Creating a Learning Commons for SUNY IT

Written for Jill Hurst-Wahl’s Spring 2011 IST 613 Library Planning, Marketing, and Assessment class at Syracuse University.

Creating a Learning Commons for SUNY IT

A Literature Review

Patricia Alvayay
Tessa Brawley
Allison Kowalski
Margaret Portier 

Table of Contents



A current trend in education is constructivist learning, which is “a philosophy which asserts that real understanding and knowledge are constructed through personal experience and reflection rather than conveyed passively through a classroom lecture” (Sinclair, 2007). As the idea of learning has evolved, so has the meaning of the library. Traditionally, libraries supported learning by making information and resources available to students in support of student curriculum, as specified by instructors. However, some universities and colleges across the United States are transforming the library into the heart of student learning, where students make one stop to receive writing assistance, ask technology questions, grab coffee or work on group projects.

The learning commons is rapidly becoming a strong foundation and necessity for incorporating professor/student, student/student, student/librarian and student/technology dynamics into the learning process. With increased needs for skills in information literacy, research skills and technical knowledge, a learning commons provides a place where students gain these skills, which will ultimately help them learn to work independently and collaboratively in groups. Through planning, marketing and assessment, libraries and their partners can develop a learning commons that meets the needs and wants of users. With needs and wants in mind, and marketed correctly, the learning commons can become the hub for student learning and activity, while honing skills that help students in jobs and life after college.

Since libraries are viewed as information centers, learning behaviors developed in academic settings are often individual-based, rather than community-based. Where social-learning environments are available, learning commons “facilitate collaborative learning and satisfy students’ desire to mix social interaction with work” (McMullen, 2008).  For example, the first project of Vicki J. Carter, a librarian from Lower Columbia College, was to act as tutoring coordinator and incorporate tutoring services in the learning commons. Instead of just peer-to-peer mentoring training each tutor must receive, Carter decided they should be trained in library skills, as well (Carter, 2010). That way, there would be no divide between tutors and librarians, who share the same space; they would be partners to create a learning environment. Also, students who needed tutors would visit the library and gain exposure to other services in the learning commons. Now, at this learning commons, “tutors are key partners in introducing students to the role the library plays in helping them develop skills in information literacy” (Carter, 2010). As Carter’s example shows, different services offered in the learning commons expose students and faculty to additional facilities, and encourages community-based learning behaviors on campus.


In transitioning from the traditional academic library to the learning-commons model, individuals involved must undergo the planning process and development of a project plan. One of the first steps in the planning process is to earn support for the learning commons from the university community as a whole. Gaining this university-wide support is crucial to a successful project plan: “The implementation of a learning commons will have minimal impact on student learning if it is not part of a university-wide movement towards learning-oriented and learner-centered education” (Gabb & Keating, 2005). Achieving this support is attained by ensuring project goals align with the mission of the university. “The learning commons must be strategically aligned with the university’s core values and learning-centered goals. A clearly articulated vision, a philosophy of service and a charter plan that incorporates cross-campus constituencies and puts student learning at its focus are essential to the success of the learning commons model” (McMullen, 2008). Once the university proves demonstrated support of the project, the planning of the learning commons can move forward.

The backing of the university is not the only support needed to move forward with the planning process. Because the learning commons is a hybrid model that combines services of different campus facilities to support students, all members must be involved to stage the project plan. Working with partners in a planning committee format helps librarians to avoid simply redesigning a new library space: “Identifying and working with partners early in the planning process helps [librarians] to move away from a library-centric approach and think more holistically about the spaces and the services that support the university’s mission and vision” (McMullen, 2008). Collaboration between members involved in the planning of the learning commons is also crucial to defining the ultimate success of the space: “Collaboration among faculty, librarians and other academic support staff has long been understood to be a key factor in successful information literacy programs and is the distinguishing factor in…[the] definition of the learning commons” (Bennett, 2008).

Next, members of the planning committee can actively begin determining user needs for the space. While it is easy to begin speculating about physical aspects of the new space, the planning committee should first consider what are the “types of activities that users will be engaged in and what services will be needed to support those activities” (McMullen, 2008). In order to make the library commons a place that students will want to visit, we should ask “what should happen in the space,” rather than “what should be in [the] space” (Beagle, 2006). Since it is difficult to determine whether your library learning commons meets your expectations in terms of what should happen in the learning commons, Sinclair offers further questions to help evaluate the current library environment:

How well do these environments currently support social learning and promote collaborative work? To what extent do they employ flexible design and take advantage of wireless technology? Do they encourage creativity and discovery and inspire users? Do they offer services and features that students don’t already have in campus residence halls and computer labs?” (Sinclair, 2007).

Determining the needs of the future users of the learning commons and how the new space will support those needs are important considerations to explore before assessing the physical planning of the space.

After the user needs and reasons for implementing the learning commons are understood, the planning committee can begin to address the physical requirements of the new learning commons: “Learning spaces are not mere containers for a few, approved activities; instead, they provide environments for people” (Brown & Long, 2006). While the physical planning of the space can begin from many directions, a learning-centered approach is preferable: “If … we work with academic units and officers across the campus to design the commons primarily with the intention that learning will happen there, we are much more likely to see that magical moment when students, building on work begun in the classroom, take responsibility for and control over their own learning” (Bennett, 2008). There is a great need on university campuses for learning commons designed to support the collaborative learning that is increasingly emphasized in undergraduate curriculum (Gabb & Keating, 2005). Most learning commons models recognize the need for collaborative and independent study and accommodate these different needs with “a variety and hierarchy of spaces dependent on the activity required from quiet to busy, from long-term to short-term seating, from individual to group” (Gabb & Keating, 2005).

One issue the planning committee needs to consider is how to encourage students to use the new learning commons after its development. A learning commons will only appeal to students if its services are not already offered elsewhere on campus. Appealing to all students might appear impossible, as the composition of a college campus can be quite diverse. This is why the library must target its services to groups of people. “To be more than an auxiliary student center, a library needs to be more than a place to study with wireless networking, good lighting, a café, and comfortable furniture” (Holmgren, 183). A learning commons should provide individual services, such as tutoring, but also group workspaces, support for student for disabilities, library instruction and other useful services.

However, planning to offer a number of student services is often not enough for a new learning commons. Those involved in the planning must ensure the faculty is aware of the services that will be offered, so they will in turn recommend those services to students. It is vital to note why it is needed to involve the professors while planning the learning commons: if its development is collaborative, faculty will care if the learning commons succeeds because they will have a stake in it (Holmgren, 184-185).  The best way to safeguard the permanence of the learning commons is to attract first-year students. If a library can attract incoming freshmen to see the value of the learning commons, they will be likely to use the space throughout their academic career. Better yet, the planning committee might suggest that professors make it a requirement for students to visit the learning commons to complete certain assignments. This would give students exposure to a service they may not have used or known about otherwise. Ultimately, planning a learning commons with collaboration, university support and student needs in mind will make the space attractive to all users and will make its realization attainable.


Promoting the learning commons is an additional step in the process. If the plan is not properly marketed, then no one will be aware of or use the new service, so effort and time would be wasted. With an effective marketing plan and message that sticks, it should be simple to promote the service so patrons use it. “Something that sticks is something that’s noticed. It’s the idea that grabs attention and secures a foothold inside people’s heads. What sticks achieves the most precious and elusive of all marketing feats-it gets remembered” (Heath & Heath, 2007, 21). However, the first step in creating an effective plan is to understand who the audience is and how they receive information. Each audience and stakeholder is unique, with different needs and wants. A freshman in college may hear about library services through Facebook, while a non-traditional student may read online newsletters or look to e-mail blasts for information. Once it is understood how the target audience operates and receives information, a marketing plan can be developed that will effectively promote the new library service.

One way to market a library service is to utilize social-media networks to interact with the target audience. You can “reach out to leading bloggers and communities in the niche … [and] use word-of-mouth over website, blogs, Twitter” (Porter & King, 2011). If the audience frequently uses social media for education and to keep up-to-date with information, it might be prudent for a library to join social-media networks in order to connect and reach their target audiences. If the messages are simple, engaging and direct, promoting a new library service through social media should be easy and inexpensive.

An additional way to market services is to use the home website. Students often look at websites for information about library hours, directories and available databases. If a central area for news and new services is highlighted, patrons could be directed to read for further information, but it’s important to remember to design a web page that draws patrons in. “Don’t be shy using your website to market a new service. Make an ad, create a widget that highlights information and use that homepage with focused graphics. Also, highlight the new service on other web pages” (Porter & King, 2011). However, some patrons may not use the web to obtain information, so it’s important to find a way to market to these audiences. Instead of heavily relying on the Internet and social-media networks to gather information, traditional marketing could work just as effectively. This could include posters, newsletters and simple word-of-mouth to spread information about a learning commons and its services in the library.

In order to market to infrequent web-users, it is recommended to observe where these people gather in the community. “Go where your community already gathers. Do they use Facebook? Then by all means, go there. Do they gather at the post office? Then by all means, figure out how to get something there” (Porter & King, 2011). No community will have exact ways to gather information, but understanding where the majority of an audience gathers helps to create an effective marketing plan that draws them to utilize a new library service. Still, no matter who the target audience is, it is vital to create a marketing plan that people will remember. If a plan is complex and wordy, target audiences will not bother reading it; thus, the library service will not be properly marketed, and worse, not utilized. If marketers for the service or program take time to look at audience characteristics and formulate a marketing message around those needs and wants, the message will stick, and people will become aware of the new library service or program.


After planning and marketing a learning commons, it is imperative to assess its services to see if it matches user needs. Without assessment, it is near-to-impossible to formulate plans for future development and changes that will benefit users in the learning commons. Information in assessment should include who visits the learning commons and how often, what services are and are not used and what products or services are wanted or required for the future. It is important to understand what is working in a learning commons, so those features could be enhanced, but it is equally important to see what services are not working so funds and efforts could be focused in more productive means.

In 2006, UMASS Amherst Learning Commons created a 23-question survey, and administered it to its library patrons in order to access its services and discover what enhancements could be made to the library’s learning commons. The chief purpose of the survey was to determine if current services and resources met needs of patrons, who utilized the learning commons. Questions on the survey included “How do users want to receive research assistance and technology support,” “What activities do users say they perform in the library building and what services currently offered do they say they use” and “What improvements or additions do users think should be made to existing services, facilities and technologies?” (Moore & Wells, 2009). Out of 3,750 surveys administered that day, the library received more than 700 responses rating services of the learning commons.

In fall 2005, UMASS opened its learning commons doors to more than 20,000 students. Hundreds of computers were available for students, as well as seating areas for study groups. According to the survey, the implementation of the writing center at the learning commons was one of the most successful and widely-used services. Previously located in another building on campus, the writing center did not receive as many visitors until it moved to the learning commons. “The number of one-on-one tutoring sessions jumped to 33% in the first semester of service in the learning commons,” and students declared the writing center “has been very helpful to [their] writing skills” and it is the “prime contributor to [their] academic success.” (Moore & Wells, 2009). Also, numerous survey respondents requested increased hours at the writing center.

Another service students found helpful included roving librarians. When librarians rove, they are able to connect and reach out to students who may be hesitant to ask for help at a reference desk, or may not know what questions to ask. When librarians visit students in the learning commons or among the stacks, they ask students if they need assistance for a project. A large number of students found this service useful because it helped them find research and answers to questions. Student responses included: “It was helpful because if I need help, I might not want to get up and lose my place, or I might not know who to see” and “I appreciate the offer I think it is great, especially for people who do not want to lose their spot, leave their stuff unattended, or are too timid to ask for help” (Moore & Wells, 2009). This face-to-face interaction between library staff and students proved to be a valuable and wanted service because it provided students with assistance and forged connections between personnel and students.

After discovering what services were used and popular within the learning commons, UMASS patrons suggested a number of enhancements that would further create an optimal learning environment for library users. These included improvements to instruction, services, technologies and facilities:

Respondents said they wanted more: computers, equipment, software, electricity, wireless access, laptops to borrow, food and drink choices, space, seating, quiet study and staff. They wanted to meet with representatives of academic departments or majors. They desired several policy changes: time limits on workstations, reservations and behavior policy enforcement. Respondents wanted assistance with and instruction in study skills, time management, and software applications while in the learning commons. They specifically requested workshops on library research, source evaluation, writing and bibliography creation, Web design and overcoming math anxiety” (Moore & Wells, 2009).

Lastly, an additional way to assess the success of the use of the learning commons was to monitor traffic in and out of the library and compare it to previous years. Because there were a number of new services in the learning commons at UMASS, it was no surprise that activity and visitations at the library increased. In the 2007 fiscal year, visits to the library increased around 81%, with around 20-70% increase monthly. “The gate count for March 2006 [the month the survey was administered] was 73% higher than in March 2005” (Moore & Wells, 2009). Through this count, it is evident increased traffic was present at Amherst because of the learning commons. Because of increased services offered in the library, students do not have to travel far for assistance or places to study.


Universities create learning commons out of a desire to create a “destination and space that students actually want to use and ‘be’ in,” while also providing the services and information needed for students to succeed (Steiner & Holley, 2009). Of course, there are always difficulties in developing learning commons, space and budget notwithstanding. These difficulties can be overcome through a partnership with students, faculty and library staff. There will always be people and campus organizations that resist change and collaboration, but “regardless of the challenges and difficulties that can be encountered when implementing a commons, the response has been overwhelmingly positive” (Steiner & Holley, 2009). A learning commons cannot be merely a nice place to sit and study; it must also be a “catalyst for change” (Steiner & Holley, 2009). By creating a new kind of space through collaboration and integration of campus services with the access to library resources, the learning commons prompts the evolution of the learning environment into a charged and exciting place for students to participate in their own learning processes.


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Beagle, D. (2006). The information commons handbook. New York: Neal-Schuman Publishers.

Bennett, S. (2008). The information or the learning commons: Which will we have? The Journal of Academic Librarianship, 34 (3), 183-185.

Brown, M., & Long, P. (2006). Trends in learning space design. In G. D. Oblinger (Ed.), Learning Spaces (pp. 116-126). Educause.

Carter, V. (2010). Not buying into “Out with the old, in with the new”: Perspectives on tradition and innovation in the library. Alki, 26 (1), 15.

Gabb, R., & Keating, S. (2005). Putting learning into the learning commons. Victoria University Institutional Reposity, 1-28. Retrieved from

Heath, C. & Heath, D. (2007). Finding just enough of that sticky stuff. Brandweek. 21-24.

Holmgren, R. A. (2010). Learning commons: A learning-centered library design. College & Undergraduate Libraries, 17 (2), 177-191.

McMullen, S. (2008). US academic libraries: Today’s learning commons model. PEB Exchange, 4, 1-6.

Moore, A. & Wells, K. (2009). Connecting 24/5 to millennials: providing academic support services from a learning commons. The Journal of Academic Librarianship, 35(1), 75-85.

Porter, M. & King, D. (January 2011). Marketing and the Web. Public Libraries, 50(1) 21-23.

Sinclair, B. (2007). Commons 2.0: Library spaces designed for collaborative learning. Educause Quarterly, 4, 4-6.

Steiner, H. M., & Holley, R. P. (2009). The past, present, and possibilities of commons in the academic library. The Reference Librarian, 50 (4), 309-332.


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