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Professional Opinion

Bridging the gap between college campus and workplace

Why smart classroom design matters
University Business, October 2017
Paul Viccica and Lois Goodell are principals with the CBT architectural firm.
Paul Viccica and Lois Goodell are principals with the CBT architectural firm.

The criteria employers use to evaluate recent college graduates for jobs in the real world of today have changed dramatically. The majority of college classrooms have not kept pace with or do not sufficiently prepare students for the evolving demands of the workplace environment—and employers are noticing.

The design elements of the college classroom and all learning environments today play a critical role in how our society grooms future talent for success.

The waning traditional model

Picture a traditional lecture hall setting: students sitting in rows, backs to their peers and facing a professor who instructs by standing at a podium. The flow of information is a singular channel, with only the occasional question disrupting the one-way communication between professor and student.

This model offers little support for higher-level thinking, experiential learning or collaboration, resulting in a disparity between the skills gained in the classroom and the skills sought by employers.

A one-way, hierarchical flow of communication no longer dominates the modern workplace. Companies are building collaborative hubs, “touchdown” spaces and social cafes—new productivity zones that strike a balance between isolation and collaboration, and between social interaction and workplace focus.

To catalyze team-building and active problem-solving organically, work environments have evolved to be flexible, adaptive and people-focused.

Employers are placing less importance on rote skills in science, foreign language and history, and are more interested in prospective employees that have honed 21st century skills such as critical and creative thinking and problem-solving.

Only through imaginative classroom design can universities support these important learning and teaching methods, and respond to this shift in employer expectations.

Reimagining learning spaces

The most successful classrooms establish multifunctional learning spaces that support peer-to-peer and individual problem-solving activities.

Classrooms that activate experiential and project-based learning approaches reflect the modern workplace by providing social and quiet work spaces, by offering breakout seating, and by creating technical stations where students can collaborate, focus independently and work technically, as they would in an office setting.

Shape, configuration and furnishings—as well as the integration of technology—must have a unifying quality that fosters interpersonal communication, openness and adaptability.

This will require dramatic changes.

Take, for instance, classroom size. As classrooms seek a more fluid, potentially expansive quality, universities must consider larger footprints.

For example, a collaborative classroom requires more square footage per student than does a traditional tiered classroom. Cutting-edge spaces (such as an innovation lab or makerspace) require even more square footage per student.

Collaborative classrooms and innovation labs actually cost less per square foot than do traditional rooms when evaluating system, room build-out, exterior envelope and furniture costs.

Colleges can invest in students’ future success by investing in space. Many institutions, such as Harvard University, Babson College and Northeastern University, are already adapting to the modern learning environment by offering these innovation labs, collaborative classrooms and makerspaces.

Architects and designers have an important role to play when it comes to aligning learning outcomes with the requirements of the workplace. The design of more imaginative classrooms—where the student is the focal point—helps unite the goals of both academia and today’s employers and bolster students’ post-graduate success.


Paul Viccica and Lois Goodell are principals with the CBT architectural firm.

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