Feb 15, 2019

Purposeful Design Impacts Student Engagement

by Dalane E. Bouillion, Ed.D., Yanira Oliveras-Ortiz, Ph.D., and Lizzy Asbury, Ed.D.

School architects indicate that their designs really impact the learning environment. But how do we know that they do? Does design improve learning, or do they merely impact the built environment? Sure, a beautiful new structure can provide a facelift in a community, but until recently the scholarly research was void of evidence that design actually impacted student engagement. A mixed-methods scholarly study was conducted, with the approval of The University of Texas at Tyler, to determine what impact two new schools, both designed by VLK Architects, had on student engagement.

A Unique Opportunity
VLK Architects had the unique opportunity to design two replacement elementary schools in the Houston area around the same time. Both schools were designed on the existing site, and the attendance boundaries of the schools remained intact. Therefore, the same staff, and the same students were moved from the existing school to the replacement school. Although the academic achievement levels in both schools were already high, the team wanted to study the impacts of the new designs on student engagement. In order to fully comprehend the impact of the new environments, the researchers gathered the perceptions of students via focus groups, and teachers, via an online survey. A conceptual framework of student engagement (Schlechty, 2001), with a deep understanding of the scholarly definition and engagement levels drove the protocols established for both student focus groups, and the teacher survey.

In order to produce a trustworthy study, precautions were taken to ensure reliability and validity. For the student focus groups, triangulation was achieved in a variety of ways. First, three researchers conducted the interviews in order to review and agree that patterns surfaced in the interviews. Additionally, multiple sources (students and teachers) were included in the study to establish various points of view; common themes presented by both types of participants comprise the conclusions of this study. Reflexivity was accomplished, as the biases of the researchers were identified, and the research team worked to keep them minimized. Rather than contradicting a participant, the team probed to understand more about a point of view when disagreement could have surfaced. Finally, negative case sampling techniques were used to determine additional perspectives that were not anticipated. Outlying responses that were infrequently gathered were studied to determine if they should be considered as an alternate point of view. The study resulted in conclusions that naturally presented themselves via grounded inferencing, rather than establishing a protocol of questions that led the participants in one direction.
Teachers’ perceptions of their students’ engagement were of interest. Teachers at both campuses were invited to complete an online survey to assist with balancing perceptions regarding the impact of the design on student engagement. Teachers volunteering to participate also completed an online consent form prior to accessing the survey. Teachers were able to complete the survey at their convenience within a two-week period. Given that teacher participation was voluntary, the goal was to have at least 50% participation; however, the researchers were pleased with the 77% participation rate. The researchers ensured that the teacher responses included in the data analysis only included those teachers who worked both in the old building as well as in the new replacement campus. 

Findings: Students’ Perceptions
Student focus groups yielded three significant themes:
(1)   the new spaces and the impact those have on their overall school experience, (2) the impact going to a new school has had on their engagement in learning, and (3) the changes in their teachers since moving to the replacement school” (Oliveras-Ortiz, Bouillion, & Asbury, 2017).
These three themes were then organized based on the students’ perceptions in the way that they articulated their beliefs.
            Students shared their strong beliefs about more “room to learn and explore” in the new schools citing feelings of “freedom and comfort” (Oliveras-Ortiz et al., 2017) due to the better circulation within the campus, the feelings of openness due to deliberate natural light, and the spaciousness of their new classrooms. Students now feel as if they can accommodate their materials in order to learn in a variety of spaces within the building. Specifically, they talked about the collaboration areas that extend their learning environment in a variety of ways, making them capable to working on group projects, or with partners in ample space.
            Students were acutely aware of their commitment to doing work, or their levels of increased engagement in the new schools. They reported that it was more fun to learn in the new buildings, could spread out their materials, and had connections to specialized spaces such as Makerspaces and Science labs, where content specific tasks specific helped them, and even made them feel special. Writeable magnetic white walls designed to allow students to use the classroom as an instructional tool were preferred by the students. They felt they supported their interest in assigned tasks, and allowed for maximized instructional time.
            Lastly, students reported that their teachers were happier since moving into the new buildings. They perceived teachers smiled more, and contributed much of this happiness to the teachers’ ability to better organize materials due to increased storage. They were also appreciative that all teachers has a room to call his or her own.

Findings: Teachers’ Perceptions
            Teacher surveys revealed their perceptions of students’ engagement levels and habits using a Likert scale. The top three statements with the most support of agreement are detailed below in a table. Teachers found that since moving to the new schools, students were “more engaged in learning”, “spend more time working collaboratively”, and “are prouder to be part of our school” (Oliveras-Ortiz et al., 2017).

Teachers’ Perceptions of Student Engagement

“Since moving to the new building, our students are more engaged in learning”


“Since moving to the new building, our students spend more time working collaboratively”


“Since moving to the new building, our students are prouder to be part of our school”



This research indicates that design does positively impact student engagement in learning. Specifically, three main themes emerged that should function as critical attributes for designing replacement elementary schools. First, “purposefully designed learning space” (Oliveras-Ortiz et al., 2017) should scaffold the process with every space designed to be a learning space. Secondly, schools should be created with “spaces designed to foster student engagement” (Oliveras-Ortiz et al., 2017) which requires an understanding of teaching and learning, curricular intentions, and student preferences with regard to personalizing their learning. Lastly, architects should “design to support teaching and learning” which necessitates a deep understanding of curriculum and instruction, as well as child development and current teaching methodologies. This groundbreaking study is important to the future of education, as educators and architects should be working on a design team together, influencing one another. Our built environment has the potential to impact learning; therefore, engagement. “Without engagement…there is little likelihood that students will learn that which it is intended they learn (Schlechty, 2001, p. 64).

About the Authors
Dalane E. Bouillion, Ed.D. is the Principal│Educational Planner for VLK│Architects. Yanira Oliveras-Ortiz, Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor at The University of Texas as Tyler. Lizzy Asbury, Ed.D. is the Chief Executive Officer of TransCend4.

Oliveras-Ortiz, Y., Bouillion, D., & Asbury, L. (2017). The impact of learning environments on student engagement. (Research Report). Retrieved from https://scholarworks.uttyler.edu/edulead_fac/25/

Schlechty, P.C. (2001). Shaking up the schoolhouse: How to support and sustain educational innovation. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

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