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Education Lab Blog

Education Lab is a project to spark meaningful conversations about education solutions in the Pacific Northwest.

November 4, 2014 at 5:00 AM

Warm, bright, quiet: Students do best in well-designed classrooms

Big windows to let in lots of natural light, a temperature set at a constant 72 degrees, an acoustically quiet room — if you designed the optimal classroom, these are some of the elements you would want to include.

That’s the conclusion of a new paper that points to a growing body of scientific evidence on the importance of a classroom’s physical environment.

“Designing Classrooms to Maximize Student Achievement,” an article in the inaugural issue of a journal called Policy Insights from the Behavioral and Brain Sciences, says the following about how light and heat and sound can help — or hinder — classroom learning:

  • Natural light. Students scored better on math and reading when they were exposed to a larger amount of daylight.
  • Controlled temperature. The optimal temperature range for learning is between 68 and 74 degrees. Any colder or warmer, and learning seems to  suffer.
  • Acoustics. Not surprisingly, excessive external noise is distracting and can hinder learning. Some examples: noisy heating and ventilation units, airplane flight paths and road traffic.

The studies also show that wall decor and objects such as posters can have an effect on learning, too. “Far from being trivial details, these features powerfully affect classroom culture,” researchers wrote.

For example, posters depicting powerful women leaders and women scientists seemed to improve the performance of female students in various tasks. But token symbols used to represent a group — such as American Indian mascots — caused students from those groups to express lower self-esteem.

And some objects were off-putting to students who didn’t identify with them; for example, too many science fiction objects in a computer science classroom prevented students who weren’t science fiction fans from enrolling in those courses.

The UW’s Computer Science & Engineering department took some of these ideas to heart in 2010, repainting the building and selecting nature posters to hang on the walls. “Students preferred the new space,” researchers reported, “and felt it better communicated the people-oriented nature of the department.”

The paper’s authors included University of Washington researchers Sapna Cheryan, Sianna Ziegler and Andrew Meltzoff, and University of California-Berkeley researcher Victoria Plaut.

Comments | More in News | Topics: classrooms, higher education

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