Teaching Profession

What Does Your Classroom Look Like? Design Matters, Say Researchers

By Jordan Moeny — April 07, 2015 3 min read
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After studying 3,766 students and 153 classrooms in 27 primary schools across the United Kingdom, researchers from the University of Salford have found that simple changes to classroom design can have a significant impact on a student’s success.

Previous studies have looked at specific environmental factors, like the impact of background noise or air pollution on student success, as well as the effect of the overall school design. However, the study’s authors claim that they are the first to look specifically at overall classroom design as it relates to student success. This most recent study is an extension of a smaller 2012 pilot study on the same topic, also led by Salford professor Peter Barrett.

The schools studied varied widely in size and building age, and the researchers looked at a classroom from each grade in as many schools as possible. The size and layout of each classroom was recorded, as were various environmental measures like temperature and humidity; each teacher also filled out a questionnaire about their classroom experience.

To measure student performance, researchers looked at the students’ academic levels in reading, writing, and math. By comparing the change in a student’s level from the beginning of the year to the end, they found that variations in classroom environment accounted for 16 percent of a student’s progress over the course of a year.

To look at it another way, according to the study: “The impact of moving an ‘average’ child from the least effective to the most effective classroom has been modelled at around 1.3 sub-levels, a big impact when pupils typically make 2 sub-levels progress a year.”

But what makes a classroom “effective”? The researchers looked at three factors: stimulation, individualization, and naturalness. Of these, the level of naturalness in a classroom—primarily the level of natural light, the air quality, and the temperature—turned out to account for about half of the impact, with the other two factors each making up roughly one quarter.

Some aspects of the classroom environment were more important than others. Lighting had a larger effect than any other one factor, followed by student ownership of the space and then by air quality. Based on their analysis in seven key areas, the researchers offered specific actions that teachers can take to improve their space:

  • Light: Avoid blocking windows and keep the blinds open whenever possible to utilize natural sunlight rather than turning on the overhead lights. (See photo above for an example of what the researchers do not recommend.)
  • Air quality: Open the windows to ventilate the room at least once an hour, between lessons if necessary.
  • Temperature: Keep the classroom “cool but comfortable,” closing the blinds if necessary to reduce heat from the sun. (Yes, they did just tell you to keep them open--but sometimes you have to make exceptions.)
  • Flexibility: Create “well-defined and age appropriate learning zones,” including play areas for younger students. Leave your walls free by using furniture that sits low to the ground.
  • Ownership: Post student work throughout the room to create a sense of ownership and familiarity, and allow students to personalize something in the room--the study suggests a locker or coat peg.
  • Complexity: Aim for a Goldilocks-level of complexity in design: not too sparse, not too busy, but just right. The study recommends leaving 20 to 50 percent of wall space open.
  • Color: Use decorations, displays, and furniture to balance the colors of the room. Add brighter colors if the rest of the room is fairly dull, or counteract an overwhelmingly bright background with more neutral colors. (And, should you be lucky enough to have the option of repainting your room, go for mostly light walls with one brighter “accent wall,” as they say on HGTV.) The image below shows examples of ideal color usage in studied classrooms, with the top two classrooms showing an appropriate amount of color and the bottom left and bottom right showing too little and too much, respectively.

For more detailed suggestions, including the team’s recommendations to building designers, check out the full report.

The researchers recognize that these changes may seem straightforward, but they contend they’re important nevertheless: “These seemingly mundane aspects are the factors that we have now evidenced really do impact on learning. Some will seem obvious, but it is clear from our fieldwork that they are not so obvious that they are consistently addressed!”

All images from the Clever Classrooms report, courtesy of lead investigator Peter Barrett, Salford University.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.