Aspects of Effective Learning Environments

(Roger Hiemstra)

Chapter One in

Creating Environments for Effective Adult Learning

Roger Hiemstra (Editor)

New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education

Number 50, Summer 1991

Ralph B. Brockett, University of Tennessee, Knoxville, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF

Alan B. Knox, University of Wisconsin, Madison, CONSULTING EDITOR


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This chapter describes a personal journey to a working definition of learning environments and suggests how ingrained views of these environments can be changed when they impede the learning process.

Aspects of Effective Learning Environments

Roger Hiemstra

My interest in learning environments is more than two decades old. When I began my university teaching career at the University of Nebraska in 1970, I was basically unprepared for the task. Using as my frame of reference the mainly didactic teaching approaches modeled for me in my formal education, I did lots of lecturing to and testing of learners who I "arranged" in straight rows of chairs facing me. It would actually be more accurate to say that the institution "arranged" the physical setting for me, as many of the rooms in which I taught had unmovable chairs in rows or the "tradition" against rearranging rooms was very strong due to time constraints, learner expectations, and expectations of colleagues who also used the spaces. I survived that first year but did not feel very successful as a teacher. The evaluation forms completed by the students in my classes confirmed this judgment.

Fortunately for me and for subsequent learners with whom I have worked, I took my summative course evaluation efforts quite seriously. Through paper-and-pencil devices, personal observations of student interactions, and interviews with learners, I began the process of improving the style and quality of my teaching. My prior work with a more informal educational organization, Cooperative Extension, had given me insights into working with adults that I began to incorporate. I started seeking out various sources on learning climate (Hunsaker and Pierce, 1959; Knowles, 1970), architecture and design (Becker, 1960; Commission on Architecture, 1956), human engineering (Damon, Stoudt, and McFarland, 1966; Woodson and Conover, 1966), audiovisual use and selection (Kemp, 1968), and how people use space (Sommer, 1969). I also began observing how people

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interacted with learning spaces and I experimented with different room arrangements.

Eventually, this process of self-improvement led to requests from organizations to evaluate their adult learning centers and classrooms and to make recommendations for improvements. I visited their places, talked with participants and instructors, took photographs, measured chairs, tables, and rooms, examined support equipment, and designed some plans for change (Hiemstra, 1976). A career move in 1976 slowed my growth in understanding the physical learning environment, although I continued related experimentation in the classroom.

Another career change in 1980 put me in contact with three colleagues who helped to renew my interest in and involvement with the learning environment. These relationships eventually led to collaborative scholarship. Richard Vosko and I (Vosko and Hiemstra, 1988) together investigated physical features of the learning environment, based on his dissertation research (Vosko, 1984). Burton R. Sisco and I collaborated on a book about the task of teaching adults, which includes material on the learning climate and physical environment (Hiemstra and Sisco, 1990). Ralph Brockett and I collaborated on a book about self-direction in learning, which includes discussion on the learning environment (Brockett and Hiemstra, 1991).

Until about two years ago, my journey had been down a path primarily focused on the physical environment. Then, in the course of approximately six months, I happened to read Belenky, Clinchy, Goldberger, and Tarule (1986), Gilligan (1982), and early drafts of two colleagues' work on gender-related issues in adult education (Hayes, 1989; Hugo, 1990). This was all about the same time Sisco and I were finishing our co-authored book, and the result for me was a sudden awareness that I must think about the learning environment in a much broader way: "We recognize that an environment includes social, cultural, and psychological elements as well as physical features" (Hiemstra and Sisco, 1990, p. 245). Although my own perspective within this broader framework is still evolving, the present volume was conceived and negotiated as a means for compiling the thoughts of several colleagues on the topic of the learning environment. I believe that this volume will help adult educators expand their knowledge and reformulate and fine-tune their practices as related to learning environments. Certainly, my own thinking and approach to teaching have been influenced by the ideas presented here.

Defining Learning Environments

Having described the initial impetus in my personal journey to a working definition of learning environments, I now want to clarify my current thoughts on the topic within this "broader" framework. The scope of my

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thinking is defined in part by the various aspects of learning environments that have already been examined by several scholars:

My personal journey and the reports cited above on the diverse ways that people view learning environments indicate the complexity of these

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environments. Recognition of this complexity has led me to formulate a much broader definition than I would have been capable of deriving only a few years ago. I offer the following definition, focused on the adult learner, as an indication of where I am now on my continuing journey: A learning environment is all of the physical surroundings, psychological or emotional conditions, and social or cultural influences affecting the growth and development of an adult engaged in an educational enterprise.

I have invited and organized contributors to this volume according to these several dimensions. No doubt my own view of this definition will broaden or at least change over time. Readers will have their own views on what should be included in, excluded from, or added to the definition. One of the volume contributors (Susan Collard, personal communication, December 1990), for example, wondered why I did not invite an author to write on the impact of social class on learning environments. Clearly, limits on space precluded consideration of many pertinent issues. For the issues we have addressed, I hope readers will consider engaging me, the other authors, and their own colleagues in discussions about this volume and the information contained within it.

Ingrained Views of the Learning Environment

It has been my experience from numerous hours of talking about instruction and the learning environment with colleagues that there are many educators who do not want to think about the issues raised in this volume. Part of the problem is that many people fall back on or find comfort in what they already know, and some of the issues raised here are very complex and can cause painful self-reflection.

I hope that this volume serves to stimulate new attitudes and ideas, however discomforting the process, and leads to the development of more effective learning environments. There are at least three ways in which these changes can be brought about.

In the late 1970s, Mezirow (1978) introduced "perspective transformation" to adult educators. This concept, derived from earlier work (Mezirow, 1975), is based on the notion that in adult development an essential kind of learning involves "how we are caught up in our own history and are reliving it" (Mezirow, 1978, p. 101). Influenced by people such as Freire (1970), Gould (1978), and Habermas (1970, 1971), Mezirow suggests that learning is more than the accumulation of new knowledge, added on to existing knowledge; it is a process where many basic values and assumptions by which we operate are changed through our learning process. Collard and Law (1989) provide a critique of Mezirow's work that warrants serious consideration (also see Mezirow, 1989), but my point in describing perspective transformation here is to illustrate the process of growth and development in relation to our knowledge about learning envi-

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ronments. If such knowledge is an accumulation of past knowledge and that accumulative collection does not include observations about critical social and psychological issues, then how can we expect to substantively inform our practice from the knowledge that does exist? In other words, a broader view of the learning environment begets more successful teaching and learning experiences. Thus, I hope that this volume promotes perspective transformations that increase our effectiveness as educators.

The second way of instigating positive change, and a way closely related to perspective transformation, involves paradigms and paradigm shifting. Our behaviors and attitudes are shaped by the paradigms we know, believe in, or have directly experienced. The word paradigm is usually associated with models, theories, frames of reference, or perceptions. In essence, our paradigms are the way we see, perceive, or understand the world around us. For example, my accumulated knowledge and experience in relation to learning environments--my paradigm or, more accurately, collection of paradigms--informs part of my view of myself as an adult educator, explains in part why I embrace the educational approaches that I use, and serves in part as the basis of my advocacy of the cause of improving our learning environments.

What is required of many people is a "paradigm shift." Knowles (1989) refers to this phenomenon as flashes of insight or episodes that can change a life. Kuhn (1970) introduced the notion of a paradigm shift by demonstrating how most significant advancements in scientific endeavors are the products of breaks with old or traditional ways of thinking. Covey (1989) describes how paradigms affect the way we think about or see things. I know that my own instructional approaches have changed through my paradigm shift to the broader view of learning environments described above.

The third way of achieving change is through knowledge of how personal philosophy affects ways of working with people. Elsewhere I have suggested that there are at least four reasons why an adult educator should be able to explicate a personal philosophy: "(1) A philosophy promotes an understanding of human relationships. (2) A philosophy sensitizes one to the various needs associated with positive human interactions. (3) A philosophy provides a framework for distinguishing, separating, and understanding personal values. (4) A philosophy promotes flexibility and consistency in working with adult learners" ( Hiemstra, 1988, p. 179).

I contend that an individual's philosophy, whether it is explicated or not, affects personal instructional styles or approaches in various ways. Thus, I suggest another task for readers of this volume is to think about, analyze, and use their own respective philosophies: "Philosophy contributes to professionalism. Having a philosophic orientation separates the professional continuing educator from the paraprofessional in that professionals are aware of what they are doing and why they are doing it" (Merriam, 1982, pp. 90-91). I urge readers to explicate or reexamine their personal

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philosophies as adult educators and to see if their thinking about learning environments is as broad as that suggested in this volume.


The journey to more effective learning environments begins with adult education practitioners making personal improvements in their understanding and practice. This may require changes that will be difficult to achieve. However, it is my hope that the following chapters prove helpful in promoting new knowledge and application skills related to working with adult learners.


Becker. J. "Architecture for Adult Education." In M. Knowles (ed.), Handbook of Adult Education in the United States. Washington, D.C.: Adult Education Association of the U.S.A., 1960.

Belenky, M. F. Clinchy, N., Goldberger, L. and Tarule. M. Women's Ways of Knowing: The Development of Self, Voice, and Mind. New York: Basic Books. 1986.

Belsheim, D. J. "Organizing Continuing Professional Education." Adult Education Quarterly, 1986, 36, 211-225.

Belsheim, D. J. "Environmental Determinants for Organizing Continuing Education Professional Education." Adult Education Quarterly, 1988, 38, 63-74.

Brockett, R. G., and Hiemstra, R. Self-Direction in Adult Learning: Perspectives on Theory, Research, and Practice. London, England: Routledge & Kegan Paul. 1991.

Collard S., and Law, M. "The Limits of Perspective Transformation: A Critique of Mezirow's Theory." Adult Education Quarterly, 1989, 39, 99-107.

Commission on Architecture. Architecture for Adult Education. Chicago: Adult Education Association of the U.S.A., 1956.

Covey, S. R. The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People: Restoring the Character Ethic. New York: Simon & Schuster. 1989.

Damon, A., Stoudt, H., and McFarland, R. The Human Body in Equipment Design. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1966.

Darkenwald, G. G. "Enhancing the Adult Classroom Environment." In E. R. Hayes (ed.). Effective Teaching Styles. New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education, no. 43. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. 1989.

Darkenwald, G. G., and Valentine, T. "Measuring the Social Environment of Adult Education Classrooms." In Proceedings of the 1986 Adult Education Research Conference. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Printing Services, 1986.

David, T. "Students. and Teachers. Reactions to Classroom Environment." Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Chicago, 1979.

Fellenz, R. A., and Conti, G. Learning and Reality: Reflections on Trends in Adult Learning. Information Series No. 336. Columbus: ERIC Clearinghouse on Adult. Career, and Vocational Education. Ohio State University, 1989.

Fellenz, R. A., and Conti, G. J. (eds.). Social Environment and Adult Learning. Bozeman: Center for Adult Learning Research. Montana State University. 1990.

Fraser, B. J., and Treagust, D. F. "Validity and Use of an Instrument for Assessing Classroom Psychosocial Environment in Higher Education." Higher Education, 1986, 15, 37-57.

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Fraser, B. J., Williamson, J. C., and Tobin, K. G. "Use of Classroom and School Climate Scales in Evaluating Alternative High Schools." Teaching and Teacher Education, 1987, 3, 219-231.

Freire, P. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Herder and Herder, 1970.

Galbraith, M. W. "Essential Skills for the Facilitator of Adult Learning." Lifelong Learning: An Omnibus of Practice and Research, 1989, 12(6), 10-13.

Galbraith, M. W. "Attributes and Skills of an Adult Educator." In M. W. Galbraith (ed.), Adult Learning Methods. Malabar, Fla.: Robert E. Krieger, 1990.

Gibb, J. R. Trust: A New View of Personal and Organizational Development. Los Angeles: Guild of Tutors Press, 1978.

Gilligan, C. In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women's Development. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1982.

Gould, R. L. Transformations. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1978.

Habermas, J. Toward a Rational Society. Boston: Beacon Press, 1970.

Habermas, J. Knowledge and Human Interests. Boston: Beacon Press, 1971.

Hayes, E. R. "Insights from Women's Experiences for Teaching and Learning." In E. R. Hayes (ed.), Effective Teaching Styles. New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education, no. 43. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1989.

Hiemstra, R. "Creating a Climate for Adult Learners." Unpublished recommendations to the Management Training and Education Program, Lincoln General Hospital, Lincoln, Nebraska, 1976.

Hiemstra, R. "Translating Personal Values and Philosophy into Practical Action." In R. G. Brockett (ed.), Ethical Issues in Adult Education. New York: Teachers College Press, 1988.

Hiemstra, R., and Sisco, B. Individualizing Instruction: Making Learning Personal, Empowering, and Successful. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1990.

Hugo, J. M. "Adult Education History and the Issue of Gender: Toward a Different History of Adult Education in America." Adult Education Quarterly, 1990, 41, 1- 16.

Hunsaker, H., and Pierce, R. Creating a Climate for Adult Learning. Chicago: Adult Education Association of the U.S.A., 1959.

Kemp, J. E. Planning and Producing Audiovisual Materials. (3rd ed.) New York: Crowell, 1968.

Knowles, M. S. The Modern Practice of Adult Education: Andragogy Versus Pedagogy. New York: Association Press, 1970.

Knowles, M. S. The Making of an Adult Educator: An Autobiographical Journey. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1989.

Kuhn, T. S. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. (2nd ed.) Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970.

Langenbach, M., and Aagaard, L. "A Factor Analytic Study of the Adult Classroom Environment Scale." Adult Education Quarterly, 1990, 40, 95-102.

Merriam, S. B. "Some Thoughts on the Relationship Between Theory and Practice." In S. B. Merriam (ed.), Linking Philosophy and Practice. New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education, no. 15. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1982.

Mezirow, J. Education for Perspective Transformation: Women's Re-Entry Programs in Community Colleges. New York: Center for Adult Development, Teachers College, Columbia University, 1975.

Mezirow, J. "Perspective Transformation." Adult Education, 1978, 28, 100-110.

Mezirow, J. "Transformation Theory and Social Action: A Response to Collard and Law." Adult Education Quarterly, 1989, 39, 169-175.

Pappas, J. P. "Environmental Psychology of the Learning Sanctuary." In E. G. Simpson and C. E. Kasworm (eds.), Revitalizing the Residential Conference Center Envi-

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ronment. New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education, no. 46. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1990.

Sommer, R. Personal Space. Englewood Cliffs, NJ.: Prentice-Hall, 1969.

Tagiuri, R. "The Concept of Organizational Climate." In R. Tagiuri and G. H. Litwin (eds.), Organizational Climate: Explorations of a Concept. Boston: Division of Research, Graduate School of Business Administration, Harvard University, 1968.

Vosko, R. S. "The Reactions of Adult Learners to Selected Instructional Environments." Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Syracuse University, 1984.

Vosko, R. S., and Hiemstra, R. "The Adult learning Environment: Importance of Physical Features." International Journal of Lifelong Education, 1988, 7, 185-195.

White, S. Physical Criteria for Adult Learning Environments. Washington, D.C.: Commission on Planning Adult Learning Systems, Facilities, and Environments, Adult Education Association of the U.S.A., 1972.

Woodson, W. E., and Conover, D. W. Human Engineering Guide for Equipment Designers. (2nd ed.) Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1966.

See also /lelecture.html and /lechecklist.html for related information.


Roger Hiemstra is Professor Emeritus, Adult Education, Syracuse University, Syracuse, New York, and Senior Research Associate, American Distance Education Consortium.

July, 2006

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-- Go to Editor's Notes, Chapter Two, Chapter Three, Chapter Four, Chapter Five, Chapter Six, Chapter Seven, Chapter Eight, Chapter Nine, Chapter Ten, or The Index.