Would You Rather be Trendy or Evidence-Based?


Your Classroom Might Be Slowing the Learning!

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 in your 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 Research

The three main sensory contributors to learning are sightsound, 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 in this bulletin: sight and touch.

Approximately 80% of our sensory input is 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 welcome 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 associated with positive feelings, whereas dark colors are more commonly connected to negative feelings (Sutton, & Altarriba, 2016).

More is not always better when it comes to decorating your classroom. As you scan your classroom today, can you verify the purpose of everything you see? An overly decorated classroom can contribute to a condition called cognitive load, and an overwhelmed working memory system makes it difficult for the brain to process and store new information (Fisher, Godwin, & Seltman, 2014; Choi, Merriënboer, & Paas, 2014).

Peripherals are typically any sign, poster, or object placed on the wall or edge of the classroom. When used purposefully, peripherals can enhance student learning and recall (Lamb, Akmal, & Petrie, 2015). An example of a peripheral is an anchor chart or a visual of some sort that summarizes key content. It could be anything from the three ways you can sit on the rug during circle time 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 ‘light’ meant daylight. It is only in the last 100 years that we have had electricity and artificial light. As a result, our body and brain are strongly impacted by sunlight. In fact, our body craves light so much that Vitamin D positively impacts over 200 of our genes. Today, many people buy vitamin D supplements 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 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 lighting, or even twilight, the majority of learners do MUCH better with brighter lighting situations (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. For some students, exposure to fluorescent lighting is a stressor, putting them at a greater risk for developing inflammatory illnesses.

Lighting also impacts our 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 evidence on the impacts of natural light vs. fluorescent light for learning is quite compelling (Heschong Mahone Group, 2001). With thousands of students from three states in the studies, here’s what researchers found:

  1. Students scored 20% higher in math and 26% higher in reading in one year when their classrooms had more natural light compared to those with fluorescent lighting.
  2. Students with the largest window area in the room were found to progress 15% faster in math and 23% faster in reading than those with the least window area.
  3. Students who had a well-designed skylight in the room (one that both diffused the daylight and allowed teachers to control the amount of light) improved 19% faster than those students without a skylight.

There are still many options available for schools and teachers.

Practical Application

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 punctuation marks 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. This will unconsciously peak students’ curiosity and motivate them to be in class tomorrow.
  • To impact students’ choices, display a poster with a positive quote about perseverance. This can be unconsciously absorbed by all students.
  • Find opportunities for students to be in natural light. Send them on a walk-and-talk assignment around the building. Or, move their group assignment to a table in the school quad/courtyard area. Create clear expectations of students (ex. not to disrupt 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 between 68-73° Fahrenheit (20-23° Celsius) (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. As an example, when it is too hot, attention time decreases and impulsivity increases, leading 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?

We start with a large randomized study to determine the relationship between outside air temp and PSAT scores. Researchers used 21 million PSAT scores over 12 years. They obtained the outside air temperatures, location by location, for those same 12 years. The study included students from all 50 states, and the findings were clear. In classrooms without air conditioning, each 1°F increase in outside temperature reduced the average PSAT score by 1% (Goodman, Hurwitz, Park, & Smith, 2019; Cedeño Laurent et al., 2018).

More Practical Application

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 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, allowing the air to blow over the water and ice for a cooling effect.
  • Some teachers who tied ribbons to the fans in the classroom report students felt cooler. The ribbon movement increased 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 input a student is exposed to in a classroom has a tremendous impact on their learning capacity. A majority of this input is happening unconsciously. Take a moment to evaluate how your physical classroom is helping (or hurting) your students’ learning and make any needed improvements.

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Cedeño Laurent, J. G., Williams, A., Oulhote, Y., Zanobetti, A., Allen, J. G., & Spengler, J. D. (2018). Reduced cognitive function during a heat wave among residents of non-air-conditioned buildings: An observational study of young adults in the summer of 2016. PLoS medicine15(7).
Choi, H., Merriënboer, J. J., & Paas, F. (2014). Effects of the Physical Environment on Cognitive Load and Learning: Towards a New Model of Cognitive Load. Educational Psychology Review, 26(2), 225-244.
Fisher, A. V., Godwin, K. E., & Seltman, H. (2014). Visual Environment, Attention Allocation, and Learning in Young Children. Psychological Science, 25(7), 1362-1370.
Gaoua N., Racinais S., Grantham J., El Massioui F. (2011). Alterations in cognitive performance during passive hyperthermia are task dependent. Int. J. Hyperthermia, 27, 1–9.
Gil, S., & Le Bigot, L. (2016). Colour and emotion: Children also associate red with negative valence. Developmental science19(6), 1087-1094.
Goodman, J., Hurwitz, M., Park, R. J., & Smith, J. (2019). EdWorkingPaper No. 19-30.
Heschong Mahone Group, 2001. Re-Analysis Report, Daylighting in Schools, for the California Energy Commission, published by New Buildings Institute, www.newbuildings.org.
Jean-Louis, G., Kripke, D., Cohen, C., Zizi, F., & Wolintz, A. (2005). Associations of ambient illumination with mood: contribution of ophthalmic dysfunctions. Physiology & behavior84(3), 479-487.
Lamb, R., Akmal, T., & Petrie, K. (2015). Development of a cognition-priming model describing learning in a STEM classroom. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 52(3), 410-437.
Phipps-Nelson, J., Redman, J. R., Dijk, D. J., & Rajaratnam, S. M. (2003). Daytime exposure to bright light, as compared to dim light, decreases sleepiness and improves psychomotor vigilance performance. Sleep26(6), 695-700.
Ramagopalan, S. V., Heger, A., Berlanga, A. J., Maugeri, N. J., Lincoln, M. R., Burrell, A., … & Watson, C. T. (2010). A ChIP-seq defined genome-wide map of vitamin D receptor binding: associations with disease and evolution. Genome research20(10), 1352-1360.
Ripley, D. L., & Politzer, T. (2010). Vision disturbance after TBI. NeuroRehabilitation27(3), 215.
Seppanen, O., Fisk, W. J., & Lei, Q. H. (2006). Effect of temperature on task performance in office environment (No. LBNL-60946). Ernest Orlando Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Berkeley, CA (US).
Sutton, T. M., & Altarriba, J. (2016). Color associations to emotion and emotion-laden words: A collection of norms for stimulus construction and selection. Behavior research methods48(2), 686-728.
Taylor L., Watkins S. L., Marshall H., Dascombe B. J., Foster J. (2016). The impact of different environmental conditions on cognitive function: a focused review. Front. Physiol. 6:372.
Xiong, L., Huang, X., Li, J., Mao, P., Wang, X., Wang, R., & Tang, M. (2018). Impact of Indoor Physical Environment on Learning Efficiency in Different Types of Tasks: A 3× 4× 3 Full Factorial Design Analysis. International journal of environmental research and public health15(6), 1256.
Eric Jensen is a former teacher with a real love of learning. He grew up in San Diego and attended public schools. While his academic background is in English and human development, he has a real love of educational neuroscience. For over 20 years, he has been connecting the research with practical classroom applications.

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