Picture the University of Virginia's vast green lawns enclosed by red brick buildings or Harvard University's shady arcades. Great spots for socializing, napping or indulging a streaking tradition, but could they also be key to keeping students enrolled-and happy-at college?
Certainly, says psychologist Susan Painter, PhD, director of research and senior campus planner at the Los Angeles architectural firm AC Martin Partners and professor in the University of California, Los Angeles, interior design program. For example, in a study of traditional flat classrooms versus classrooms with tiered seats arranged in a horseshoe shape, students in the tiered rooms reported a more positive learning experience. Faculty reported that students paid more attention in the tiered rooms, where students can readily see each other as well as the teacher. The tiered arrangement also encouraged student participation and commitment to the academic program, Painter found.
Painter and her sister and design partner, Constance Forrest, PsyD, will discuss how they apply psychological research to campus design during "Design Psychology: Integrating the Adolescent Brain, Campus Planning and the Emotional Power of Place" at APA's Annual Convention.
Painter and Forrest theorize that one reason behind the high college drop out rate-almost 50 percent-may be that students' brains aren't developed enough to manage the challenges of independent living. Though many students say they want to be treated as adults, neurobiological research shows that their brains and higher order executive functions such as planning, setting priorities and weighing consequences are still developing, say Painter and Forrest.
Painter and Forrest believe more students would stay in college if their campus environments were more secure, nurturing and designed to foster social connections. In particular, Painter is a proponent of the residential college model typified by the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge, where students live and learn in close contact with faculty in an almost extended-family environment.
"Students will say, 'I want my own room,'" says Painter, who helped design campuses at several California State University schools, including Northridge, Chico and Fullerton, "but one of the things our clients have told us is that students who drop out of housing are more likely to be students living in single rooms."
The sisters also use cognitive anthropology and archaeology to examine how humans evolved within their social settings.
"Because humans didn't have huge jaws or big tusks or couldn't fly or run very fast, they had to use the physical environment as a tool for survival."
For example, early humans came toprefer environments that incorporate both "prospect" and "refuge," where they couldsee out over a long distance to anticipate what's coming, while at the same time being sheltered from approaching enemies or predators.
In their talk, Forrest and Painter will show how features of prospect and refuge-long views combined with sheltering buildings-are translated from the natural world into the built environment, such as at Harvard Yard.
"If you are translating this into the university experience, the classic quadrangle is a prospect and refuge situation," Painter says.