Image of Free State High School's Learning Commons (library/media center) with students studying together in a meeting room

Post Occupancy Evaluation, Phase 2: Free State High School Learning Commons

Study conducted by Dr. Michael Ralph and Brittany Coudriet, with support from Marisa Hegeman and Free State High School. July 26, 2023

The relationship between individuals and their environment is symbiotic. This is particularly evident in education spaces. Teachers, students, and guests occupying academic spaces respond to learning environments based on their agency, which London Psychologist James W. Moore called, the “feeling of being in the driving seat”. In 2019, Multistudio completed the Free State High School Learning Commons renovation project in Lawrence, Kansas which touched many parts of the school. The design’s primary goal was to relocate the school’s library from an auxiliary position to the heart of the school, affording greater opportunity and agency for curious learners. We documented the new space’s influence on student belonging and academic success through a series of focus groups with current Free State High School students.

The Results

Upon analyzing the data collected in focus groups, we identified three student-led themes:

  1. Affordances for Autistic Students
  2. Student Spatial Autonomy
  3. Unexpected Usage Patterns

Key Finding: Affordance for Autistic Students

During focus groups, approximately 30% of students spontaneously self-identified as Autistic. The Learning Commons serves as a safe space for students with autism visually, auditorily, and socially. Students had the ability to work ‘alone-together.’ Working alone together meant they could focus on schoolwork without the implicit expectation to socialize, but also have spontaneous opportunities to do so. Folks with hypersensitivity to sound and light also found opportunities for respite in the diversity of spaces available in the Learning Commons.

“It’s very quiet… It really is good with noise.”
—Free State High School Student

Key Finding: Student Spatial Autonomy

The Learning Commons became the heart of the school, meeting a major project goal in the renovation. Some students utilized the space academically – seeking study spaces or tables for small working groups. Others sought comfortable, social spaces for reading, media consumption, or casual meeting. The flexibility of the spaces resulted in students uncovering unexpected opportunities in the ever-changing communal environment.

“I appreciate this is more flexible for everybody. Look at us, we all fit in here really easily. It was easy to carry chairs in here. I like it a lot.”
—Free State High School Student

Key Finding: Unexpected Usage Patterns

The Learning Commons project completed in Fall 2019, which meant it was occupied amid multiple major changes in how the school operated. First and foremost was the unfortunate surprise of COVID-19 which affected students and educators alike. Societal disruptions from the pandemic began shortly after completing renovations. Changes in school operation to support public health made things like class visits more difficult, but it also made the ability to spread out within the Learning Commons much more valuable. This kind of flexibility resulted in an increase in book circulation even while COVID disruptions were still significant in 2021.

Another shift was the implementation of Flex-Mod scheduling: a surprise to designers and school personnel alike! Flex-Mod scheduling uses very short class chunks to build student schedules. These small chunks presented more opportunities for students to schedule independent time in their day, which resulted in higher foot traffic in the Learning Commons. Surges in traffic strained staff’s ability to safely supervise the space. Consequently, school personnel needed to use security gates when designers had not expected: during the day.

“There’s one thing I would change: I would have the gates open.”
—Free State High School Student

Related Posts

This was Phase 2 of the Post Occupancy Evaluation for the Free State High School Learning Commons. Read more in this series by clicking below. If you’re interested in an impact study or Post Occupancy Evaluation for your project, please contact [email protected].

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