Seven recommendations for improving the study environment at AU

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A good physical study environment is more than just power outlets, good chairs and inviting lounge areas. A degree programme’s environment has a direct impact on the students' study habits and on the teaching. That is the view of the chair, students and an expert from the working group behind seven new recommendations for the physical study environment.

2016.06.29 | Marie Groth Andersen

Photo: Lars Kruse

"Dealing with the study environment is both demanding and interesting because there are so many user stakeholders involved with students, teaching staff, administrative staff and management. There are a lot of challenges."

So says Maia Vonsbæk, library manager at AU Library Arts Aarhus and chair of the working group which did, however, take up the challenge and recently presented seven recommendations for the physical study environment at AU to Pro-rector for Education Berit Eika, AU's Committee on Education and the AU forum for directors of studies.

Maia Vonsbæk was also responsible for a major study environment project at Arts in 2015 and she thinks it is essential to develop the study environment.

"It's a question of creating working conditions for the students that also help to give them better study habits. Seen in the context of the study progress reform, the importance of this hasn’t lessened. For students, it’s very much a question of practical factors such as power sockets, good chairs and lighting. But it’s also about ensuring that there is coherence between the physical surroundings, the teaching and the students' learning. If the teaching includes a lot of group work, then more reading rooms aren’t necessarily the answer," she says.

The seven new recommendations for the physical study environment at AU

AU’s Education Committee asked the working group for recommendations for the development of the physical study environment at AU in connection with the forthcoming extension of Aarhus Campus in 2019. The recommendations are not only intended for Aarhus Campus, but can also apply to Emdrup Campus and Herning Campus.

  1. Feel free to experiment
  2. Make students and staff co-creators of the study environment of the future
  3. Think of study environment as work environment
  4. Create proximity to academic excellence and create coherence between learning principles and study environments
  5. Create space for the cross-disciplinary meeting
  6. Take the university into the city - bring the city into the university
  7. Make the study environment and services visible and utilise technology

Physical surroundings affect teaching

Associate Professor Rikke Toft Nørgård from The Centre for Teaching Development and Digital Media took part in the working group as representative for the teaching staff. But she has also had an expert role in the group, as her research focus is teaching development.

READ MORE: Researcher: Drop the phrase study environment 

For her, exploring and challenging the physical surroundings of the university is important, because they greatly define the way in which teaching takes place. For example, the design of the classrooms determines what can take place in the room.

"When tables and chairs are bolted to the floor in row after row, you’re not encouraging the students to work in groups. The surroundings help to define the actions that take place there. Perhaps we should instead create inviting classrooms that ask open-ended questions such as: What should we do here today? So that the lecturer is forced to make a decision. We need to create classrooms and other spaces that invite experimentation and exploration," says Nørgård.

"Students are often the last to be involved"

One of the recommendations is to make students and staff co-creators of the study environment. It may sound trivial, but there are nevertheless good reasons for including it. David Kallestrup, who is one of the student representatives in the working group and newly graduated as an engineer, says:

"I have the feeling that decisions about the study environment are something that is often rushed through, with the students often as the last to be involved.”

Maia Vonsbæk agrees that the students ought to be more involved in the development of the study environment than they are today.

"They know exactly where the problems lie."

But she also thinks that the staff are important in the study environment process.

"Both students and staff must be involved in the processes and must be co-creators. I know that it can be difficult in practice, but if you want to ensure ownership, then it’s important to involve the users."

Study environment must be seen as work environment

For David Kallestrup it is also important to create natural everyday meetings between students, researchers and lecturers.

"At physics we have what we call a motorway, where the students walk right past the researchers' offices on the way to the cafeteria."

He is also satisfied with the recommendation to consider the study environment as part of the work environment.

"Everyone has experienced a poor teaching environment with poor air quality, equipment that doesn't work and bad lighting. They say being a student is a full-time job, but despite this, we’re not covered by the work environment laws," he says.

Ambitious and visionary enough?

When the working group presented its recommendations at a forum for directors of studies, it turned out that some of the recommendations and associated examples were already being implemented around AU. The chair of the working group, Maia Vonsbæk, does not see this as a problem.

"From my point-of-view, it’s a good thing that the recommendations overlap initiatives that are already in progress. That shows there is coherence between what we recommend and what is being done around the organisation."

To the question of whether the recommendations are visionary and ambitious enough as several initiatives are already being implemented around AU, she replies:

"The recommendations are not a complete vision or package solution. They’re an attempt to establish a framework for future study environment discussions and single out central issues. The banner headline is that we’re encouraging a more experimental approach to developing the study environment. I expect AU to be ambitious here."

According to Maia Vonsbæk, the group has had to seek a compromise.

"The trick has been looking forward while still allowing people to see themselves in the recommendations."

David Kallestrup agrees. He thinks the recommendations are pragmatic and realistic.

"AU has the opportunity to implement this. It’s not visionary and advanced, but there is the opportunity to experiment. It’s not fixed, so there is no limit on how the recommendations should be administered. They’re open for interpretation. There are no restrictions. It’s a baseline where you’re allowed to go a step further if you want to do more."

Rikke Toft Nørgård is not afraid to call the recommendations very ambitious:

"My approach is that there shouldn’t be a free for all, but we also must accept that there are different voices here. The recommendations are different in a productive way, and while some are specific, others are more abstract. But yes, they’re very ambitious if you actually read what is written in the recommendations."

Message to the students: Use the recommendations actively

The working group has formally completed its task. Now it is up to the faculties, departments and board of studies to carry on working with the recommendations and ensure that they become more than just good intentions in a report.

"I'm look forward to seeing how the recommendations will be welcomed. I know that one of the three boards of studies at Arts will discuss the recommendations in the coming months, and I hope we will help them create new initiatives for how people work with the study environment in future," says Maia Vonsbæk.

David Kallestrup encourages students to use them actively:

"The best thing that can happen is for the students to get involved in creating a better study environment and in the working groups. And for the student associations to take the recommendations and wave them under the noses of their department heads or directors of studies and say: This is what we want! We must work bottom up."

Translated by Peter Lambourne

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