Edward Edgerton finds it deeply ironic that universities, as cradles of research, know so little about the impact their own buildings have on staff and students.
Dr Edgerton is a researcher in environmental psychology at the University of the West of Scotland with a key interest in the design of educational institutions. There is a dearth of research on the topic, but enough exists to indicate that it can have a huge influence on student performance.
‘There are US studies showing that improving the environment of seminar rooms improves final grades. These are very simple changes – such as making the rooms aesthetically more appealing with settees and carpets – but they result in quite dramatic improvements in terms of academic performance,’ he said.
‘We’re miles behind the US…’
Poor design can be as simple as a lecture room with the entrance at the front, so that a student coming in late distracts the lecturer and other students – or may decide to avoid embarrassment by not coming in at all.
Many rooms have poor acoustics and poor lighting. A lack of natural daylight can hamper students’ ability to study. But academic performance is only one outcome, and Dr Edgerton is more interested in the indirect effect of the built environment, such as the impact it can have on self-esteem.
‘If students feel better about themselves, they’re more motivated to attend.’
A basic principle of environmental psychology is that people should have more control over their environment, but academics and students are often unable to adjust the lighting and temperature of rooms.
‘One of the countries that is far ahead of us is Finland. They have pedagogy competitions where architects must match the building to the school’s learning strategy. We have it the other way round,’ Dr Edgerton said. ‘I sometimes get quite disheartened. An architect will say, ‘look at this fantastic new design,’ and I think: ‘you have no evidence to base that on apart from your own gut feeling.’?’
While a growing number of architecture courses in the US now incorporate psychology, combining the two disciplines is virtually unheard of in the UK. Many architects are baffled by the idea that they might talk to a psychologist when drawing up designs.
‘But who are you designing (the building) for? People. And who knows about how people behave? Psychologists,’ Dr Edgerton said.
Part of the problem, he noted, is that architects’ involvement is generally with those who are paying for the building rather than the people who will be using it.
‘Architects are fine for doing an analysis in terms of energy efficiency, but we can look at how the building impacts on self-esteem, motivation to research and social interaction.’