Graphical user interface, diagram.

Can we enhance student living environments to better respond to the needs of today’s students?

Research Project Name

Remaking Student Living

What We Did

We conducted a three-year study focused on student life on university campuses, and the role of the residence hall in fostering student success. In the first phase of our research, we examined the study habits of high school seniors using surveys, focus groups, and one-on-one interviews to document their preferred methods of learning before attending university.

We then conducted surveys, focus groups, and meetings with university students and administrators to understand challenges that current college students face regarding studying and focusing specific to their living situations. Ultimately, we used this information to identify areas for improvement, measure students’ perceptions of the on-campus living experience, and understand the challenges faced by facilities and building managers as solutions are developed.

The Context

For most university students, moving to college—and into the dorms—offers a new sense of independence and personal responsibility. On-campus residences embody a culture that is uniquely social, encouraging casual interactions in an environment focused both on learning and socializing. But with the exception of the amenity-rich, suite-style student residences that began to emerge in the 1990s, the design of most dormitories does not reflect this cultural and social experience. The dorms that most first-year students enter today have seen little change since their parents attended college in the 1970s: cell-block rooms with two beds, two desks, two dressers, and two shelves.

Are today’s digital native students—along with their unique, technology-driven study habits and social preferences—able to make the most of the spaces they’re given? Gensler’s prior research into student study habits identified a key problem—great study spaces are hard to find on campus. Sixty-eight percent of students reported a preference for quiet space, while only 39 percent reported that the space where they studied recently was actually quiet. And, while the library was their first choice for quiet study time, most students were not satisfied with its acoustics, availability of space, or hours of operation. Their other preferred learning space? The dormitory.

The Results

Our research suggests that the residence hall is an overlooked and underutilized asset in an integrated campus network, one that could bridge common gaps in student needs. The academic potential of the student residence is too often overshadowed by its real estate efficiency and social amenities. Residence halls should transform living spaces into something more academically productive, socially dynamic, and culturally rich. Great dorms have the potential to make the student experience more successful, memorable, meaningful, and satisfying.

We also identified key attributes that a successful student living environment must embody. For one, students have strong differences in learning styles and social styles. These not only differ between individuals, but also evolve as priorities shift from acclimating to campus culture and making connections, to the academic rigor near the end of a semester. Rooms must be adaptable to support this variety in work styles, priorities, and activities—one size does not fit all.

The residence hall also proves to be an essential component for students’ informal learning and personal growth. Well-being and student success happen when social and academic needs are managed in tandem, which can be a challenge for many students in their first time away from home. The residence hall can benefit from spaces that help students balance the new demands of college and foster a culture of choice, contemplation, and individuality.

What This Means

Allow students to “make their mark.” The dorm room is a place for them to simultaneously express their unique identity, while becoming a part of a larger campus culture. Students want to actively participate in the arrangement and configuration of their space.

Provide transitional spaces. Students need spaces that allow them to transition from social to private modes based on their individual personality type and learning style, often oscillating between these needs multiple times in a given day or week. This need to shift from social to private space increases over the progression of the semester.

Create simple and logical storage solutions. Most students won’t choose to be organized, but intuitive, effective design of the environment and furniture in the residence hall room can nudge students toward using their space more effectively. This can, in turn, have a positive impact on student behavior and learning outcomes.

Build flexibility into living and learning environments. Casual and adaptable furniture solutions create spaces that can be tailored to changing needs daily, weekly, and throughout the semester. Students love to study in casual lounging postures in semi-casual environments, giving them the ability to take breaks or snack periodically.

Break the mold of traditional dormitory furniture. The academic landscape is changing rapidly—furniture solutions need to follow suit. Students often need to pull away from the hectic pace of campus life and seek out places for quiet focus work. Residence hall furniture has the opportunity to provide a customizable, functional solution to meet this need, bridging academic performance and residence hall life.

What’s Next?

By looking at the intersections of the built environment, academic success, and user satisfaction, we hope to better understand the opportunities presented by the residence environment. Our team is currently designing and prototyping a collection of residence hall furniture for today’s students—a generation of young people who are tech-savvy, academically focused, and socially connected.

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Nila Leiserowitz, David Broz, Steven Meier, Nathan Cool, Jin Chung, Vanessa Churchill, Pamela Delphenich, Thomas Fernandez, Robert Mariduena, Beth Marrier, Sabrina Mason, Vanessa Passini

Year Completed