Image Courtesy of HKS Inc.

Image Courtesy of HKS Inc.

Personalized Learning, Personalized Space

Read the Final Report here


Upali Nanda (PI), Giyoung Park, Angela Ramer, Jon Bailey, Tim Logan, Jonathan Essary, and Melissa Hoelting

American Society of Interior Designers Transform Grant, with additional support provided by Herman Miller and USG


The SDL pilot test aims to explore the relationships among environmental conditions and human responses, focusing on furniture selection and arrangement. Environmental metrics included furniture selection and arrangement, and ambient environments (sound, illumination, temperature and humidity). Human responses included several behaviors (e.g. distractions, interface changes), learning achievement, anxiety levels, and heart rate.

Research Questions

  • What activities facilitate personalized learning?
  • What physical attributes can support these activities?
  • How do changes in specific interior features impact psycho-physiological outcomes in a personal space for learning?


Personalized learning, with a one-size-fits-one approach to education, is gaining traction today. However, little is known about how the design of learning environments can support or interfere with this innovative program. The Dallas Independent School District has recently implemented personalized learning programs in five of their schools. A new charter high school, Innovation, Design, Entrepreneurship Academy at James W. Fannin (IDEA Fannin, from now on), which recently completed its first year of personalized learning implementation, was the site for this pilot study. This new school only had 9th and 10th grade students. The Sensory Design Lab (SDL) study aims to develop and pilot the SDL that measures human response to interior design elements in real time.


From our literature review, we found that in a personal learning model, the role of the physical environment can be critical. Strategies that have been recommended and implemented to achieve this include:

(1) re-configurable, multipurpose rooms that can facilitate a range of learning modalities (e.g., project-based learning, teacher-led small-group instruction, inquiry-based instruction, blended learning)

(2) collaborative student and staff spaces

(3) movable, multipurpose furniture

(4) infrastructure to support anytime, anywhere learning

The design team developed a manufacturer agnostic prototype for a portable, flexible and trackable lab, the Sensory Design Lab (SDL).  This prototype is 10’ Wide, 10’ Long, and 8’ Tall and structured out of wood grid beam and 3D printed connections (designed and created in-house). In addition, environmental sensors were developed to capture sound, light, temperature and relative humidity.

The prototype was pilot-tested at IDEA Fannin. Two thermal cameras were installed to capture movement while maintaining privacy. Wristband devices were given to study participants to measure their heartrate and movement. Ten pieces of furniture—four chairs, four stools, a table and a mobile whiteboard provided by Herman Miller—were located outside the SDL prior to the experiment.

A total of 30 students, up to three students at a time, participated in the experiment. Consenting participants were informed to bring to study materials to their session.  When the students arrived, they were informed about the study, provided assent, and received a wristband device. They filled out a short pre-experiment survey about current anxiety levels and their achievement goals. The participants set up the space using the provided furniture and worked on their own study materials. Once their session was over, they completed a post-

experiment survey about their current level of anxiety, what they accomplished during their 30 minutes in the SDL, and what they wished to have in their learning environments.

Researchers documented the space after each session, which was later coded into multiple variables such as where each participant faced and what furniture pieces were selected. Thermal video recordings were also coded into behavior variables including as fidgeting and conversation. Lastly, we developed a personalization index to assess the degrees of personalizing the space and an interface change index to measure how frequently the participants changed work interface (e.g. laptop, prints, whiteboard etc.).


  • Students who faced the entrance reported higher achievement than students facing the back wall. Therefore, sufficient space allowing seating orientation change and a view can be beneficial.
  • Larger groups personalized the space more than smaller groups, implying personalization may be desired more in collaborative settings.
  • Fidgeting was most likely to occur when baseline sound levels were lower. Fidgeting may help to relieve anxiety but may not help academic performance.
  • Anxiety levels decreased during the 30-minute experiment. However, the reduction was smaller when sound levels were high. There may be an optimal range of sound levels in cognitive performance—not too loud, which can cause anxiety, but also not too low, which can cause students to feel restless.
  • Higher anxiety levels at the beginning of the experiment were related to lower degree of personalization.
  • Students find comfort in a variety of positions, including leaning back while seated, and preferred chairs to stools, with stools being used as an additional surface for belongings. Providing flexibility in furniture design allows for different body postures as well as uses.


  • Greater visual access to other areas can help learning but may distract depending on the context and on individuals. Choices for optimizing the amount of visual information one can get from a given spot are recommended.
  • Sufficient space is needed for easier personalization of space.
  • More options for personalization may be desired in larger spaces that can accommodate both different sizes of groups and independently working students.
  • Careful acoustic considerations are needed to control sound levels in school environments. Active usage of sound-absorbing materials is recommended. Additionally, some background noise—e.g. white noise, sounds of nature—may also be beneficial.
  • Providing choices of moveable and ergonomic furniture can aid students’ personalization of their space.
  • Casters not only allow students to easily move when needed but can also reduce associated noises.
  • Storage space in the learning environment can reduce unnecessary trips to retrieve items, which can also reduce distractions to other students.
  • Some participants indicated that they would like to see more colors in their school. Color options in furniture (vs. wall or flooring colors) can increase options for personalization in the learning environment.


The success of the pilot study shows the potential of systematically controlling light and temperature, finishes and colors, views and openings, proportions and many other features in future studies to assess the impact of interior design on the human response.

Currently, two projects succeeded the initial sensory design lab prototype. The first is a series of living labs in HKS offices that are equipped with environmental sensors and collect human responses. The second is a Sensory Wellbeing Hub installed in a public high school in Chicago. This hub aims to provide an optimized environment for students with developmental disabilities who may experience abnormal sensory processing thus need greater optimization of sensory environment. The hub is also equipped with environmental and motion detection sensors. Both studies are currently in data collection.