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José Antonio Bowen’s view on designing for integrative learning

José Antonio Bowen

- Education

- Nov 29 2016

Teaching, building community and integrating learning are all design challenges. Our role as leaders is to help guide the design of systems that will increase desired behaviors. At Goucher College, we have found that an inclusive process and clearly set priorities help to create facilities that are welcomed by the community and designed to match the needs of the campus.

José Antonio Bowen

Ph.D., FRSA, President of Goucher College

The days of building raked lecture halls that face a massive podium are behind us. We know that the campus experience must be qualitative in order to retain students. So how can we design campuses to improve learning, engagement and provide space for integration?

We can start by looking both at retention and student development. Does the configuration of rooms, age of the building, proximity to the bathroom or the presence of faculty make a difference in retention? Looking both at our own data and at national data, we understood that students who feel engaged with the campus and have lots of friends are more likely to persist at the institution. So we asked students what amenities they wanted and when.

One of our primary goals was increasing faculty/student interaction

Students suggested making laundry rooms more visible. I think most of us remember the predicament of finding someone else’s washed clothes in the machine and trying to decide if we should check back every half-hour, or if we should risk touching someone else’s stuff. This was a dilemma because, who wants to hang out in the laundry room? So we put our laundry rooms next to the main lounge, and this seems to be working, as it has become a more social place.

The next step in the process was balancing what students wanted with what the data said was actually best for them, as well as the other goals we had. One of our primary goals was increasing faculty/student interaction—another key retention metric. Putting faculty apartments in each house was obvious, but we also talked a lot about what other academic functions might harmonize well with residential life. One of our experiments was to put faster Ethernet plugs only in the lounges. The building is completely wireless, but gamers use a lot of bandwidth. If they have the fastest Ethernet in their rooms, they might never leave, so we provided an extra incentive to come play games in a more communal public space. So far, students seem to be embracing this compromise.

Deciding not to charge more for nicer and newer rooms was an important decision for us as well. A segregated campus where wealthier students congregate in the more expensive halls seemed to go against one of the key missions and educational benefits of our institutions: the ability to learn with people from different backgrounds. If we are going to argue that diversity is important both for learning and for social justice, then it is hard to justify creating an internal class system.

There are many decisions to be made, but the process is key. Schools need a consistent steering committee; an architect who has designed recent residence halls, yet still “gets” your individual campus; total visibility and transparency; and, of course, input from students. Poll your students often about key decisions. When we asked students what they wanted and gave them choices about the décor, for example, we had the highest response rate to any survey administered in recent history.  

I feel that the changes we have made have yielded a spectacular response. Students are not only happier, but seem to be spending more time building community. And hopefully, we have also built spaces that will enhance learning on our campus.

Read more on how faculties design for integrative learning at President2President, a thought leadership series offering perspectives from university presidents for university presidents on the challenges faced in higher education.

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José Antonio Bowen’s view on designing for integrative learning

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