The study, undertaken by the University of Salford, involved 3,766 primary school pupils in England. It reveals that moving a child with ‘average’ performance from the least effective to the most effective classroom can increase performance by 1.3 sub-levels of the national curriculum within one year. With pupils typically progressing by 2 sub-levels each year, this is a significant finding. [1]

Naturalness

Making up half the impact on pupil progress, naturalness refers to the external factors that affect learning taking place inside the classroom.Making up half the impact on pupil progress, naturalness refers to the external factors that affect learning taking place inside the classroom.

Light

Growing awareness of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) means we’re well aware of the potential consequences of missing out on natural light, from depression to anxiety. More subtle and varied than artificial light, it promotes calm, offering obvious benefits for the classroom environment.

Large windows are clearly one way to achieve plenty of natural light. Too much, however, can cause a distracting glare, and shading devices like overhangs can be used to limit brightness in south-facing rooms.

As natural light can be hard to get hold of in the UK, especially during winter, it should be complemented by high quality electrical lighting. This creates balanced lighting that is soft enough to relax pupils, but bright enough to provide a clear view of learning resources.

The materials and colours used in walls and ceilings also contribute to the effectiveness of lighting. For example, ceiling tiles with high light reflectance can help natural light go the extra mile.

Air Quality

Children are more vulnerable to the effects of air pollution [2], and studies show that children in better ventilated environments perform learning tasks faster and more accurately [3].

A Government study measured levels of airborne chemicals known as volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in eight primary schools across England [4]. It found that in half of the schools, 21% of samples exceeded the proposed guideline value of 300 µg m-3.

In schools built since 1995, new carpets, wall paint and furnishings were some of the key sources of VOCs. Some classrooms, such as where pupils had recently used paints and glues, had concentrations as high as 700 µg m-3.

Formaldehyde is the most prevalent VOC, and can be particularly harmful. Therefore, it has lower maximum recommended concentration levels. For primary schools, air quality can be seen as a compromise between ventilation and energy efficiency. But while a range of window sizes is beneficial, windows and other ventilation systems alone cannot significantly reduce VOC levels.

This means other methods of cleansing air, such as ceilings using ACTIVair technology are helpful. This technology reduces formaldehyde levels by up to 70% by converting formaldehyde into inert compounds.

Temperature

Cooler classrooms promote better learning [5], with high temperatures and humidity levels resulting in lower attention spans and, ultimately, reduced performance [6].

Locally controlled thermostats should be used with radiators, while a two-coat plaster system can help control high temperatures that result from direct sunlight. Again, overhangs can also be used to shade classrooms from sunlight.

Acoustic

With external noise causing distraction, and poor acoustics making it difficult for teachers to be heard, sound has a significant impact on learning progress.

Where possible, school buildings should be planned at sufficient distances from busy roads and, where this can’t be achieved, embankments and plants can be used as sound barriers.

Rectangular classrooms outperform square ones, as they allow seating layouts that put pupils closer to their teacher during presentations. Curved walls could even be used to maximise the sitting space surrounding teachers.

Acoustic ceiling tiles are designed to absorb unwanted sound and reduce reverberation time, and can make teachers’ speech clearer [7]. At the same time, acoustic plasterboard can prevent external noise entering the classroom.

Individualisation and complexity

Individualisation and stimulation each contribute around a quarter of the impact on learning progress, with children benefiting from engaging spaces they can use in their own ways.

Flexibility and complexity

The research confirms the idea that pupils benefit from a happy medium between chaos and boredom, with either extreme having its own negative effects.

Enclosed breakout spaces within the classroom allow teachers to tailor settings to pupils’ individual needs, offering opportunities for private small group and one to one support. For younger pupils, who spend much of their time playing, varied floor plans and a variety of learning zones are ideal. These layouts can be achieved through high quality wall partitions.

Ownership

Personalised spaces enhance the ability to memorise information [8], and a feeling of ownership encourages children to take responsibility for their learning [9].

Teachers can achieve this by displaying pupils’ work around the classroom, which has been found to encourage involvement in learning [10]. Innovative products like magnetic plaster mean this can be done in a simple and sustainable way.

Coloured environments can improve learning and wellbeing [11]; however, a balance between bland and bright should be achieved. High reflectance ceiling tiles make contrasts clearer and help with colour differentiation.

Interestingly, the study found that school-wide factors are not nearly as significant as those within individual classrooms, which suggests design initiatives need to be focused here.

This research reinforces the importance of looking at classroom design holistically, combining disparate factors in creating optimal learning environments. At the same time, it reveals how the design and construction industry plays a key role in raising educational attainment, and must work with education professionals to find innovative ways of enhancing the learning experience.

References 

1/ Barrett P, et al. (2012), A holistic, multi-level analysis identifying the impact of classroom design on pupils’ learning, Building Environment, http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.buildenv.2012.09.016

2/ Daisey, J., Angell, W., Apte, M. (2003), Indoor air quality, ventilation and health symptoms in schools: an analysis of existing information, Indoor Air 13: 53–64.

3/ Bakó-Biró, Z., D. J. Clements-Croome, N. Kochhar, et al. (2012), "Ventilation rates in schools and pupils’ performance." Building and Environment 48(0): 215-223.

4/ Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (2006), Ventilation and Indoor Air Quality in Schools Guidance Report 202825, Building Research Technical Report 20/2005.

5/ Wargocki, P., Wyon D. (2007), The Effects of Moderately Raised Classroom Temperatures and Classroom Ventilation Rate on the Performance of Schoolwork by Children (RP-1257), HVAC&R Research, 2007, 13:2, 193-220.

6/ Mendell, M., and Heath, G. (2005), Do indoor pollutants and thermal conditions in schools influence student performance? A critical review of the literature, Indoor Air, 15: 27–52.

7/ Hegarty, M., Phelan, A., Kilbride, L. (1998), Classrooms for Distance Teaching and Learning: A Blueprint, Leuven University Press.

8/ McMillan, D. (1997), Classroom Spaces & Learning Places: How to Arrange Your Room for Maximum Learning, Charthage, Il: Teaching & Learning Company, Lorenz Corporation.

9/ DeVries R., Zan, B. (1994), Moral Classrooms, Moral Children: Creating a Constructivist Atmosphere in Early Education (Early Childhood Education), Teachers’ College Press.

10/ Ulrich, C. (2004), A place of their own: children and the physical environment, Human Ecology , Vol. 32, No. 2, pp. 11-14.

11/ Jalil, N., Yunusb, R., Said, N. (2012), Environmental Colour Impact upon Human Behaviour: A Review, Procedia Social and Behavioral Sciences, 35: 54 – 62.