the last several
years as UC Davis' enrollment has increased dramatically
with no increase in the number of classrooms. Most classes
are at maximum capacity or above.
size of writing surfaces was rated poor to very poor
by 28 percent of the students and 34 percent rated storage
space for personal belongings as poor to very poor.
Twenty seven (27) percent rated the suitability of a
room for test taking as poor to very poor.
also criticized temperature and ventilation systems.
Rooms are too cold or too hot and the noise from the
ventilation systems make concentration and hearing difficult.
Halstead (1974) writes:
student in the classroom is properly seated if he
has a clear view of the instructor, is provided with
suitable writing surface and a place for book storage,
is reasonably comfortable, and is so situated that
persons going to and from adjacent seats will not
disturb him" (pp.506-507).
of UC Davis' classrooms seem to have conditions opposite
to those Halstead recommends.
number of students complained that there were not enough
left-handed desks available. Standard classroom set
up specifies that each room have ten percent left-handed
desks. The Advisory Group is not sure if we have more
left handed students, at least more than the ten percent
population average, or if, due to our crowded conditions,
right-handed students are using left-handed desks because
that was all that was available when they came into
were also concerned with the lack of classroom aesthetics.
Some of the comments were: "this room is kind of
ugly and uninspiring for learning," "room
is ugly and windows don't open," "colors clash,"
"this room is typical instructional blab,"
"a brighter more lively colored room would be more
conducive to learning," and "this classroom,
like most others, is lousy."
Advisory Group took a few immediate actions to remedy
some of the problems. The Physical Plant representative
directed custodial staff to clean the blackboards, chalk
trays, and erasers on a nightly basis and he arranged
for an additional trash can in each general assignment
classroom. Some of the classroom problems identified
in the surveys were known to Physical Plant and were
on their maintenance or improvement list. Dimmers and
blackout blinds were scheduled to be installed in a
number of rooms. Lighting was scheduled for improvement
in one of the small auditoriums. As indicated before,
the heating and ventilation system in one of our main
classroom buildings was already scheduled for repair
in 1992. For the 1989-90 fiscal year Physical Plant
committed $280,000 for specific classroom projects.
This is really not a large sum of money when you consider
UC Davis' overall budget.
The Advisory Group did have the opportunity to experiment
with new student chairs. Physical Plant was about to
order replacement chairs and asked the Advisory Group
to look at several chairs. The Advisory Groups selected
a chair that had a larger writing surface, a slightly
wider seat and a storage basket underneath.
chairs were placed in two heavily used classrooms shortly
after the beginning of the Fall, 1990 quarter. A short
survey was distributed to students in four classes,
two in each room, at the end of the quarter. The response
to the chairs was overwhelmingly positive except for
the storage area. The students were not using it for
storage. They said it was too small, too inconvenient,
and they would forget items they stored, but said it
made a great foot rest!
Advisory Group was most concerned about the low rating
of the aesthetic quality of our classrooms. As noted
earlier, visual comfort aids performance. It was decided
to do a second survey specifically addressing the aesthetic
quality of our classrooms.
graduate student representative on the Advisory Group
was a Ph.D. candidate in environmental/developmental
psychology. Her research emphasis was in aesthetic preferences
emphasizing the psychosocial need for natural qualities
in built settings. She suggested that the survey establish
what in particular is aesthetically unpleasing about
our rooms and what do faculty and students perceive
as the ideal classroom? She suggested a fellow Ph.D.
candidate in social psychology/group dynamics with interests
in human group activity in isolated environments and
human interactions with technology as one who might
be interested in doing a study with her.
Advisory Group agreed and requested the two students
to submit a proposal with budget. The Advisory Group
accepted the proposal and requested funding for the
study. The Instructional Facilities Work Group approved
the project and provided the funding. The aesthetic
study was conducted in the Spring, 1990 quarter.
classrooms were selected "based on a range of sizes;
locations on campus, subjects being taught and on a
range of aesthetic ratings obtained from the 1989 Campus
Classroom Survey. . ." (Caldwell and Hoyt, 1990,
p. 3). One morning class and one afternoon class were
selected for each of the nine rooms. Students were surveyed
in class. Faculty received their survey through the
mail. Responses were received from 43 faculty members
and 890 students. Of the nine classrooms, eight received
enough responses to be included in the data analysis.
first section of the survey asked faculty and students
to differentiate between the current classroom and the
ideal classroom on thirteen experiential criteria. The
results indicated that:
strongly desire classrooms to be bright, spacious,
large, natural, organized, and harmonious. They like
the rooms to be (in order of preference) comfortable,
airy, functional, inviting, happy, interesting and
beautiful (Caldwell and Hoyt, 1990, p.3).
ideal classroom is rather different from the one the
respondents perceive they are in. They "indicated
that their current classroom is dull, confining, synthetic
and cluttered" (Caldwell and Hoyt, 1990, p.3).
second section of the survey asked faculty and students
to rate several design features or attributes of the
room they were in. Design features in order from most
disliked were wall color, chair design, floors, chair
color and lighting. Many respondents made comments similar
to those made in the general classroom surveys. They
said spacing between chairs was inadequate, leaving
little leg room and making it almost impossible to move
between rows; ventilation was poor; rooms lacked windows;
chairs were uncomfortable; and desks were too small.
In general, the rooms in this survey were described
as needing improved comfort.
third section of the survey asked respondents to rate
design features to improve the classroom environment
and then rank priorities for improvement. Wall color,
adding plants, lighting type, lighting level and new
chair design were selected by respondents as the items
they preferred changed. In priority order respondents
selected wall color, lighting, chair style and plants.
Student and faculty artwork, and flooring were medium
priorities and wallpaper, wood paneling and podium style
were low priority changes.
by students and faculty regarding preference for classroom
improvements were punctuated by concerns of cost. In
particular, adding art work to classrooms brought forth
concerns about cost. In addition, a number of faculty
and students suggested that artwork might be too distracting.
plants to classrooms was a high preference of respondents.
Maintenance of plants, however, might be a problem although
there are numerous houseplants that require minimal
maintenance and light.
color was the most disliked of any design feature. When
asked to select preferred wall colors respondents chose
white, then pale blue, and pale yellow or pale green
as last preferences. Softer wall colors are in, and
orange, brown and red wall colors are out.
regression ana1ysis of the data in this survey was performed
relating the aesthetic ratings received by these eight
rooms in the earlier classroom study. "The best
prediction of the aesthetic ratings of these rooms came
from difference between ideal and real values of the
experiential components of naturalness, spaciousness,
and organization"(Caldwell and Hoyt, 1990, pp.5-6).
regression analysis "related ratings of chair design
and the experience of happiness" (Caldwell and
Hoyt, 1990, p. 6) to the overall aesthetic ratings of
summary, the researchers concluded that there are:
problems with classroom design that influence aesthetic
preference and ultimately instructional function.
The first problem is that current classroom design
features do not support the experiential needs of
the users. Students and faculty desire rooms to be
bright, spacious, large, natural, organized, harmonious,
comfortable, airy, functional, inviting, happy, interesting
and beautiful. Many of the surveyed classrooms do
not support these needs.
second quality in current classroom design that does
not support aesthetic appreciation or instructional
tasks is the larger problem of crowding. . . . the
majority of respondents indicated that the ideal class
room should be "spacious," "large,"
"comfortable," and "airy" (pp.
terms are the opposite of crowding and it is obvious
from student and faculty comments that they do not like
the crowded conditions they face daily in the classroom.
Chairs, besides being too close together, were also
uncomfortable and were one of the highest priorities
for change. "Chair design and space between chairs
was found to be a significant predictor of [higher]
aesthetic ratings for a room." (Caldwell and Hoyt,
and Hoyt further state:
crowding and decreased comfort significantly and consistently
decrease aesthetic ratings of a room. . . . crowding
influences emotions which strongly influence the tasks
and purpose of the classroom. It is through good design
that we can support the instructional functions of
also suggest that occupational safety guidelines and
measurements of a range of potential users specifications
should be applied to classrooms. These guidelines allow
for greater distance between chairs. Not only would
there be a less crowded classroom environment but the
additional space would "reduce the incidence of
casual cheating, as adjacent students' work would be
outside of the natural field of vision" (Hoyt and
Caldwell, p. 11).
Instructional Space Advisory Group spent much time discussing
the results of this study. Members had their own suggestions
for improving the aesthetic quality of our classrooms
and for creating diversity among classrooms. We did
not want "sameness" to run through our buildings
and classrooms since "sameness" is often equated
with being boring or dull. Differences help one orient
oneself in a building and also make it easier to communicate
about a room to others. The Advisory Group made the
following recommendations to the Work Group:
that all classroom walls be painted in shades of off-white
and that color be supplied by the following classroom
features: student chairs, bulletin boards, trim, blinds,
instructor's table and chair, lectern, projector stands,
and chair rails.
2. that student chairs be of the same color in a given
room. In the case of movable chairs, this could be
accomplished by having student chairs be of the same
color by building, floor, or wing. In the case of
fixed seating, we recommend that the chair colors
be distinct for each lecture hall in any given classroom
3. that classrooms have chair rails along the walls
and for several reasons: functional--they protect
the wall and thus reduce maintenance costs; aesthetic-
they can be a source of color or if made of wood,
they can contribute to the room having a "natural"
quality; perceptual--they provide an horizon and reduce
the sense of being in a box with blank walls.
4. that lighting levels in classrooms be raised and
that the standards for minimum lighting levels be
revised to reflect the new minimum lighting level.
Students find the current lighting level too low.
5. that light type be selected on the basis of its
aesthetic as well as its functional properties. Since
the aesthetics of the room is affected by the hardware
(i.e., type of fixtures) as well as by the lighting
effects created when the room is brightly or dimly
lit, we recommend that both aspects be considered
when selecting the appropriate lighting type. . .
6. [that we] use. . . graphics in classrooms but suggest
that art work and plants be introduced on a pilot
basis only so that we can adequately assess their
role in the educational environment. Since we consider
graphics to be only one element in the total design,
we are not suggesting that all classrooms should contain
graphics but only those in which it is appropriate
(Estabrook, 1990 pp. 2-3).
Advisory Group also recommended that a professional
interior designer be hired to develop model designs
for two classrooms identified for remodeling based on
the study findings and to develop a color palette for
use throughout our buildings. The color palette would
be used by Physical Plant as they repaint classrooms.
We have been funded to hire an interior design consultant.
It also appears that we are being funded to remodel
Advisory Group also began developing guidelines for
state of the art media classrooms. The media identified
by faculty as necessary in a classroom are to be included
in the model classroom project. In addition, we are
in the design state of a new Social Sciences and Humanities
building that will have a 400-seat lecture hall. The
Advisory Group will provide state-of the-art media guidelines
for that lecture hall.
have been a busy group of people but we are making a
great deal of progress in accessing and improving the
physical environments of our classrooms, which should
enhance the teaching and learning that goes on in them
rather than detract from it. It will take years and
money to do, but we now have administrative support
and a structure in which to do it.
Caldwell, B. and Hoyt, K. (1990). Classroom Aesthetics
Survey: Student and Faculty Opinions. Final Report submitted
to the Instructional Space Advisory Committee, University
of California, Davis, Summer 1990.
M. (1989). Report #1: Faculty Assessment of, Classrooms
and Recommendations for Classroom Improvement Report
submitted to the Instructional Facilities Work Group,
University of California, Davis, June, 1989.
M. (1990). Recommendations for Improving the Aesthetics
of the Classroom Environment. Report submitted to the
Instructional Facilities Work Group, University of California,
Davis, Summer, 1990.
D. K. (1974). Statewide planning in higher education.
Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office.
A. F. (1990, March). Making light and color work in
office harmony. The Office. pp.73-74.