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Study Shows How Classroom Design Affects Student Learning

A new study shows how color, lighting, and other classroom design choices can have a huge impact on student progress.

As debate over education reform sizzles, and as teachers valiantly continue trying to do more with less, a new study suggests that it might be worth diverting at least a little attention from what’s going on in classrooms to how those spaces are being designed. The paper, published in the journal Building and the Environment, found that classroom design could be attributed to a 25% impact, positive or negative, on a student’s progress over the course of an academic year. The difference between the best- and worst-designed classrooms covered in the study? A full year’s worth of academic progress.

The study was conducted over the 2011–12 academic year, with 751 students in 34 classrooms, spread across seven primary schools in the seaside town of Blackpool, England. After collecting data on the students’ performance levels going into the school year, the researchers, comprising faculty from the University of Salford School of the Built Environment, in Manchester, England, as well as collaborators from the architecture firm Nightingale Associates, ranked each classroom on a 1 to 5 scale for 10 different design parameters: light, sound, temperature, air quality, choice, flexibility, connection, complexity, color, and texture. Each of these parameters were broken down into a few considerations. Light, for example, included the amount of natural light entering the classroom, as well as the teacher’s ability to manually control the level of lighting; flexibility took into consideration how well a given classroom could accommodate pupils without crowding them, in addition to how easily its furniture could be rearranged for a variety of activities and teaching approaches.

There is, of course, the matter of the teacher, though the paper points out that the multilevel statistical model used to crunch the data, which looks at the correlation between the variables and student progress across classrooms, actually buffers against their influence to a large extent.

So what did they find? Six of the design parameters—color, choice, complexity, flexibility, connection, and light—had a significant effect on learning. Light, as mentioned above, concerns the amount of natural light in the classroom and the quality of the electrical lights it contains. Choice has to do with the quality of the furniture in the classroom, as well as providing "interesting" and ergonomic tables and chairs for pupils. Complexity and color both have to do with providing an ample amount of visual stimulation for students in the classroom.

Professor Peter Barrett, the paper’s lead author, explained the significance in a statement accompanying its publication: "It has long been known that various aspects of the built environment impact on people in buildings, but this is the first time a holistic assessment has been made that successfully links the overall impact directly to learning rates in schools. The impact identified is in fact greater than we imagined and the Salford team is looking forward to building on these clear results." With the success of the pilot phase, the researchers have found funds to continue the study, and over the next 18 months they’ll track student progress in 20 additional classrooms around the U.K.

Read more here.

[Hat tip: Wired]

[Image: Brain and Board via Shutterstock]

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  • marianaboctor

    It is curious that this study starts with the assumption that classrooms in and of themselves are not a problem. Also that they are measuring student achievement by how good of a test-taker a student is -- one of the least important measures of a true education.  In some ways this is like asking the wrong question: "should we educate students in comfortable or uncomfortable prisons?" Since the answer (duh!) seems to be comfortable prisons, then we can focus on making their prisons more comfortable. This actually makes it less likely that we will ask the more important question which is, "is it an appropriate model to have 25 students of similar age but with varying skills, aptitudes, passions and personalities all be subjected to the same learning in a fixed amount of time from one adult?"  I'm guessing the answer to that would be a resounding NO which makes the basic premise of this study suspect. However the value I see is that, all other things being equal, THE LEARNING ENVIRONMENT MATTERS! One can draw a reasonable conclusion from these findings: if students are performing better on tests, then probably they may also be doing better on the other criteria such as social and emotional development. I would love to see a study like this measuring these other "softer" aspects of a good education.  

  • John Kalmbach

    Teachers should be trained how to use technology in the classroom.  I recommend a "Technology Classroom" where instructors can hone their skills prior to actually engaging students in a classroom.

    Sight lines are very important.  All students should easily view information presented on the screen.  Collabortion with facilities staff is critical.

    Regarding Student Response Systems (SRS)...I agree, they are a wonderful way to engage all students.

    John Kalmbach
    Emeritus, The University of Toledo

  • Clinton Knight

    Clinton Knight
    Computer Support Specialist II
    College of Education
    University of Kentucky

    The above credentials out of the way, here is what I see:

    1. Teachers with technology are great, so long as the teachers know when and how to integrate the technology into their curriculum. Often this means knowing if/when technology will improve them (teacher) in their ability to interact with the students.

    2. Completely agree to design, as my Bachelor degree has emphasis in business and part of  my studies were on the physical impact of space on productivity. Ergonomics, spacing, color (mood), sensory perception, and levels of physical interaction create schema bias toward the usage of the room. Example, your work space feels different than a meeting room, than your home.

    3. Many of the classrooms today with their desks, chairs, tables, etc allow for issues of social management within a classroom. Managing distractions becomes more effective than busy work. Busy work, is still productive when a student needs repetition to learn a methodology.

    4. Allowing students to move, allows them to channel their energies. Activity is often the biggest way that young male students learn. Not the only way, but studies show a trend toward hands on learning being the primary method for widest range of incorporating the lesson into their ability to comprehend.

    5. Technology in the form of response systems allows students to immediately, and potentially anonymously respond in the classroom. Many students hide their talents and aptitudes for fear of social dismissal/pariah effect. For the percentage of students who are "shy" this allows them to progress without self determined reservation.

  • Sonia

    I think it is important to note that whether we like it or not, the future is in technology. Students are increasingly becoming involved in interactive learning via internet sources. As much as sitting at a desk studying out of textbooks is the standard way for students to learn, it is outdated. Many schools don't even
    have enough textbooks to lend out to their students, 1/4 of which go missing at the end of each year. There will be people who disagree with me. Parents will say, my kids spend enough time on the computer. There is no need for more things to waste time with. I disagree. With countless resources on the internet (those of which need to be monitored for validity & credibility) students should be able to use these sources to stimulate and enhance their learning experience - most importantly actually enjoying an academic learning environment which they are familiar with and are even more likely to succeed in. Teachers should be using technology as a tool to deliver  Learning environment is key, but our systems need to change and adapt to the lifestyle & needs of today's youth.

  • Annie MAthew

    We do not live in the dark ages anymore, when learning, books and reading was based on the social location.  The prices of books are another handicap to many student.  It is definitely good to have them online and should be easily accessible to everyone. 

    The Gen Y students are a different group so I support Sonia for using technology as a tool to deliver learning.  Their learning mode is through interactions on line.  This may even create a better learning atmosphere. 

  • Mike from Canada

    Sounds quite similar to the work improvement found during The Hawthorne Studies.

  • Mk

    Is that the one in Sweden where the increased productivity was the result of all the attention the workers got being research subjects, rather than the change in lighting?

  • Joce Jesson

    Not really a problem is it, as long as kids get better learning! And nicer classrooms

  • Nathan Zeldes

    I wonder what the impact is of having - and allowing use of - WiFi in the classroom. In a sense this opens access to the entire world, possibly reducing the effect of the physical room's limitations?

  • Shashi Nanjundaiah

    As interesting as the finding may be, I am surprised the design researchers didn't include the layout variable. In my observation, a seminar-style classroom with teacher and student at the same level--literally and figuratively--offers higher levels of learning. However, the scope is in exploring whether it produces similar results in school, college and post-college education, i.e., whether age and level of learning has anything to do with it.