Another Transformation

Another Transformation

The cafe at the Learning Commons

It’s hard to imagine what you see today in the new Learning Commons is the same Main Library first floor that you would have experienced this time last year.

Cramped stacks and a maze of hidden offices have been replaced with an open floor plan accommodating several hundred people at once. Students can now study in private or in the company of others, and can choose from a variety of brightly lit, spacious workspaces loaded with technologies connected seamlessly with their personal mobile devices. Group study rooms are reserved via touch screens outside each door, there are dozens of individual computer stations, and the furniture in the open areas is mobile, allowing students to rearrange it as needed. The space is bright, modern, and most importantly, functional: students can study in the Learning Commons 24 hours a day, 5 days a week.

Brittney Thomas, the new Learning Commons Coordinator and University of Iowa graduate, spoke enthusiastically about the Library’s transformation during a recent tour of the Commons. While earning her Library Sciences degree here in 2009-2011, she never felt the need to leave the floor in the Library where her department was located. Now, the first floor is the place to be, Thomas says, as evidenced by droves of students who flock to the Commons each day to study or socialize.

“The university has been transforming the traditional classroom to emphasize active learning where students learn by working collaboratively and socially with one another inside and outside of the classroom,” she says. “The Commons was designed to support this continuing transformation.“

Walking through the Commons, Thomas describes how students have been interacting in the Commons. She notes that so far, students have taken advantage of every kind of workspace that the Commons has to offer, but that they mostly use the spaces for individual work. Thomas has many goals for the Learning Commons, but in the short term, she hopes the Learning Commons will make student work more visible and collaborative. 

“Students are still used to having a silent study space where they read articles, finish assignments and generally complete their work in isolation,” Thomas says. But she acknowledges there is more work to do."

“We can’t just open a new facility and expect students to adjust their study habits to accommodate it,” she says. “The change must come from the types of projects and assignments students are given in their classes.” 

The individual and group rooms are intended to provide privacy, but the Commons was also designed to provide plenty of opportunities for collaboration. Thomas thinks students will start to work in the open spaces to get feedback from their peers and share their individual expertise with one another.

She also points out that many students do some of their best learning and creating when they work collaboratively, but in college, they don’t always get the opportunity to work with people outside of their home departments or disciplines. Thomas thinks the Commons would be a great place to showcase student work. 

“We’ve never had a space like this before so we have the opportunity to try some new things, especially at the very beginning,” she says. “This is the time to figure out what students expect from the Learning Commons but also to help transform their learning style, both formally and informally.”

She also hopes students will take ownership of the Learning Commons because, ultimately, the space is built for them. In the future, Thomas also wants to see the Commons extend beyond formal academic learning to support student groups and programs that aren’t necessarily associated with a specific class a discipline. Thomas is teaming up with other partners on campus to create additional resources for the learning commons.

Calling all TILE folk!

If you have ideas for how students might use the learning commons or if you want to learn more about how the Learning Commons can support faculty and students,

Thomas encourages you to contact her at

Follow the Learning Commons on twitter @UIowaLCommons.