As a first-year student at UNC, one of the largest differences between high school and college is the quantity of work completed outside of class. College students need study locations other than their homes, but, due to a global pandemic, many study spots are closed, and students are being forced to stay inside and isolate. To help students out, UNC opened a new workspace in the middle of Polk Place, the area directly in front of Wilson Library. Coming into this research, I suspected that the nature-immersed area would be a positive workspace for students to complete their assignments. This expectation led me to ask: Why do students choose to study at Polk Place, and what are the benefits of studying at this location?
Many college students choose to study outside, especially during the pandemic, because it is refreshing to be outside and experience a change of scenery. In fact, there are multiple scientific studies highlighting the benefits of studying outdoors. One such article, published by Environmental Research, combines data from over one-hundred separate studies and concludes that “greenspace exposure” is associated with a wide range of physical health benefits. Another study, authored by Cody Hodson and Heather Sander, was performed on elementary school students in Minnesota suburbs; they concluded the following, “Research has linked exposure to nature with various benefits including improved focus, vitality, productivity, and reduced stress, factors that may enhance the academic performance of individual students.” The two sources combined depict multiple physical and health benefits of studying in outdoor areas.
A third source, published by the Journal of Affective Disorders, clearly establishes a strong association between the mental health of college students and academic performance. The less healthy students are mentally, the worse they perform academically. The same source also states that approximately one-third of college freshman report having mental problems. Many students need to ease their stress and anxiety, especially in the time of a pandemic. Studying in nature has proven to benefit student mental health and academic performance.
Observational Data and Analysis
To investigate the validity of these conclusions, I observed Polk Place and its outdoor workspace twice. The first time I observed the area was on a Sunday around noon; it was very sunny and a comfortable 72ºF. What I observed was an area with a variety of things going on around it. There were pedestrians walking and having conversations, students relaxing on the steps of Wilson library, and over twenty students in the workspace. Despite the high volume of people, it was relatively quiet. One student who I interviewed, Hallie Kielb, said that having others around is something she prefers in a study environment. She noted that Polk Place combined this element with the outdoors, which, she said, is good for her mental health. My interview and research let me know that students may choose to do work at Polk Place because it is social, it lets off-campus students feel connected to campus, and because other primary study locations are not available.
The weather was very similar the second day I observed the location; however, I visited around 6:00 PM on a Tuesday. There were notably fewer students, twelve at most, and nearly no pedestrians walking by. Sunday was relatively quiet, but Tuesday afternoon was very quiet. The low volume is definitely a benefit of studying at Polk Place during the pandemic for many students. To gather more information, I decided to conduct a second interview. The second student I interviewed, Trey Thompson, had similar responses to Hallie. After studying at Polk Place, they both reported improved mental health, feeling more focused, and feeling more productive than when studying indoors. Both Hallie and Trey decided to study at Polk Place because it was outside and because they wanted to leave their homes, where they spend too much time during the pandemic. Polk Place is certainly a nice place to relax your mind, relieve stress, and study.
My initial beliefs that Polk Place, a nature-immersed area, would be a positive workspace for students were confirmed. In fact, the extent of the benefits that studying outside provides students surpassed my initial predictions. Observing the study culture at Polk Place has led me to question multiple other aspects of the area. I am left wondering how weather affects the number of students who study there, and the quality of their work. I also wonder if increased focus or increased mental well-being has a greater impact on academic performance. If I were to conduct more research, I would like to conduct more interviews, which could further support or question my findings.
In conclusion, during the times of COVID-19, students study at Polk Place because they want to go outside and get away from their homes. Exposure to any outdoor location is bound to increase physical health and mental health, and, in turn, academic performance. Polk Place specifically, during the pandemic, is a good outdoor workspace for many because it is relatively quiet, yet social, and it connects students to campus.
Bruffaerts, R., Mortier, P., Kiekens, G., Auerbach, R. P., Cuijpers, P., Demyttenaere, K., Green, J. G., Nock, M. K., & Kessler, R. C. (2018). Mental health problems in college freshmen: Prevalence and academic functioning. Journal of Affective Disorders, 225, 97–103. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jad.2017.07.044
Hodson, C. B., & Sander, H. A. (2017). Green urban landscapes and school-level academic performance. Landscape and Urban Planning, 160, 16–27. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.landurbplan.2016.11.011
Twohig-Bennett, C., & Jones, A. (2018). The health benefits of the great outdoors: A systematic review and meta-analysis of greenspace exposure and health outcomes. Environmental Research, 166, 628–637. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.envres.2018.06.030
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