Sweat the small stuff: Tweaking learning environment can impact student success

Classroom design tied to performance

Classroom temperature, light, and acoustics all play a role in college student success, according to a new paper in Policy Insights from the Behavioral and Brain Sciences.

The authors from University of Washington (UW) and University of California-Berkeley examined research about aesthetics and designs of school buildings and found environment can directly affect student performance—both positively and negatively. As college students spend on average 400 hours in school buildings, the insights could be significant.

The writers found:

  • Students score better on reading and math assessments when exposed to more natural light.
  • Learning suffers when the classroom is colder than 68 degrees or warmer than 74 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • Excessive noise, such as heating and cooling units, traffic, and airplanes, impede learning.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), 16% of schools with permanent facilities lack sufficient lighting and heating.

Also see: The little things that might seem small—but can derail a student's path to graduation

The authors also found decor affects learning, especially among minority populations:

  • Rooms filled with depictions of female leaders and scientists improved girls' test performances;
  • Objects representing achievement boosted success of students from disadvantaged backgrounds; but
  • Stereotypical symbols, such as American Indian mascots, lowered self-esteem of related groups and impaired learning.
  • Overwhelming décor, such as crowding a room with science fiction memorabilia, could discourage students who did not identify with that theme from enrolling in those courses.

These findings, say the authors, may be especially helpful for schools with limited funding, however all institutions can benefit. UW's computer science and engineering department already adopted lessons from the findings, and the authors say students prefer the new space (Long, "Education Lab Blog," Seattle Times, 11/4; SAGE Publications media release, 11/4; Dovey, Medical Daily, 11/4).

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