Combining worlds: a mixed method for understanding learning spaces

By Luke McCrone, Centre for Higher Education Research and Scholarship

This blog reports on a mixed method approach combining qualitative methods with space occupancy datasets recently published in a research article in the International Journal for Qualitative Methods. The mixed method was developed in my doctoral research (supervised by Professor Martyn Kingsbury) which explored how undergraduate students perceive and engage with different learning spaces and the transitions between them.

Framing the challenge

With increases in hybrid learning since the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been an increase in learning in ‘informal’ spaces outside of formal settings (like classrooms and laboratories) in which students self-direct their learning.

The need to understand how students are engaging with these formal and informal learning spaces stems from a need to understand the challenges and opportunities different students face in navigating the different learning spaces available to them, both on and off campus. There is also a need for institutions like Imperial to be more strategic in how they invest intensive capital budgets into maintaining and modernising learning spaces.

We identified the following challenges when trying to understand how students are really engaging with learning spaces:

  1. Students are learning ubiquitously and increasingly outside of formal, timetabled spaces which are able to be more easily monitored than informal learning spaces
  2. Students have different individual needs, as well as more choice in how and where they learn within hybrid modes, making the learning experience less uniform across the student body
  3. Understanding the intention and behaviour of students is difficult using only one method. For example, using only interviews can mean that students report what they think they do in learning spaces, as opposed to what they actually do. Likewise, using observation methods alone can help to overcome this self-reporting bias from interview, yet is limited in being able to capture contextual detail about participants or their behavioural intentions.

Addressing the challenge

The ubiquity of learning requires us as researchers to be more evidence-informed and strategic in how and where we collect data about student learning. To observe students in every informal learning space on campus at all times is labour-intensive and impractical. On the other hand, to make assumptions about learning behaviour from anonymised occupancy datasets is reductive and equally unhelpful.

Phenomenology posits that the best way to understand human phenomena is by studying different levels of experience from different perspectives. The mixed method approach introduced in this research article combined anonymised occupancy monitoring data with naturalistic ethnographic observation, field interviews and more formal in-depth interviews (see diagram below).

With progression through the mixed method from top (occupancy monitoring) to bottom (in-depth interviews), the approach becomes increasingly qualitative, focussed and time-/resource-intensive. In the reverse direction, the approach becomes more quantitative, 24/7, anonymous and time-/resource-efficient, given the growing capabilities of technologies like automated occupancy monitoring.

The strength of the ‘convergent mixed methods’ design is that the data analysed from one method layer feeds into and informs the approach to data collection in the method layer below. For instance, rather than aimlessly turn up to observe activity in learning spaces as often as possible, occupancy data can first be used alongside timetable data to identify cohort-level behavioural patterns which are worthy of further investigation with observation. The research questions ultimately guide what constitutes ‘interesting’ patterns of behaviour, in the same way the researcher will be selective about who and when to approach for field interviews during observation of learning spaces.

Looking forward

Increases in hybrid learning at Imperial and across the sector are requiring educators, designers and managers to rethink how we conceptualise, understand and design learning spaces. This mixed method is a ‘tried and tested’ attempt at responding to this need. There may be further opportunities to apply this mixed method to inform and evaluate future Imperial space developments, at which point we look forward to reporting back!

We welcome any feedback or questions regarding the mixed method or research article. Please get in touch!,