Where do you look for guidance on ensuring your classroom is set up for optimal learning? Pinterest will show you some really pretty classrooms, but the scientific research will direct you to the BIG 3 – the three factors about your physical classroom that significantly impact student learning.
Lean in for the breakdown of TWO of these three factors. No matter what your classroom situation is, you’re about to get some fabulous insights.
The three main sensory contributors to learning are sight, sound, and touch. They are the BIG 3 physical environmental factors in a classroom that impact attention, problem-solving, and memory (Xiong et al., 2018). Understanding how these factors impact learning AND what you can do about them is critical for your students’ success. We’ll dive into two of these three BIG factors: sight and touch. (Don’t worry – we’ll be back soon with tons of great stuff on sounds soon enough.)
Approximately 80% of our sensory inputs are visual (Ripley & Politzer, 2010). The main visual factors in a classroom are physical environment, decorations, and lighting.
Physical Classroom Environment
Step into a classroom and immediately your brain consciously and unconsciously begins to process the physical environment. It might conclude, “Wow! There is a lot going on in here.” Other classrooms communicate, “This feels more like a prison cell.” Many factors contribute to the overall message a classroom sends to the brain – color, peripherals, decorations, and more.
Since the brain gives preference to novel stimuli, introducing more color into the environment can be a welcomed change from the traditional black writing on white paper/board. Color can influence emotions, so it is important to be purposeful in selecting the colors you use when decorating a classroom, designing a visual presentation, or creating handouts.
Red consistently is connected to negative emotions such as failure and anger (Gil & Le Bigot, 2016). In general, bright colors are more associated with positive feelings, whereas dark colors are more commonly connected to negative feelings (Sutton, & Altarriba, 2016).
As you scan your classroom, can you verify the purpose of everything you see? More is not always better when it comes to decorating your classroom. An overly decorated classroom can contribute to a condition called cognitive load, or an overwhelmed working memory system that makes it difficult for the brain to process and store new information (Fisher, Godwin, & Seltman, 2014; Choi, Merriënboer, & Paas, 2014).
When used purposefully, peripherals can enhance student learning and recall (Lamb, Akmal, & Petrie, 2015). Peripherals are typically any sign, poster, or object placed on the wall or edge of the classroom. An example of a peripheral is an anchor chart – a visual of some sort that summarizes key content. It could be anything from the three ways you can sit during circle time on the rug to the three qualifications for a credible research study. The anchor chart stays in the same spot in the room so students can quickly review key content.
For most of human history (thousands of years) except the last 100 years (when we developed electricity), light meant daylight. As a result of this, our body and brain are strongly impacted by the sunlight. In fact, our body craves light so much that Vitamin D impacts (in a healthy way) over 200 of our genes. Today, many people buy vitamin D instead of getting exposure to natural lighting outside (Ramagopalan et al., 2010).
Lighting strongly influences much more than our vision. It influences our mood, our health, and of course, it strongly influences learning (Cajochen, Zeitzer, Czeisler, & Dijk, 2000). While a very small segment of the student population seems to function better in less intense or even twilight, the majority of learners do MUCH better with brighter lighting Phipps-Nelson, Redman, Dijk, & Rajaratnam, 2003).
Anything we can do to make our eyes more comfortable in the classroom also contributes to optimal learning. Even though we are rarely conscious of it, fluorescent lights have a flickering quality and a barely audible hum which can have a very powerful impact on our central nervous system. Students exposed to fluorescent lights for extended periods (a school day) are at greater risk for stressors and potentially, inflammatory illnesses.
Lighting also impacts your mood and can contribute to mental health challenges, including depression (Jean-Louis, Kripke, Cohen, Zizi, & Wolintz, 2005). The optimal light source for learning is natural light. Unfortunately, many school buildings were built before adequate research on lighting was widely available.
The best, reviewed research on the impact of brighter, daylight vs. less bright fluorescent lighting is quite compelling (Heschong Mahone Group, 2001). Re-Analysis Report, Daylighting in Schools, for the California Energy Commission, published by New Buildings Institute, www.newbuildings.org). With thousands of students in three states in the studies, here’s what researchers found:
- Students with the most daylighting in their classrooms progressed 20% faster on math tests and
- 26% on reading tests in one year compared to those with the least day lighting.
- Students with the largest window areas were found to progress 15% faster in math and 23% faster in reading than those with the least window areas.
- Students that had a well-designed skylight in their room, (one that diffused the daylight & allowed teachers to control the amount) improved by 19-20% faster than those students without a skylight.
There are still many options available for schools and teachers, regardless of classroom construction. Keep reading for several ideas.
Here are a few ideas to get you thinking about how to be purposeful with how you activate your students’ sense of sight. Let’s start with how to enhance your physical classroom:
- Create a poster or mind map summarizing key content; for example, the role of each punctuation to reinforce new learning for Language Arts students.
- Hang completed student work on the wall to increase student efficacy and sense of ownership for the classroom.
- Write a compelling question on the sideboard that previews tomorrow’s lesson to unconsciously peak students’ curiosity and motivation to be in class tomorrow.
- Display a poster with a positive quote about perseverance to be unconsciously absorbed by all students and impact their choices.
- Find opportunities for students to be in natural light. Send them on a walk and talk around the building. Move their group assignment to a table in the school quad/courtyard area. Create clear expectations for students about not disrupting other classes and staying within certain boundaries.
- Request alternative forms of lighting – whether it is replacing the current lightbulbs or supplementing with lamps or other forms of overhead lighting.
- Most students perform best with bright light, so limit the long stretches of overhead projector use, movies, etc. (Xiong et al., 2018). If your dominant format of instruction involves the lights being turned off it is time to collaborate with your colleagues to diversify your instruction.
There are several ways in which the body is impacted through touch in a learning environment. Our focus will be on the factor present for the greatest number of hours: the temperature.
The ideal temperature for learning is within the 68-73°Fahrenheit (20-23°Celsius) range (Seppanen, Fisk, & Lei, 2006). Being too hot is worse for learning than being too cold, but both should be avoided. When the body is too hot it experiences declines in both cognitive and physiological functions.
Attention time decreases and impulsivity increases which leads to more incorrect responses in a cognitive assessment (Gaoua, Racinais, Grantham, & El Massioui, 2011).When the body is too cold it has a negative impact on concentration, vigilance, memory, and reasoning (Taylor, Watkins, Marshall, Dascombe, & Foster, 2016).
Need more evidence to encourage you to seek ideal temperatures for your students?
One of the largest and well-controlled studies on heat shows us just how dangerous heat can be toward student learning. Here are their findings based on 21 million PSAT scores over 12 years, with students from all 50 states: Without air conditioning, each 1°F increase in outside school year temperature reduced the average amount learned that year, and this is evidenced by a 1% drop in student tests (Goodman, Hurwitz, Park, & Smith, 2019; Cedeño Laurent et al., 2018).
You might feel your hands are tied in making changes to the temperature in your classroom, but there ARE things you can do. Here are several suggestions that might work for your situation:
- Start a GoFundMe campaign, #clearthelist hashtag on twitter, or other crowd-funding sources to raise enough money to purchase a sufficient cooling device.
- Purchase a high-quality fan. If it doesn’t provide enough cool air, place a tray of cold water or ice at the bottom of the fan to allow it to blow air over the water and ice.
- Some teachers report students feel cooler even by tying ribbons to the fan to increase awareness of the fan in the room. (Consider a 36-42” vertical fan, Amazon has them for $45-70).
- Use social media and other communication channels to inform the community and school district of the poor learning conditions you are working to improve, and why it is worth the funds.
The amount of sensory inputs a student is exposed to in a school environment has a tremendous impact on their learning capacity. A vast majority of these inputs are happening unconsciously, yet their impact may be greater than the sensory inputs they are more aware of. Take a moment to evaluate how your physical classroom is helping (or hurting) your students’ learning and make any needed improvements.