February 2013

Volume 22, Number 2

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Study: Learning Can Be Harmed by Classroom Design

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Busy, crowded classrooms with loud colors like this one were shown to be a detriment to student learning.

Photo Courtesy Peter Barrett

By Tristan Roberts

In the only study of its kind to date, the design of classrooms and schools has been found to have significant impact on student performance over the course of a year. Published in January 2013 in Building and Environment, the study found six design parameters—such as color and light—that particularly harm or help individual performance. Together, the parameters meant as much as a 25% difference over the course of a year for an individual.

Researchers from the University of Salford’s School of the Built Environment and from architecture firm Nightingale Associates gathered data from 751 students in 34 classrooms across seven primary schools in Blackpool, England, over the 2011–12 academic year and also rated each classroom for quality on ten different design parameters, each measured with multiple indicators and calculations (see table). Students were evenly spread across the schools, were evenly divided between genders, and spent 50%–80% of their time in their fixed classrooms, providing some assurance that an individual classroom could affect learning. The researchers weren’t able to obtain government assessments of teachers at all the schools and so didn’t factor this in; however, they note that the data they did obtain showed a consistent level of teaching.

Effect of Classroom Design on Student Performance


The following is EBN’s summary of results from the study, “A holistic, multi-level analysis identifying the impact of classroom design on pupils’ learning,” Building and Environment, January 2013. See the published study for statistical detail.

Of the ten environmental factors investigated, eight were correlated at a level greater than 10% with learning progress. However, a central feature of the study was the application of a type of regression analysis that helps unravel the relationships among several variables. That model shows that two of the variables initially found significant—air quality and texture—were not significant in explaining the variations in learning.

That result was surprising to the researchers, especially considering that they found the classroom air quality to be “universally poor” based on spot checks of carbon dioxide levels. The authors hypothesize that air quality, along with sound and temperature, varied little between classes in the study and thus didn’t account for variations in student progress between classrooms. They also suggest that those factors may be quickly acted upon if they become a problem—for example, by turning up the heat or opening a window—while the color of each classroom was a less changeable influence.

The modeling exercise showed that six design parameters—color, choice, connection, complexity, flexibility, and light—were individually significant in influencing student progress at a classroom level. Student progress was measured on standardized aptitude tests for reading, writing, and mathematics, with the average student improving 11 points over the year. As it happened, the study’s model showed that “placing the same pupil in the ‘best’ rather than the ‘worst’ classroom would have an impact on their learning that equates to the typical progress of a pupil over one year,” or 11 points.

According to Peter Barrett, Ph.D., the lead author of the study, “I think this is the first and only study of schools that takes a holistic perspective, guided by a comprehensive neuroscience and sensory framework, and employing multi-level modeling to isolate the impact of the built aspect.”

In future studies, the authors hope to extend the work to additional schools, to look at school-level effects, to better incorporate teacher performance into the analysis, and to explore further the environmental factors (such as air quality) that were not found significant, while further refining an understanding of the effect of other design parameters.

For more information:

Building and Environment


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January 28, 2013