A Conceptual Model for Understanding the Physical Attributes of Learning Environments

(Rodney D. Fulton)

Chapter Two 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


Maxwell Macmillan International Publishing Group

New York - Oxford - Singapore - Sydney - Toronto

© 1991 by Jossey-Bass Inc., Publishers. All rights reserved.

No part of this issue may be reproduced in any form--except for a brief quotation (not to exceed 500 words) in a review or professional work--without permission in writing from the publishers.

Microfilm copies of issues and articles are available in 16mm and 35mm, as well as microfiche in 105 mm, through University Microfilms Inc., 300 North Zeeb Road, Ann Arbor, Michigan 48106

LC 85-644750 ISSN 0195-2242 ISBN 1-55542-784-7

NEW DIRECTIONS FOR ADULT AND CONTINUING EDUCATION is part of the Jossey-Bass Higher and Adult Education Series and is published quarterly by Jossey-Bass Inc., Publishers, 350 Sansome Street, San Francisco, California 94104-1310 (publication number USPS 493-930). Second-class postage paid at San Francisco, California, and at additional mailing offices.

Subscriptions for 1991 cost $45.00 for individuals and $60.00 for institutions, agencies, and libraries.

Editorial Correspondence should be sent to the Editor-in-Chief, Ralph G. Brockett, Dept. of Technological and Adult Education, University of Tennessee, 402 Claxton Addition, Knoxville, Tennessee 37996-3400.

As this book is now out of print, permission to reproduce this sourcebook on this web site for use by Elmira College graduate students was granted via a letter dated April 27, 2001, reference #: 4809 ee. This material is used by permission of Jossey-Bass, Inc., a subsidiary of John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

ISBN 1-55542-255-1


Page 13 (page numbers as shown in the hard copy version of the book)

The SPATIAL model offers educators a conceptualization of the physical environment as a contributing factor to learner participation, satisfaction, and achievement.

A Conceptual Model for Understanding the Physical Attributes of Learning Environments

Rodney D. Fulton

Why Worry About the Physical Environment?

Considerable speculation about the relationship of learners to physical environments has occurred during the past forty years. Unfortunately, too, little critical research on learning and physical environments has been reported during this same period. While educational research has dealt with many variables found to be important in the learning equation, practitioners have been relatively uninformed about either the potential value or the possible harm of physical space to learning. These effects can be seen not only in achievement levels, the traditional outcomes variable measured in educational research, but also in levels of participation and satisfaction. Participation is a critical variable in nonmandated education; thus, the physical environment's impact on participation rates can be especially important in educational and training efforts outside of school settings.

Since adults usually have more options than do children in dealing with issues of satisfaction, the relationship of physical environment to satisfaction in learning becomes a very germane question with adults. Many researchers have attempted to establish and report the relationships of space to learning. However, educators must often rely on studies in noneducational settings such as hospitals, prisons, and offices. Much of this re-


The author acknowledges the contribution of Roger Hiemstra to the development and naming of the SPATIAL model.

Page 14

search.conceptualizes the relationships from an architectural point of view. Other information is found in psychological frameworks, workplace training, aesthetics, sociology, and human factors engineering. Even when the relationships of a setting's physical attributes to learning have been considered within an educational framework, findings frequently have been limited to children and may or may not be applicable to adults.

While a body of knowledge does exist that documents the relationships between learning and physical environment, there are problems that need to be resolved before the present level of understanding can be systematically advanced. One problem is that common vocabulary does not exist. Thus, in the literature, concepts are often described with similar but not identical terminology. Conversely, the same terms are used for similar but not exactly the same concepts. But this confusion in vocabulary is only a symptom of the fundamental problem: the lack of a conceptual model that explores relationships of physical environment to learning rather than to behavior in general. Architectural models address built environments, emphasizing both interior and exterior features of building design that allow, encourage, prohibit, or inhibit various behaviors. Psychological models discuss environmental attributes that set conditions for or even control human behavior. Sociological models emphasize the importance of environment in terms of how it facilitates human interactions. By emphasizing individual appreciation of the environment, aesthetic models address the relationship of values to human behavior. Workplace training models, including human factors engineering, emphasize the fit between environment and person and seek out optimal conditions for performance.

Each of these perspectives can add to a global understanding of the learning environment; however, a model that addresses learners in learning environments is a needed first step in refining educational research. The model described here--satisfaction-participation-achievement-transcendent/immanent attributes-authority-layout (SPATIAL)--can serve as a fundamental basis for organizing research designed to identify relationships between and among components of the learning environment and attributes of the learner. Further, this model has potential for weaving together findings from architectural, psychological, sociological, aesthetic, and human factors engineering studies.

Not only is there a need to know more about the physical attributes of learning environments, but adult educators must also develop an organizational schema for understanding the research findings. Perhaps Vosko and Hiemstra's (1988, p. 186) assertion that "physical features appear to have been primarily ignored in the adult education literature" is true not because little is known but rather because little of what is known is understood within a larger conceptual framework.

Page 15

Some Underlying Assumptions

Commonly held assumptions about the physical environment need to be critically examined. First, the proposed model, SPATIAL, challenges the assumption that physical arrangement is only important for how it enhances or detracts from social interaction. Physical environment along with psychological, sociocultural, and instructional environments need to be viewed as important in their own right as well as in relation to the others. Weinstein (1981, p. 12) relegated physical environment as "clearly secondary in importance." However, SPATIAL establishes no hierarchy among environments.

A very common research method has been to investigate some particular aspect of physical environment and draw conclusions based on the relationship of one or two discrete variables to learning. David (1979) challenged this approach and suggested that it would be more meaningful to consider the interrelation of physical features and instructional activities in what he labeled a functional approach to the environment. SPATIAL is based on such a functional approach; it looks at no single physical attribute without also considering how that attribute is related to the functioning of the learning environment.

The physical environment is defined by both material attributes and the perceptions of those attributes by learners. Two examples can clarify this distinction. Density can be measured as square footage per occupant in a room, but crowding is a measure of how a person defines available personal space. Temperature is readily measured in degrees, but thermal comfort is a subjective evaluation by an individual. Thus, a place can have high density but be rated as crowded by one group and not crowded by another, or a certain room temperature can be considered cool by some and warm by others. Attempts to address physical attributes of learning must acknowledge these simultaneous realities of material and perceived attributes.

Finally, the SPATIAL model does not suggest that there can, or even should, be a perfect physical environment for all learning. As Hiemstra and Sisco (1990, p. 259) expressed, "Is it possible to satisfy everyone's needs? Probably not!" This model allows for a dynamic tension among its component parts that can be used by adult learners, facilitators, and future researchers to maximize the impact of interaction among several attributes of the functional physical environment. This interaction creates several possibilities rather than one desired or best physical environment.

Selected Literature on Physical Environment

The critical thought needed to build an adequate model of the physical environment is enhanced by familiarity with the current literature. Knowing what has been written allows one to question assumptions, understand limits, and propose new relationships. While space is limited, I offer a

Page 16

brief review of literature selected for its contribution to the SPATIAL model (see Fulton and Hiemstra, this volume, for an annotated bibliography of additional sources).

Organizational training environments is a major research interest and has been well reported in the literature. Propst (1974, p. 609) has summarized one problem in the study of physical environments: "How well do we know the school or the workplace? They have suffered from being too close and too familiar--literally under our noses, within sight and touch. Little attention has been paid to the physical environment because of overfamiliarity with its overt characteristics but also because of the tendency of physical arrangements to static formality. There is also a widespread assumption that physical settings have little impact on organizational functioning."

In the early 1970s, the concept of office landscape became prominent, especially in German studies. Brooks and Kaplan (1972, p. 373) assumed that "there is evidence that the physical environment does affect human behavior and perception." Viewing the person as apart of the environment, Goulette (1970, p. 40) claimed that "consideration of these differences [among individuals] by the instructor will inevitably result in happier and more satisfied students." Swor (1987, p. 92) claimed that "trainers and meeting planners need to consider the overall impression a facility makes on participants--both inside and outside the meeting room. The environment created by the sum of these subjective design considerations either helps or hinders the ultimate goal: successful meetings." Finkel (1984, p. 32) called for "learning-engineered" environments because "if we specify the environment completely enough, we can predict human behavior exactly."

Learning styles also have been analyzed in relation to the physical environment. Golay (1982) called for a balance between classroom design and instructional activity to increase student achievement. Dunn and Dunn (1978) proposed a theory that includes environmental, emotional, sociological, and physical stimuli as elements of learning style. Environmental stimuli are exterior to the person and include sound, light, temperature, and design. Physical stimuli are seen as internal and include perceptions (per the five human senses), intake, time, and mobility. Dunn, Beaudry, and Klavas (1989, p. 50) have claimed that "studies conducted during the last decade have found that students' achievement increases when teaching methods match their learning styles." Those methods include important environmental factors that are often overlooked in educational planning.

Several studies, both in higher education settings and in primary and secondary schools, have established a relationship between place or space and learning. In stating that "the physical arrangement of most college classrooms reveals much about the learning process" (Becker, Sommer, Bee, and Oxley, 1973, p. 514), the authors concluded that "our data support the notion that simply altering the physical structure, without an accompanying

Page 17

change in the social structure, will not produce real change" (p. 523). In a Canadian study, Gifford (1976) found that communicative behavior was adversely affected by negative feelings derived from the inhospitable physical attributes of the college classroom. Wollin and Montagne (1981, p. 713) found that "the background of an interaction between a teacher and student can have a strong effect on the quality of that interaction."

Studies presenting data on how individuals conceptualize the physical environment can help us build models. Getzels (1974, p. 529) offered four types of classroom designs that correspond to four "different beliefs and conceptions-the visions-of the child as learner." The rectangular classroom of the turn of the century was for the empty learner. The square classroom with moveable furnishings served the active learner. The circular classroom with opportunity for interpersonal interaction supported the social learner. Finally, the open classroom, which appears at times to be chaotic and sensory-enriched, facilitated the stimulus-seeking learner.

In declaring that "little systematic attention has been paid to the role that the physical environment (the built or constructed environment) might play in the process of instruction," David (1979, p. 1) noted that "environments don't teach per se, and it is unlikely that variations in physical setting alone within broadly defined limits of human tolerance should have a significant impact on student achievement (although some investigators have sought to establish such a link)." Studies that actually have focused on changes in learning behaviors when physical environment attributes were modified are often inconclusive or contradictory. If David's concerns are correct, this ambiguity is to be expected. As Johnson (1973, p. 1) has described, "The relationship between the physical, the social, and the psychological factors that make the total environment and the extent to which the single variables that compromise each of these factors bear upon the total matrix of a class is less than clear. One reason for this lack of clarity stems from the general tendency of educators to ignore or outright reject the role the environment might play in the dynamics of learning or teaching."

The appearance of the "open school" led Proshansky and Wolfe (1974, p. 557) to state that "the crucial issue is the relationship between the philosophy of education and how the physical setting can be used to implement that philosophy. They suggested that the physical design offers a "symbolic message of what one expects to happen in a particular place" (p. 558). McVey (1971, p. 5) outlined how sensory factors were important to school learning environments, observing that "traditionally, teachers have depended upon their own common sense observations of how sensory stimuli work in the learning environment. Some of the research findings . . . confirm such observations; other findings provide new information and insights."

The adult education literature has paid only brief attention to the relationship of physical setting to learning. In the 1950s and 1960s, certain

Page 18

members of the Adult Education Association of the United States of America were actively investigating this relationship. White, for example, (1972) saw one-fourth of learning as dependent on the facility. Later, Hiemstra (1976) viewed the environment as important to the task of sustaining the learner's commitment. Vosko (1984) concluded from a review of the literature that while physical environment does affect activity and productivity, how it does so depends on the learners' perceptions. Concern for the older learner and the physiological changes of aging have led some adult educators to recommend changes in the physical environment to compensate for learner deficiencies (Borthwick, 1983; Verner and Davison, 1971).

Often the physical environment is presented as one of many tools that an educator can manipulate in instructional design. Looking at the physical environment from an administrative point of view, Lane and Lewis (1971, p. 97) acknowledged that "requirements for physical facilities for an adult learning laboratory will vary with the purpose of the laboratory, its organizational affiliation, and the availability of space." Lane and Lewis (1971, pp. 91-92) also assumed that "adults are more likely to be influenced by their surroundings than children and their motivation may be increased through adequate space, appealing decoration, and useable furnishings." Langerman (1974, p. 43) emphasized the physical environment as one of several components of a total learning environment: "Of no little importance and perhaps the first component to be considered is the physical environment."

This brief literature review supports the concept that the physical environment is an important element in instructional activity. However, neither learning nor physical environment is a single-sided concept. Both have multiple dimensions that must be understood holistically in order to capture the true nature of the relationship of physical space to learning.


In attempting to synthesize prior research findings in order to develop a new conceptual model for understanding the physical environment in learning, I realized that the model must allow for multiple types of learning environments; it can not just apply to classrooms. The model also must address the complex nature of relationships between physical settings and learning activities by allowing for interaction among several variables, including both the physical dimensions of a space as instructional variables and the multidimensional outcomes of learning. The SPATIAL model is a preliminary effort to better understand the physical environment and the complex interactions with learning activities. It accomplishes this task by hypothesizing that (1) individual perceptions of space affect learner satisfaction, participation, and achievement; (2) certain aspects of a space, as perceived by learners, are subjective or beyond the visible physical attributes; and (3) authority and layout are external realities that can be changed. The SPATIAL model thus establishes three levels at which to con-

Page 19

sider the relationship of physical environment to learning, thereby serving as a tool for future study and discussion.

Learning as Satisfaction, Participation, and Achievement. The first level defines learning. For design clarity, studies often measure learning in terms of some single dimension of achievement. However, the SPATIAL model defines learning as three-dimensional. Satisfaction is an intrinsic measure of how pleased or fulfilled a learner is with an activity. Participation is a measure of how engaged a learner is with an activity. For example, both physical presence and time-on-task can be measures of participation. Achievement is a measure of progress toward one or more learning goals. These three dimensions are seen as interrelated, and although they can be measured individually, all need to be assessed when measuring learning.

Physical attributes can affect the three learning dimensions simultaneously, yet in opposite directions. For instance, a particular seating arrangement may increase satisfaction but may decrease participation if a certain learner wants to remain relatively anonymous in a new setting. Or a multisensory presentation may increase achievement while decreasing a person's satisfaction if a nonpreferred learning style is engaged. Thus, the educator must always bear in mind the potential enhancement and detraction from learning that any changes to the physical environment can simultaneously enact.

Transcendent and Immanent Attributes. The second level in the SPATIAL model addresses reality. Several of the studies reviewed earlier here, and many that were not, deal with aspects of the physical environment that transcend the individual learner's control. Temperature, lighting, density, noise levels, and seating arrangements are all objective realities of the setting. These attributes normally exist independently of any particular individual, and each can be measured objectively on some scale. However, many studies have established that these realities are tempered by the immanent perceptions of humans in the environment. The processing of stimuli into perceptions adds environmental components that are subjective and unique to each individual.

Thus, both the transcendent and immanent attributes of the setting are, by this account, in healthy tension with each other. Educators of adults need to address these two realities in educational planning. For example, the facilitator should ensure that transcendent attributes such as furnishings, space, lighting, and ventilation are examined and altered if necessary. However, activities such as environmental analysis and visualization in which participants focus on their own evaluations of the environment can be used to address immanent perceptions of physical space.

Authority and Layout of the Physical Environment. The third level of the SPATIAL model addresses the nature or locus of control. Authority is one of the messages of the physical environment. That is, the power of learners to assess the adequacy of a place and to change attributes of the physical environment varies across settings. For example, an environment can be authoritarian or institutionalized in nature, affording learners little

Page 20

power for change, as when windows are sealed shut or when heating is automatically turned off at a certain hour. On the other hand, some aspects of an environment are within a learner's control, such as movable and adjustable furnishings. The relationship of authority to physical environment is very much contingent on the educational philosophy and purposes of an instructor and on whether or not learners are encouraged to take more control of their own environments.

Layout of the learning environment causes the many structural attributes of a place. Heating, ventilation, air conditioning, type of lighting, furniture, audiovisual equipment, and the human bodies occupying the space are all part of the layout. But also included are learning purposes, which determine many physical dimension requirements. For instance, Vosko (1984) describes how a sociopetal seating arrangement (a semicircular seating arrangement that facilitates face-to-face sightlines among learners) enhances participation when discussion is the purpose.

When layout alone is examined, as has too often been the case, the question of how a learning environment is controlled is often ignored. The interrelationship of authority and layout allows for a more complete understanding of how a particular educational setting might be perceived by certain learners. Knowles (1980) told the story of a program's failure to attract students because the building smelled too much like a school to potential adult learners, suggesting that they recalled earlier times when they had little power to affect change or control aspects of the physical layouts of their learning environments.

Ideas for Practice

Use of the SPATIAL model to understand the relationship of physical environment to learning means that adult educators can examine the appropriateness of a learning situation in various ways. Emphasis can be placed on the structural reality as well as on individuals' perceptions of those realities. Thus, if nothing can be done to change a particular attribute, attention can be given to altering individuals' perceptions of it. For example, if a room has a high density, the task is to transform feelings of crowdedness into feelings of closeness and cooperation among the learners. In most settings, individuals' expressed needs for personal space can help the group interact more effectively through mutual respect of these space requirements.

The components of this model also allow practitioners several potential avenues for improving adult learning; they permit researchers to delineate the variables being studied in new ways. But both practitioners and researchers must bear in mind that the total effect of the learning place cannot be understood by anyone single SPATIAL component. In this model the whole is truly greater than the sum of its parts. Thus, the model encourages qualitative analysis of several interactions, as informed by assessments of component parts. Several questions that educators and learners can address are shown in Exhibit 1. The reader is challenged to add to the list.

Page 21

Exhibit 1. Checklist for Addressing SPATIAL Needs

Satisfaction, Participation, and Achievement

_____  1. Have learners been asked how satisfied they are with the space being used?

_____  2. Have distracting physical features been removed or eliminated whenever possible?

_____  3. Do learners stay on task in the setting that is provided?

_____  4. Does body language indicate a desire to leave?

_____  5. Does the place allow learners to use appropriate learning strategies?

_____  6. Can auditory, tactile, and visual learning styles be used?

Transcendent and Immanent

_____  7. Are the location and room size appropriate for the planned learning activities?

_____  8. Do the furnishings "fit" the people who will be using them?

_____  9. What messages about learning could be assumed by the learners from the condition of the space?

_____10. Is there potential for some individuals to be challenged or offended by some aspect of the space?

Authority and Layout

_____11. Can changes be made in the learning environment?

_____12. Who can make changes?

_____13. Does the space meet minimal safety and comfort standards?

_____14. Are necessary special requirements such as appropriate audiovisual equipment available?


Becker, F., Sommer, R., Bee, J., and Oxley, B. "College Classroom Ecology." Sociometry, 1973, 36, 514-525.

Borthwick, T. Educational Programs and the Older Adult. Davis: Experiential Learning Project, University of California at Davis, 1983.

Brooks, M., and Kaplan, A. "The Office Environment: Space Planning and Affective Behavior." Human Factors, 1972, 14, 373-391.

David, T. "Students' and Teachers' Reactions to Classroom Environment." Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Chicago, 1979.

Dunn, R., Beaudry, J., and Klavas, A. "Survey of Research on learning Styles." Educational Leadership, 1989, 46(6), 50-58.

Dunn, R., and Dunn, K. Teaching Students Through Their Individual Learning Styles: A Practical Approach. Reston, Va.: Reston, 1978.

Finkel, C. "Where Learning Happens." Training and Development Journal, 1984, 38(4), 32-36.

Getzels, J. "Images of the Classroom and Visions of the Learner." School Review, 1974, 82, 527-540.

Gifford, R. "Environmental Numbness in the Classroom." Journal of Experimental Education, 1976, 44(3), 4-7.

Golay, K. Learning Patterns and Temperament Styles. Newport Beach, Calif.: ManasSystems, 1982.

Goulette, G. "Physical Factors to Consider When Training Adults." Training and Development Journal, 1970, 24(7), 40-43.

Page 22

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

Johnson, R. "The Effects of Four Modified Elements of a Classroom's Physical Environment on the Social-Psychological Environment of a Class." Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Oregon State University, 1973.

Knowles, M. S. The Modern Practice of Adult Education: From Pedagogy to Andragogy. (Rev ed.) New York: Cambridge University Press, 1980.

Lane, C., and Lewis, R. Guidelines for Establishing and Operating an Adult Learning Laboratory. Raleigh: North Carolina State University School of Education, 1971.

Langerman, P. (ed.). You Can Be a Successful Teacher of Adults. Washington, D.C.: National Association for Public Continuing and Adult Education, 1974.

McVey, G. Sensory Factors in the School Learning Environment: What Research Says to the Teacher. National Education Association Report, series no. 35. Washington, D.C.: National Education Association, 1971.

Propst, R. "Human Needs and Working Places." School Review, 1974, 82, 608-616.

Proshansky, E., and Wolfe, M. "The Physical Setting and Open Education." School Review, 1974, 82, 556-574.

Swor, J. "Site Design: Meeting of the Minds." Training, 1987, 24(12), 89-92.

Verner, C., and Davison, C. Physiological Factors in Adult Learning and Instruction. Tallahassee: Research Information Processing Center, Department of Adult Education, Florida State University, 1971.

Vosko, R. S. "Shaping Spaces for Lifelong Learning." Lifelong Learning, 1984, 9(1), 4-7, 28.

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

Weinstein, C. "Classroom Design as an External Condition for Learning." Educational Technology, 1981, 21, 12-19.

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.

Wollin, D., and Montagne, M. "College Classroom Environment: Effects of Sterility Versus Amiability on Student and Teacher Performance." Environment and Behavior, 1981, 13, 707-716.


Rodney D. Fulton holds master's degrees in psychology and adult and higher education. He is adjunct instructor in the Department of Education and staff member in the College of Nursing, Montana State University, Bozeman. During much of the past three years he has explored the physical environment in learning.

July, 2001

-- 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 Three, Chapter Four, Chapter Five, Chapter Six, Chapter Seven, Chapter Eight, Chapter Nine, Chapter Ten, or The Index.