Space significantly influences attention and learning.

According to the 2014 Gallup Student Poll, just half of students in grades 5 through 12 are involved in and enthusiastic about school − engendering much debate about how this translates into the college years. Engagement, much like in the corporate world, has become a crucial focus as educators work towards preparing their students for the new creative economy.

Unfortunately, the task becomes more complicated when you take into account that students are all unique individuals with different backgrounds, personalities, skills, and interests. In an article published in Steelcase 360 Magazine (Issue 70), the editors looked at how space can help improve student attention, engagement and learning.

Andrew Kim, an education researcher on the Steelcase WorkSpace Futures team, noted that, “a big problem is that traditional learning experiences are not aligned with how the brain works, particularly as it relates to attention.” Through observation the team saw that students worldwide were scattered, pulled in competing directions by today’s technology. However, they discovered that space can be a defining factor in solving some of these problems.


The team developed 7 research based insights on attention and learning that can help level the playing field.

1. Attention is a variable commodity.
Although conventional wisdom says that average student attention spans are about 10 to 15 minutes long, it’s not quite that simple. In actuality, according to Kim, “attention varies based on the difficulty of the content and its relevance to the student, how conducive the environment is to paying attention, and each student’s ability to sustain attention in class.”

2. Active learning engenders attention.
Researchers have noted that there are fewer attention lapses during times of active learning or for instance when a lecture immediately followed a demonstration. This suggests that active learning may not only improve student engagement but also serve to refresh attention.

3. Novelty and change get attention.
Not surprisingly, when something new or different interrupts us we perk up. Our brains have evolved to stay vigilant in order to survive. When we pay attention to something new we are rewarded with a flood of chemicals like dopamine that make us feel good. The take-away? Shifting lesson plans and inserting physical, sensory or other cognitive stimulation throughout a lesson can keep students tuned in.

4. Physical movement fuels the brain.
This one is fairly straightforward – exercise pumps more oxygen to the brain stimulating it and improving cognition. Incorporating physical movement into the classroom can be a real boon to attention and focus.

5. Seat location affects attention.
Back of the class equals greater distraction according to researchers at Kennesaw State University. Yet, in an active learning classroom, where furniture can be easily reconfigured and the teacher can lead a discussion and share content from anywhere, every seat is the best in the room.

6. Environment influences thinking.
Much like in the workplace, students need spaces that alternately screen out distractions for focus work and concentration as well as spaces that can transform into collaborative spaces with lots of sensory stimulation.

7. Learning has a natural rhythm.
The brain needs rest and renewal throughout the day in order to remain attentive. If space and curriculum work together to support these natural rhythms by incorporating time/place for focus and interaction, individual and group work, socializing, rest and rejuvenation, then we can attain higher levels of attention and engagement.

Want to read the full article? You can find it in the Steelcase 360 Magazine, issue 70, entitled, “Think Better”.