Many college students experience stress as they encounter the demands of study and work, and making time for friends and family. College students, especially freshmen, are a group particularly prone to stress (D’Zurilla & Sheedy, 1991). The majority of first-year students report having some degree of concern about financing their college education, although less than one-third of the respondents work for pay on or off campus, and just under half of the students “frequently” felt overwhelmed, lonely or homesick, and worried about meeting new people in the first year
The American College Health Association reports that of the top five impediments to academic performance, “stress” is at the top of the list. Stress has been the number one impediment to academic performance every year for the ACHA-NCHA survey results since 2000 (http://www.acha-ncha.org/pubs_rpts.html).
Even the college admissions process is becoming increasingly stressful for students. Many admissions officials believe that applicants are more stressed than they were a decade ago. Fifty-three percent said admissions anxiety had increased, and 21 percent said it had increased greatly (Hoover, 2008).
Given the foregoing review of college stress, students need to find all the ways possible to reduce stress and find restorative environments. The purpose of this article is to share some strategies on how to make the typical residence hall room more restorative and less stressful. Many of these strategies are ones that students can implement and all should be considered when renovating and designing new residence hall facilities.
The following practical strategies for making a residence hall room more restorative and less stressful have been developed by reviewing environmental psychology and interior design literature focusing on restoration. The important sources that provided the foundation for these strategies were Kaplan, Kaplan, & Ryan (1998), Steward-Pollack and Menconi (2005) and the research archives of the online Research –Design Connections (http://www.researchdesignconnections.com).
Room Design Strategies
One of the most important residence hall room design restorative strategies is the presence of a window and natural daylight. Looking out windows, especially at natural environments can alleviate stress and help the restorative process. Mental fatigue is common in college students. Even thirty minutes a day given to looking at nature can aid in increased levels of concentration (for studying) and mental health. These views of natural environments are important to both the physical and psychological well being. It has been shown that visual exposure to the natural environment, for example, landscapes, trees, grass, & water aid in the recovery from stress. Again, the human need and desire for natural sunlight and for views of adjacent spaces (for orientation) requires a balance of natural and artificial light (Kopec, 2006).
Prospect and refuge, the notion of being able to see others from a higher point or perspective (prospect) from a sheltered position (refuge) can also reduce stress. Being able to be seen, yet not being seen yourself is a safety measure we unconsciously prefer in our interior spaces. The application of this to the residence hall would simply be if you had a cozy soft chair with some elements of privacy where you could observe others outside the window, perceive what is taking place below or outside, yet remain warm and safe inside.
Color in a residence hall room is typically neutral for a variety of institutional reasons. However, color plays a major role in offering restorative benefits. Appropriate colors can enhance students’ attitudes, behaviors, and learning comprehensions by impacting their attention space and perception of time (Kopec, 2006). Both physiological and emotional reactions have been linked to room color, including respiratory rate and blood pressure. Color can transform a neutral environment into one that is pleasing and relaxing. Although our judgment of an environment’s appeal or beauty is highly subjective because it is affected by personal factors that include age, gender, culture, and experience, a residence hall room can offer students ways to communicate identity to others entering the space. Colors that are warm and inviting or bright and cheerful can offer more restorative benefits than dark, intense tones.
Any strategy that can increase the sense of personal privacy is helpful to reducing stress. This includes reducing the number of people in the room, the use of short or half-wall partitions, and other measures to block off a spot of “your own” to communicate a sense of privacy and solitude. Personal space is needed in a residence hall room. Most people react when personal space is violated; therefore, a place to put personal items and personal accessories of value are critical in quietly declaring a particular place as personal.
Sound absorption can also offer some privacy. Walls that have materials to absorb rather than bounce sound and/or when floors that are of a soft surface rather than hard muffle the noise and offer a sense of restoration. So, the addition of draperies, soft banners, and pads on the roller feet of chairs can assist is absorbing unwanted sounds.
Room Sensory Strategies
Warm lights (yellow-red colors; incandescent) versus cool lights (blue-green; fluorescent) aid in the process of relaxation and rejuvenation. Warm light is preferred for most living spaces and will enhance communication, but the cool light is often helpful in doing visual tasks commonly fatiguing to the human eye. One of the most common strategies college students use to enhance warm light is to turn off their overhead fluorescent light and bring in some incandescent table lamps to give a cozy, homey feel to the space. In addition, blocking fluorescent light has the benefit of helping to promote sleep and reduce hyperactivity.
Music provides restoration; however, it depends on the type and volume of music. To increase a sense of rejuvenation, sensory inputs that are the loudest, biggest, and brightest add to mental fatigue. Instead, at times when restoration is desired, lower the volume of music and use natural or soothing music to enhance the feeling of rest.
Control of the interior space is another important aspect of the psychological wellbeing of any individual. If students have control over sensory conditions in their residence hall room, such as light (mentioned previously), temperature, and their telephone, restorative benefits will occur. One of the predominating issues with temperature is the lack of adequate ventilation; poor ventilation interferes with the body’s ability to dissipate heat. To ensure the comfort of students, flexibility in manipulating the temperature is extremely important.
Room Objects Strategies
One way to reduce stress in a small space is to make it look larger. Open book cases in a room with only a few objects on the shelves makes the rooms feel larger and help to reduce stress. A second way to make a space look larger is to incorporate the use of closed cabinets that simulate built-in furniture. As noted previously, rooms overcrowded with people increase stress. A certain amount of privacy is important in a healing environment.
A second way to decrease stress is to offer the mind a chance to dream or escape by perusing travel, or other interesting, photographic books that present distant places and interesting topics to stimulate the imagination. Becoming involved in fascinating tasks can help the restorative process – such as reading mysteries, for example. Also nature videos on a large screen are more calming than if viewed on a small screen.
One last way to use room objects to enhance restorative benefits is to offer spaces to place personal accessories. Posting a picture with a landscape scene with trees and waters helps to reduce anxiety. The use of art in a room can help reduce stress and studies have shown observing an aquarium in a room promotes restoration.
Restorative strategies can reduce aggressive behaviors, increase task performances, enhance memory and ability to concentrate, and lessen feelings of anxiety. Recovering from everyday stress and finding restoration is critical to a student’s well being and academic success. A recent study (Clemons, S., Waxman, L. Conis, N., McKelfresh, D. & Banning, J. (2007) indicates that most students find their favorite restorative place off campus. Most often these places are in coffee shops and cafes. Making the residence hall room more relaxing and less stressful will not only aid the students in mental and emotional health, it could well reduce the need to travel off campus to find their favorite restful environment. The practical suggestions we have discussed are ones that students may be able to implement in their current rooms and are ones that should be on the drawing board of all new residence hall and renovation projects.
Jim Banning, Environmental Psychologist & Professor – School of Education, Colorado State University
Stephanie A. Clemons, Interior Designer & Professor, Department of Design and Merchandising, Colorado State University
David A. McKelfresh, Executive Director of Assessment and Research for the Division of Student Affairs, and Program Chair for the Student Affairs in Higher Education graduate program (joint appointment), Colorado State University