Toward Building More Effective Learning Environments

(Roger Hiemstra)

Chapter Ten 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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Page 93 (page numbers as shown in the hard copy version of the book)

The previous chapters provide many challenging ideas and suggestions that can be used to guide practice, thinking, and research related to building more effective learning environments.

Toward Building More Effective Learning Environments

Roger Hiemstra

The task of understanding the multiple aspects of learning environments and then attempting to make these environments more effective is a complex undertaking. It requires that professional adult educators look not only at the physical spaces in which learning takes place but also at the attitudes, perceptions, and beliefs that they and participating learners bring to educational settings. Often a perspective transformation, paradigm shift, or reassessment of a personal philosophy is needed, as noted in Chapter One.

Expansion of our personal awareness of various issues associated with learning environments depends on a willingness to consider new ideas and approaches. This means listening to the many "voices" that address the issues, being open to change in our personal practices, and raising new questions about teaching and learning. In other words, I hope that much more takes place than just the passive participation of reading this volume. I hope some "deeper understandings" will be achieved through critical reflections on the content of the chapters presented here.

What Constitutes the Learning Environment?

This volume brings together the thinking and experiences of several people to examine issues associated with learning environments. In Chapter One, I outline some of my own growth in understanding learning environments as a demonstration of the complexities involved, at least for me. I also provide my current definition of the learning environment and suggest that there are at least three ways we can think about the various changes needed to build more effective environments. In this final chapter I present infor-

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mation on the kinds of research and changes in practice needed if we are going to make learning environments more effective.

One necessary consideration is the selection, design, or manipulation of the physical spaces in which learning takes place. In Chapter Two, Rodney D. Fulton outlines his model (SPATIAL) of some of the relationships between various components of a physical space. In Chapter Three, Richard S. Vosko applies his experience as a space and design specialist to the topic of the physical learning environment and urges us to become much more cognizant of the way people actually use space. Judith K. DeJoy, in Chapter Four, describes the complexities involved in designing microcomputer systems that meet at least some of the emotional and perceptual needs of learners.

The second aspect of the learning environment addressed in this volume pertains to the psychological or emotional climate of the learning environment. Burton R. Sisco, in Chapter Five, builds a case for the importance of the first encounter between instructor and learners in building an effective climate for learning. In Chapter Six, V. L. Mike Mahoney is concerned with the internal and external baggage a learner carries into the learning environment; he provides some recommendations for what instructors can do to help learners overcome these barriers.

A third aspect of the learning environment concerns the social and cultural complexities that practitioners and learners face as they undertake educational experiences. In Chapter Seven, Scipio A .J. Colin III and Trudie Kibbe Preciphs argue that racism generally has not been confronted by adult educators, and, as a result, learning environment effectiveness for many people is severely limited. A similar theme regarding disempowerment of women by many adult educators is explored by Susan Collard and Joyce Stalker in Chapter Eight. Both of these chapters are written to stimulate "real" soul searching and, hopefully, a new commitment to women, blacks, and other racial and ethnic minorities.

Commitments to New Practices

The information contained in this volume suggests that adult educators must make several new commitments if the learning environment is to be improved. For some of us, this process of improvement will entail examination of our daily behavior to see if we inadvertently practice techniques or administer policies that in effect inhibit certain learners. Others of us may need to confront the bureaucracy or traditions in our institutions that somehow diminish learning environment effectiveness by impeding learners and teachers.

Several ideas, guidelines, and practical suggestions are provided by the volume's authors. As a summary, I highlight here some of the recommendations for changing and improving practice.

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Helping Learners Control the Learning Environment. Many adult educators today are advocates of this notion of helping learners take more responsibility for and assume more control of their own learning. Several volume authors detail how to empower learners, help them become more aware of the environment, and help them take control of or change troublesome environmental features.

Analyzing and Controlling the Physical Space. A number of questions can be asked and actions taken to examine and evaluate the actual physical spaces in which teaching and learning take place. Fulton and Vosko suggest several actions to determine the appropriateness of space and furnishings within the classroom, and Vosko recommends space "audits." Educators should regularly check to see if any space-related problems have developed. It is important to ask whether or not the space can be redesigned or rearranged for sociopetal relationships.

Incorporating Microcomputer Technology into Learning Environments. The increasingly user-friendly nature of microcomputers, their diminishing costs, and their growing pervasiveness in society make them more and more attractive as teaching and learning aids. DeJoy provides several criteria for evaluating and choosing microcomputers, including applicability, available documentation, interactive capabilities, and flexibility. Careful planning should take place prior to the incorporation of microcomputers into the adult learning environment.

Working with Learners. Several practical suggestions are provided by various authors on how to work effectively with learners. Sisco describes several preparatory activities for the first meeting with learners and lists helpful questions to ask about the first session. Mahoney recommends getting to know learners and the problems that they face. He also suggests specific actions such as using job-related or community-based learning activities where appropriate.

Helping Learners Feel at Ease. Sisco describes several icebreakers that can be used to help learners become acquainted, feel more at ease, and diminish feelings of formality that often exist in the learning environment. Vosko urges adult educators to respect the "quiet" learner, and Mahoney recommends the use of positive reinforcement when needed for certain learners.

Being Proactive in Bringing About Change. Distorted, inaccurate, or traditional perceptions may exist in the learning environment that lead to such problems as racism, oppression, exploitation, powerlessness, and learning disadvantages for certain people. Colin and Preciphs urge a commitment to the task of confronting racism by acknowledging that it exists, by sharing information about all cultures and associated histories, and by fostering new policies or approaches for administration, teaching, and evaluation. Collard and Stalker urge adult educators to foster a dialogue on women's issues, to establish gender-neutral learning environments, and to examine their daily behavior to see if they disempower or devalue women

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learners in any way. These recommendations also have implications for the way language, logic, and curricular materials are used, as well as for the way practitioners, teachers, and professors are trained.

Making a Personal Commitment to Change. Several authors discuss the need for adult educators to make personal commitments to changing their views on learning environments and how to work within them. This need may be the most difficult to satisfy because our "practice" approaches, beliefs, and materials typically are well ingrained. However, whether the task is giving up some control to learners, incorporating new technology, confronting personal racist or sexist views, or redoing old curricular materials that may be offensive to certain learners, the commitment to such change should improve our effectiveness as professional adult educators.

Research Needs

Several requirements for additional research also are apparent in the chapters here.

1. Common definitions and terminology related to the learning environment are needed. A related need is to carry out developmental research on the SPATIAL model presented by Fulton, the "temperature" guide created by Mahoney, and the various checklists offered by many authors in this volume.

2. More research is needed on various issues of physical setting with adult learners as study subjects, such as seat size requirements, crowding, and how learners make personal decisions regarding the space they choose or prefer.

3. We need to better understand the ramifications of changes in the learning environment, as any one change may create new problems for or stresses on learners.

4. We need to know much more about how to help adults feel comfortable with microcomputers and other technological devices, especially if the adults have had little prior experience with this technology.

5. Research on aspects of adult teaching and learning should include subjects of both genders, as well as from various racial and socioeconomic groupings. Research reported in the literature and from which generalizations are made should clearly indicate the subjects studied.

6. More historical research on women and blacks should be conducted so that their contributions to the development of our discipline are better known.

7. The ways that language, logic, and feedback are used in the classroom should be studied with adult learners to determine if there are qualitative differences in learning styles across various groups.

8. We need to know much more about the impact of racism on the development of practitioners' perceptual patterns and how racism impedes the teaching and learning process.

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9. We need to know much more about the learning environment beyond what is addressed in this volume, such as the impact of a learner's social class, financial status, and literacy level on learning potential and on a particular teaching approach.

10. Finally, we need a better understanding of how the learning environment can be changed, including the role of learners, related training implications for teachers, and bureaucratic hurdles that must be overcome.


The learning environment is a complex interrelationship of several dimensions. Some of this complexity has not yet been explored, nor is it even addressed in this volume. However, we can anticipate that many of the practice suggestions and research needs outlined in this chapter will be instrumental in promoting better understanding and increased effectiveness of adult teaching and learning endeavors.


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

July, 2006

-- Return to Roger Hiemstra's opening page

-- Return to the Creating Environments for Effective Adult Learning Contents page

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