Spaces for learning need to be carefully designed and managed—our brains perform much better in some places that others and our tired heads need opportunities to refresh if they’re going to continue to process material effectively and develop knowledge and skills. Applying what neuroscientists have learned about how design can support learning makes “lessons” more productive and positive experiences more likely.
This article focuses on designing for learning, wherever it may happen, in school classrooms or corporate continuing education suites or somewhere else entirely. The material presented is most directly relevant to gaining what’s generally seen as intellectual knowledge, not more purely physical skills (e.g., a background in quantum physicals or marketing strategies not ability in calisthenics), although some design-related information presented is clearly useful in either case.
Lombardi, Shipley, and colleagues (2021) set the stage for our discussion of science-informed learning space design when they share that “individuals build their knowledge and understanding by encoding information (e.g., sensory perceptions) into mental representations that, in turn, are stored in mind for later use.”
Tanner and Lackney (2006) concur that learning requires active mental participation by teachers and students and add that it often occurs in an interpersonal setting. Environments that support learning are, therefore, in many ways, similar to those that support professional cognitive performance, as discussed here.
Any discussion of designing for learning gets a boost from study findings related to remembering information; science-informed design for remembering is reviewed in this article.
For more information on library design, read this article.
Children process some sensory information differently than adults; if you are particularly interested in understanding those differences, please read this article.
Walden (2015) effectively summarizes the consequences of school, college, and university design and the complexities of developing academic spaces: “The importance of the design of school spaces for successful education is often underestimated. A main finding of our studies is that students must feel comfortable in their school environment as a crucial precondition for successful learning. . . . Architects must design and plan more than walls, ceilings, roofs, and hallways—a spatial composition that is esthetically pleasing, evokes functional curiosity, invites users to enter and stay, encourages work to be done, enhances the joy of learning and performance, offers firm support in the daily routines yet opens avenues for self-actualization that extend into future careers as well as private relationships.”
Signal that learning is important, for everyone.
Children, just like adults, are continually “reading” the silent messages sent by physical environments and the objects in them, decoding whatever information they find in the context of their own lives and experiences.
The Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (CABE, 2008) probed how spaces communicate to children. CABE (2008) comprehensively reviewed the features of childcare centers that optimize physiological and psychological experiences for children under 5 and their caregivers. Among the topics they address are the symbolic meanings that different spaces can acquire for young children. CABE recommends that special care be used in the design of symbolism rich places such as the space where kids say goodbye to their parents, places where children are taken when they do not feel well, and landmarks such as the reception desk. Citing the work of Alison Clark, the researchers state that “Many youngsters identify with their environment in a symbolic way. Surprisingly, features that might appear unimportant to adults actually form key elements of the nurturing environment for a child.”
Maxwell reports that school building conditions influence student perceptions of their school’s social climate and their attendance, and through these factors, their academic achievement (2016). In summary, “school building condition indirectly predicted student test scores, better school building condition predicted higher student assessment of school social climate, higher ratings of school social climate predicted lower student absenteeism which in turn predicted higher standardized test scores. . . . School buildings that are in good condition and attractive, may signal to students that someone cares and a more positive social climate which in turn may encourage better attendance.” Maxwell concludes that “it is not enough to examine separately how the physical environment affects student learning or how the school social climate affects student learning. These attributes of the school are intertwined. . . . The findings from this study provides further support for maintaining school buildings in good condition in all communities as an essential part of providing a quality education for all children.” Architectural and interior design can facilitate maintenance, for instance. Analyses were based on data collected at New York City middle schools. School conditions were evaluated by independent professionals during the 2011 Building Condition and Assessment Survey; they judged aesthetic and architectural/engineering factors, among others. Social climate was determined by student responses to a survey probing “academic expectations, communication, engagement, safety and respect.”
Students clearly respond to the attractiveness of their school’s environment. Kumar and associates compared 8th, 10th, and 12th-grade students use of cigarettes, marijuana, and alcohol (at school and away from school) as well as their truant behavior in schools that had a positive physical environment (for example, clean, attractive classrooms; displays of student trophies and artwork; and functional water fountains) and schools with negative physical environments (for example, graffiti in the school building, broken fixtures) (2008). They also included in their analyses the number of unsupervised spaces in the school building and immediately around it. Their work revealed that students, particularly those in the 10th grade, are influenced by the physical environment at their school and that a more negative environment is related to more problem behaviors. The authors feel that their results suggest, “A school with attractive and clean classrooms conveys to students that this is a place where their learning and growth are both valued and supported. Similarly, displays of student artwork are likely to enhance students’ identification with the school and promote involvement in schoolwork. [Unsupervised spaces] provide students with readily accessible locations in which to escape adult monitoring and engage in negatively sanctioned behavior.”
Academic environments can broadcast all sorts of messages. Psychologists Keith Ciani and Ken Sheldon found that seeing letters that can correspond to grades (e.g., A, F) before a test influences performance on that test, in the direction of the letter seen. This effect is observed even when the letter is a label for the test form (i.e., “Test Bank ID: F”) (“Exposure to Letters A or F Can Affect Test Performance,” 2010). The researchers suggest that “Adorning classrooms with symbols of achievement, such as A+ and other success-oriented words and phrases may activate effort, pride, and the intention to perform well in standardized testing situations.”
Females are more likely to enroll in computer science classes when they feel comfortable in the physical environments in which the computer science courses are taught (Master, Cheryan, and Meltzoff, 2016). Design can contribute to making computer science classrooms more welcoming to both genders. As Master and team report, “Computer science has one of the largest gender disparities in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. An important reason for this disparity is that girls are less likely than boys to enroll in necessary ‘pipeline courses,’ such as introductory computer science. . . . We . . . tested whether . . . stereotypes can be communicated by the physical classroom environment [via types of posters/artwork hung, etc.], and whether changing this environment alters girls’ interest. In 2 experiments . . . a computer science classroom that did not project current computer science stereotypes caused girls, but not boys, to express more interest in taking computer science than a classroom that made these stereotypes salient.”
In similar studies completed with non-students, Cheryan, Plaut, Davis, and Steele investigated “ambient belonging” (2009). They determined that the science fiction memorabilia, junk food, and other typical attributes of spaces where computer “geeks” work repel women. The researchers substituted nature posters for science fiction images and coffee cups for soda cans, for example, in test environments and found that women were more interested in pursuing computer science related activities after these modifications were made. Typical computer science offices may also be dissuading men from pursuing computer science. The researchers conclude “altering a group’s image by changing their environments can therefore inspire those who previously had little or no interest in pursuing the group to express newfound interest in it.”
For more information on how important it is for people of all ages to personalize a space they “own” so that they can share their positive self-image with the world, and avoid the stresses that result when they can’t, read this article.
Devlin and colleagues (2022) evaluated how classroom images seen by prospective college students influence their opinions of colleges and universities. The Devlin-lead team found that when “participants read a scenario about a college too far away to visit and viewed a website picture of a seminar room (unrenovated or renovated) before responding to measures of classroom satisfaction and college academic life more broadly (e.g., student retention). . . . Classroom status . . . . significantly influenced estimates of first-year student retention . . . with higher estimates of retention for the renovated classroom.. . . images of the classroom environment can affect judgments beyond the classroom itself, including estimates of student retention and the quality of the faculty at the institution.” The Devlin group also shared that architects knowledgeable about the renovation reported that “‘the original arrangement consisted of mismatched tables with one row of plastic chairs around the tables and another at the perimeter of the room. . . . The new configuration consists of a large oval seminar table surrounded by comfortable, flexible chairs.’” The Devlin team also shares that Douglas and Gifford in 2001 reported that three classroom design elements seem to drive classroom evaluations: “a view to the outdoors, seating comfort, and seating arrangement.”
To accurately determine messages that are sent by, and will be received from, existing spaces and objects, or might be sent by or received from proposed ones, the people learning, whether they’re children or adults, need to be consulted during the design process.
Recognize educational environment typology and floor plan fundamentals.
Over time, multiple researchers have identified distinct, but compatible, systems for describing the sorts of spaces and floor plans required in schools or learning suites.
Thornburg (2014), using memorable analogies, provides information on zones needed in schools. Nair, in his introduction to Thornburg’s 2014 work succinctly describes the academic areas identified by Thronburg and their links to learning activities: “From primordial times . . . humans have learned in four discrete ways—at the Campfire, at the Watering Hole, in the Cave, and from Life. The Campfire mode of learning represents learning from a story-teller or an expert. . . . the Watering Hole represents learning from one’s peers. Watering Holes have the advantage in that, by their very nature, learning outcomes are unpredictable. . . . it is a safe bet that the very nature of group interaction is such that they will elicit ideas beyond the narrow, defined scope of Campfire instruction. . . . Cave learning . . . [is] learning from oneself—through reflection and introspection. . . . The fourth primordial learning metaphor is Life. This is when the other forms of learning get an opportunity for a trial run. It represents all forms of applied learning when theory is put into practice.”
Scott-Webber (2004) has done a lot of powerful and important academic design-related research. Similar to Thornburg, she shares that “Five intended behaviors have been identified supporting knowledge-sharing environments. They are:
- Environments for Delivering Knowledge;
- Environments for Applying Knowledge;
- Environments for Creating Knowledge;
- Environments for Communicating Knowledge; and
- Environments for Decision-Making”
In a 2007 NeoCon presentation, Scott-Webber reports that learning is active in all of these spaces except for the Environment for Delivering Knowledge. Classrooms, lecture halls, and auditoria tend to support a passive learning scenario. Scott-Webber states, “If individuals need to ‘own their own knowledge,’ then the only reasonable method is providing opportunities for everyone to experience and build knowledge for themselves. It takes a combination of settings to actualize ownership and they include a minimum application of sociofugal layouts and more sociopetal ones.” Sociofugal arrangements minimize eye contact between individuals (for example, rows of church pews), while sociopetal arrangements facilitate eye contact (for instance, people sitting in a circle of center-facing chairs).
Scott-Webber integrates many teaching best practices with design in her 2004 book and divides learning activities into those that are more or less collaborative and more or less self-directed. She reports that “’Directed by Others/Collaboration’ setting types primarily reflect alternative layouts from the Knowledge Delivery archetype: a more formal protocol. For example, the other-directed/low collaboration environment illustrates a typical traditional learning environment (e.g., classrooms and lecture halls) with fixed setting where visual access is critical. The other-directed/medium-collaboration environments suggests spaces like case rooms, or rooms with a U-shape so the instructor may enter the learning space and become part of the exchange. An other-directed/high-collaboration learning setting is reconfigurable, allowing for a lecture and then for learners to rearrange furnishings for discussion purposes.” Traditional classrooms that adjoin breakout areas also support the last of these learning scenarios.
Scott-Webber (2004) indicates that “Environments that are ‘Directed by Self/Collaboration’ relate primarily to two archetypes—Applying Knowledge and Creating Knowledge. . . . Applying knowledge often occurs one-to-one in a self-direction/low-collaboration scenario. . . . A multipurpose room is [an] example where space is reconfigurable and users may change how information is delivered and shared. In the self-direction/high-collaboration setting, the Creating Knowledge model and to some degree, the Knowledge for Decision Making type are apparent. These spaces are designed for interaction and collaboration. Team or project spaces are examples, where furnishings are highly reconfigurable and information persistence opportunities abound. . . . The Serendipitous-situation is reflected in several situations. . . . One aspect of this behavior [Knowledge Creating] requires incubation time in order for ideas to develop. A private space supporting this need may be designed. . . . A serendipitous/medium-collaboration setting may include ‘practice fields,’ or the archetype of Applying Knowledge. These settings include science labs or design studios—anywhere learners may practice what they need to learn. . . . The serendipitous/high-collaboration setting suggests the Communicating Knowledge archetype be applied. Settings like atriums, lobbies, pre-conference rooms, student unions, niches (particularly in corridors), and cafes (when designed as magnets or gathering spaces) provide community centers and spaces for recognition and spontaneous interaction.”
At a 2012 NeoCon session, Scott-Webber reviewed the idea of active learning and detailed the physical environments that support it. She describes active learning as requiring “students to engage in their learning rather than being passive listeners. To enhance learning, students must speak, write, think deeply, and collaborate with others about the content and concepts presented in class.” In an active learning classroom, “Fluid movement is critical to help with multi-modal pedagogical shifts to change up the activities without losing time during these mode switches. Probably swivel seats are the most important technology in the room. Active leaning also means that wall protection is critical as tables and chairs are designed to move and drywall walls won’t hold up to that movement.” The space ramifications of active learning are clearly delineated: “The mere fact that one is allowed to move in a classroom means more space per person. A lecture hall crammed with students shoulder to shoulder and 10 square feet per person is not the example. We are talking anywhere from 17 square feet per person to 32 square feet per person.”
Additional research indicates the strengths of activity-supportive academic environments (Kilbourne, Scott-Webber, and Kapitula, 2017). Kilbourne and colleagues report on links between spaces that support student movement and enhanced cognitive performance (assessed via test scores or ability to concentrate, for example), “an activity-permissible classroom can provide a catalyst for an active learning environment that supports higher levels of student engagement. . . . . Cognitive neuroscience confirms that physically moving the body stimulates the brain. . . . . Student engagement is described here as an individual’s intense involvement in their own learning process as demonstrated by the student’s behaviors and facilitated through teaching practices. For the student, these factors include behaviors such as: collaboration individual and group focus, active involvement, engagement opportunities in the subject matter and in multiple ways, physical movement, stimulation and feeling comfortable to participate. For the teacher, practices include: repeat exposure to materials through multiple means, gather in in-class feedback, posing real-life scenarios, engaging students in the ways they learn best, and creating enriching experiences. . . . The positive relationship between activity and learning has led many to rethink classroom design and furnishings.” Design options supporting activity noted included varying table heights and types of seating, and providing standing height desks, for example, along with furniture on wheels or that swivels. Logical extensions from these sorts of furnishings indicate additional modifications that need to be made to classrooms when they become “active” such as making sure that classrooms are large enough to allow active learning. At her 2012 NeoCon talk Scott-Webber reported on square footage issues: “The mere fact that one is allowed to move in a classroom means more space per person. A lecture hall crammed with students shoulder to shoulder and 10 square feet per person is not the example. We are talking anywhere from 17 square feet per person to 32 square feet per person.”
Active learning environments are not confined to the classrooms, as is shown in a library design case study from Glen Allen High School in Henrico, Virginia. Martin, Westmoreland and Branyon (2011) note, "The library brings together both a high-tech infrastructure with flexible work areas. The need for classroom instruction is still valid, but the desire for more informal and casual functions are critical. . . . Formal classroom instruction was created in one corner, with a less formal instruction area in the diagonal corner, separated by low book stacks. Informal areas are created in several locations—near the large windows in the center of the library and in the quieter area adjacent to the circulation desk. Four types of displays—laptop, LCD large screen monitor, interactive white board, and projection—are provided for group or individual learning opportunities." The layout "lends itself to collaborative planning, teaching, and learning. Pockets where students can work in small or large groups were part of the design. The entrance is set back to provide an area for students to sit and work together on projects that require louder conversations."
Recent findings by Hao and colleagues need to inform discussion of active learning space design. Hao, Barnes, and Jing (2021) investigated the effects of college level active learning on educational outcomes. The researchers determined that “Active learning environments were found to have little influence, whereas active learning and teaching were found to have a significantly-positive influence on student achievements. . . . Active learning classrooms, characterised by open learning spaces, movable tables and seats, and learning technologies, are designed to better support effective learning. . . . In contrast to prior studies, this research revealed that active learning and teaching has a significantly beneficial influence on computer science students’ academic achievements, but active learning environments do not. The findings of this study . . . invite more debate on the important question of whether investment in active learning classrooms is worthwhile.”
Khasawneh and colleagues studied how university classrooms can be designed to support problem-based learning (2012). Problem-based learning (PBL) “shifts focus from faculty to students in a stark contrast to traditional pedagogies based on lecturing. . . . Students usually start with a problem, and then they move to acquire knowledge and skills in a sequence of real world problems presented in context with associated learning materials and support from a teacher.” Students often work in small groups, sometimes with just one other pupil. Creating environments where these teams of students can all simultaneously view a single computer screen and maintain eye contact is important; it keeps all members of a group engaged, but can be difficult to design. Khasawneh and colleagues found that: “The shape of a classroom needs to avoid the traditional rectangular hierarchical organization; it can be a square with a centralized faculty station, so that the faculty may be able to monitor all groups easily. The hierarchy of space can be cancelled by creating multiple focal points. . . . Flexibility is important. . . . Spaciousness and openness is another indispensable attribute; this permits students to have continuous unbounded sight lines and wide enough movement spines to facilitate moving. The use of table configurations with enough work space and a place to store belongings such as bags is a plus; this would help to satisfy the students’ needs for privacy and territoriality.”
C. Kenneth Tanner has done a lot of important and useful research on the physical design of schools. In 2008, he statistically compared the performance on standardized academic exams of third graders studying in schools whose physical environments were independently inventoried. Socio-economic status was controlled in Tanner's analyses; so it is clear that the factors discussed by Tanner explain differences in academic achievement "over and above that which is explained by school SES [socio-economic status]." Design elements related to higher academic performance included:
- Movement and circulation spaces, [multiple] and large group meeting spaces [both inside and outside the school] were all positively related to student achievement at the schools participating in Tanner’s study.
- Desirable movement and circulation spaces allow for quick, unobstructed travel by students, are wide enough so students’ personal spaces are not compromised, are supervisable, and allow direct access to areas frequented by students, such as drinking fountains, computer stations, and classrooms.
- Material presented by Tanner indicates that “An overall atmosphere needs to be created in which pupils can identify and establish a sense of ownership of the environments in which they study and play. Social space should provide places for quiet contemplation and for formal and informal play.” These gathering spaces must be consistent with the culture of the students and teachers who will use them.
- The use of instructional neighborhoods correlated with student achievement. Instructional neighborhoods are defined as places that include “large group (approximately 20-30 students) and small group areas, spaces for student and teacher planning, wet areas for art, a hearth area, and toilets for students and teachers. The instructional neighborhood should include windows for viewing outside the classroom and for bringing natural light inside. The ideal instructional neighborhood includes closed spaces to maximize flexibility and permits teachers and students to mange their own space."
The National Summit on School Design, sponsored by the American Architectural Foundation and the Knowledge Works Foundation, developed concrete suggestions for improved school design, including (American Architectural Foundation, 2006):
- Creating spaces within schools that are different shapes, sizes, and colors to support a variety of learning behaviors
- Providing areas within a school for a range of activities “from large, hands-on, team projects to quiet personal reflection”
- Developing spaces for outdoor educational activities in conjunction with the design of a school’s interior environments
- Considering safety when designing school spaces: “Provide clear sight lines and design inside traffic patterns carefully to maximize safety and supervision.”
- Separating quite study areas from noisy areas
- Including windows that open in the design
Van Liempd, Oudgenoeg-Paz, and Leseman (2020) studied links between childcare center design and kids’ (aged 6 months to 6 years old) behavior. They reviewed published studies related to the design of indoor play areas at center-based early childhood care and education spaces, learning that “children of 2–3 years of age felt more free to move further away from the caregiver if the room was divided in open zones so that they could keep eye-contact with the caregiver. . . . such a spatial arrangement apparently . . . enables them to autonomously explore the physical environment, which is regarded of central importance for cognitive and language development. . . . if a ‘special’ place was created where children could play alone, this place was rather frequently used for solitary play, and if such a place was not present, children turned to other (non-play) areas to be alone. . . .Daycare educators wanting to encourage young children's autonomous exploration of the playroom and to stimulate peer interactions should create playrooms that are divided in zones by way of low visual barriers . . . [with] a variety of designated, appropriately equipped play areas.”
Stress increases in toddlers at day care centers when less than five square meters of useable space is available per child (Legendre, 2003). Useable space is defined as the parts of the room accessible to the children; this can be distinguished from the total area of space allocated to a group. For example, space allocated to storage of large materials such as sleeping cots is not accessible to children. When young children can maintain eye contact with adults they trust, they are more likely to explore a space; exploration is generally desirable because it may lead to development-inducing experiences (Legendre, 2003). Crowding and personal space invasions are also serious adult stressors, as discussed here.
How do open plan classrooms in middle schools stack up against other sorts of learning spaces? Dovey and Fisher (2014) identified “Five primary plan types . . . ranging from the traditional classroom through various degrees of convertibility to permanently open plans. . . . We find that the most popular types have high levels of convertibility. . . . We also suggest that the most open of plans, while cheaper to build, are not the most agile or fluid.”
Shirley Dugdale reviews the challenges of designing current and evolving college and university settings (2009). She indicates that “Learner-centered planning recognizes the importance of supporting multiple ways of learning, including social learning and virtual discourse. Campus planners need to anticipate demand for learning that is more: collaborative, with active learning and group work; blended, with learning and other activities happening anywhere/anytime, enabled with mobile technology; integrated and multidisciplinary; immersive, with simulated or real-world experiences; and hybrid, combining online with face-to-face learning activities, augmented with mixed reality experiences.”
While conducting a post-occupancy evaluation sponsored by the Massachusetts State College Building Authority, Nugent (2012) learned that successful residential common spaces [e.g., front desks, common rooms with TVs/games, study areas, kitchens, laundry and recycling areas]: “foster the resident students’ personal, social, and academic growth;” and those that are used most intensively by college students meet the following criteria—although there may be slight variations in successful spaces from one campus to another because of factors such as group culture:
- The interior of the common space is visible from circulation routes, as well as open to these areas.
- If acoustic privacy is required, glass walls or doors are used so that it is still possible to see into a common space.
- It’s less intimidating for students to enter spaces that support a variety of activities and where an assortment of those activities are in process. Think: a TV or pool table in a kitchen.
- Spaces need to be an appropriate size for the planned activities—both too large and too small is too bad.
- Distribution of areas of various sizes and types throughout a building is good; they create more opportunities for people to form social connections.
- More common spaces are required as more students live in double rooms.
- Consistent with research on biophilic design and prospect and refuge (see this article for more information on biophilic design), “many of the residence halls studied included spaces for one or two people within the corridors, such as a window seat or a single chair with a view at the far end of the hall. Students use these spaces for quiet study and intimate conversation. . . . these work best when they are away from the action.” Window seats and nooks with upholstered seats are popular wherever they are placed in a dormitory.
- People living on a floor or in a suite need to be able to customize the common spaces they “own” in order for institutional dormitories to feel more homelike. Customization can take a variety of forms, from moving furniture to hanging meaningful objects.
- Naturally lit spaces are more successful. In general, however, it’s important to light spaces so that they are comfortable places to be and so that activity areas are delineated at night when many students are active. Pleasant lighting in common spaces that makes these spaces visible from outside the dormitory will draw in students returning to the residence at night.
- Comfortable, moveable, homelike furniture makes a space more welcoming. Particularly valued is upholstered, deep seating. Chairs are generally preferred to couches as students who don’t know each other well can be reticent to share couches. Furniture can be used to define different activity areas, while signaling different types of behaviors and supporting particular moods/activities (think: bar-height counters and stools and sectionals, for example).
- Drafts and echoes are both a no-no in successful common areas.
- Spaces that are designed to be “maintenance free” (think: cinder block) are generally not welcoming and students don’t develop a sense that they “own” them, and as a result are often more destructive when in them.
Nugent also discussed why the design of residential common spaces is so important: “Current learning theories focus on transactions between people, group work products in a variety of media, and multiple learning styles (visual, auditory, kinesthetic, etc.). A well-programmed residence hall is an ideal location for this nontraditional course work. Second, campuses are no longer compartmentalized—students eat in the library, take seminars in their residence hall, and do research anywhere that has Wi-Fi and a comfortable seat. . . . Paradoxically, this connectivity can be isolating, and residence halls designed for earlier generations inadvertently isolate students further by providing very little space for them to have face-to-face conversations. They need places to MIRL (meet in real life) outside of their dorm rooms. Finally, college is not exclusively an academic experience. We hope that our students are also learning how to be adults and members of society. . . . Much of this part of the college experience takes place in the common spaces of residence halls.”
Research completed by Bekiroglu and teammates (2021) indicates the value of incorporating opportunities for flexibility and movement into higher-education classrooms. The team report that their research determined that “(a) flexible room layout and movable furniture enabled participants to create settings that could support students’ group interactions; (b) flexible room layout and movable tools enabled people to move around to enhance student–to–student and teacher–to–student interaction; and (c) through the movement of furniture and tools and movement of people, participants were able to easily transition between different activities. The easy movement of tools and furniture widens the range of available classroom configurations to optimize engagement opportunities. Similarly, the flexibility of the classroom allows for the relatively easy movement of people. Our data suggest that such flexibility can facilitate interaction and engagement among students and instructors to create opportunities to promote both cognitive and emotional engagement.”
Millan and colleagues (2021) studied classroom dimensions and learning outcomes. They report that “Classroom design influences the cognitive processes that determine learning. . . . virtual reality allows researchers to very closely control many environmental conditions while collecting psychological and neurophysiological metrics of the user experience. . . . [subject performance was evaluated] in three classroom width settings (8.80, 8.20, and 7.60 m), implemented in virtual reality . . . through measures of their attention- and memory-related psychological and neurophysiological responses. The results showed that wider classrooms are associated with poorer performance and lower emotional arousal. This demonstrates a link between the geometric variables of classrooms and the cognitive and physiological responses of students.”
Researchers have investigated how office design can support the work of university educators.
A study at the University of Michigan supports carefully co-locating current and potential academic team members (“Sharing Space: Proximity Breeds Collaboration,” 2012). Owen-Smith, Kabo, Levenstein, Price, Davis, Hwang and Nessler learned that “Researchers who occupy the same building are 33 percent more likely to form new collaborations than researchers who occupy different buildings, and scientists who occupy the same floor are 57 percent more likely to form new collaborations than investigators who occupy different buildings.” Additional details about the study were provided: “Owen-Smith and colleagues examined the relationship between office and lab proximity and walking patterns, and found that linear distance between offices was less important than overlap in daily walking paths . . . . ‘We looked at how much overlap existed for any two researchers moving between lab space, office space, and the nearest bathroom and elevator,’ Owen-Smith said. ‘And we found that net of the distance between their offices, for every 100 feet of zonal overlap, collaborations increased by 20 percent and grant funding increased between 21 and 30 percent.’ Owen-Smith and colleagues also found that the likelihood of passive contacts can be more simply assessed by using a measure of ‘door passing’—whether one investigator’s work path passes by another’s office door.”
Baldry and Barnes investigated the influence of open-plan offices on the performance of college-level instructors (2012). The researchers determined that “despite a rhetoric of synergy, the dominant rationale for OP [open-plan offices] is one of cost reduction and that the experience for many academics is proving detrimental to both scholarship and professional identity [comparison is to scholarship and professional identify with single person offices with floor to ceiling walls and a full height door that can be closed].” The use of open-plan offices has clear implications for student interactions with their teachers: [two of the locations with open-plan offices] “operated a no-student access policy [in the open-office environments]. At Glenfiddich the doors to the staff areas had security locks and students had to phone their tutor’s extension from a phone in the corridor and then meet the tutor in one of the small meeting rooms. . . . At Glengrant, staff had to meet students downstairs at the main reception desk and then try to find a vacant room. Glengrant marketed itself as a small and student-friendly university yet the spatial separation of staff and students was felt to undermine this.”
Barnes and colleagues (2020) studied the design and use of professional workplaces at the University of California, San Francisco. They report that “Mission Hall, a new office building primarily for desktop and clinical researchers and staff, was designed as an activity-based workplace (ABW), a type of open-space design. . . . The Mission Hall experience provided a unique opportunity to understand the impact of an ABW design on faculty satisfaction, work effectiveness, well-being, and engagement. In a 2016 survey of faculty, one year after occupancy, respondents reported adverse changes in all four areas. The most common complaints involved noise exposure and lack of visual and auditory privacy. In response to these issues, faculty reported working at home or elsewhere more frequently, making collaboration more difficult. In 2018, UCSF retrofitted the building to create some private offices and adjusted its overall program to balance private offices and open workspaces in future projects.” The researchers report that a critical lesson learned from the project was the need “to assess functional requirements of work and align design.” Initially, people working in Mission Hall, regardless of job functions/responsibilities, were assigned to a 40-square-foot individual workstation with 42-inch partitions on three sides; workstations were arranged in rows. Focus rooms (1 for every 4 occupants, which could not be reserved, 60-70 square feet) and huddle rooms (1 for every 20 occupants, various sizes) were available for small meetings. Conference rooms of various sizes were available and could be reserved.
Support concentration and collaboration.
Concentration and collaboration are important in learning environments for students of any age and these topics have been extensively researched, particularly in contexts outside of learning environments. Information on environmental factors that support learning, and particularly concentration (alone or with others) and collaboration, via color, environmental control, and other environmental factors, is discussed here and here, for example.
To encourage learning, create comfortable, education-positive zones.
Research consistently shows that humans are most likely to excel at mental work that requires concentration or focus—such as learning multiplication tables—when they’re in a place that’s relatively more relaxing and to do well on tasks where concentration/focus is not crucial in more energizing ones. For information on colors, patterns, etc., that support desired stimulation levels, read this article.
Numerous studies have modified multiple aspects of learning environments simultaneously and noted the combined effect of all changes on academic performance and learning. First, we’ll cover research which considers multiple environmental attributes that was done with young people.
In several important studies of pre-kindergarten to 12th grade school environments, Barrett and team researched the optimal design of primary schools (Barrett, Zhang, Moffat, and Kobbacy, 2013). They reviewed the progress of a representative group of students during an academic year and the physical environments in those students’ classrooms. The British authors report the attributes of classrooms linked to larger improvements in academic achievement, however, some of their space/factor descriptions are a little vague. The classrooms of “high-performers” scored well on:
- Classroom receives natural light from more than one orientation.
- And (or) natural light can penetrate into the south windows.
- Classroom has high quality and quantity of the electrical lightings.
- The space adjacent to the window is clear without obstruction.
- Classroom has a high-quality and purpose-designed Furniture Fixture & Equipment (FF&E).
- Interesting (shape and colour) and ergonomic tables and chairs.
- More zones can allow varied learning activities at the same time.
- The teacher can easily change the space configuration.
- Wide corridor can ease the movement.
- The pathway has clear way-finding characteristics.
Stimulation, appropriate level of:
- Big building area can provide diverse opportunities for alternative learning activities.
- With regard to the display and decoration, classroom needs to be designed with a quiet visual environment, balanced with a certain [moderate] level of complexity.
- Warm colour is welcomed in senior grade’s classrooms while cool colour in junior grades, as long as it is bright.
- Colour of the wall, carpet, furniture and display can all contribute to the colour scheme of a classroom. However, it is the room colour (wall and floor) that plays the most important role.”
Barrett and team (Barrett, Zhang, Davies, and Barrett, 2015) share their research-based insights in a well-written and effectively illustrated workbook available free at the website noted below (“Clever Classrooms”). The researchers report that their work has determined that “well-designed primary schools boost children’s academic performance in reading, writing and maths. Differences in the physical characteristics of classrooms explain 16% of the variation in learning progress over a year. . . . Or to make this more tangible, it is estimated that the impact of moving an ‘average’ child from the least effective to the most effective space would be around 1.3 sub-levels, a big impact when pupils typically make 2 sub-levels progress a year.” The data from which conclusions are drawn were collected over three years at 27 different schools and in 153 classrooms: “The success of the study comes from taking into account a wide range of sensory factors and using multilevel statistical modeling to isolate the effects of classroom design from the influences of other factors, such as the pupils themselves and their teachers.” The team learned that “The factors found to be particularly influential [on learning outcomes] are, in order of influence:
- Naturalness: light, temperature and air quality—accounting for half the learning impact
- Individualisation: ownership and flexibility—accounting for about a quarter
- Stimulation (appropriate level of): complexity and color—again about a quarter. . . .the appropriate level of stimulation for learning is curvilinear—neither chaotic, nor boring, but somewhere in the middle.”
In their 2015 report in Building and Environment, Barrett and colleagues also shared that “the importance of occupants' control of the ‘naturalness’ [for example, temperature] is evident. . . . . A classroom that has distinct architectural characteristics, e.g. unique location (bungalow, or separate buildings); shape (L shape; T shape); embedded shelf for display; intimate corner; facilities specifically-designed for pupils, distinctive ceiling pattern etc. . . . seems to strengthen the pupils' sense of ownership. . . . a moderate level of stimulation [from design elements is] appropriate for the learning situation.”
Barrett, Davies, Zhang, and Barrett continue to publish research based on their studies of primary schools (students age 5 to 11) (2017). For their 2017 work, they’ve studied links between particular aspects of the physical environment and children’s performance in either reading, writing, or math. The team learned that for all three subjects light and flexibility have a significant effect on performance. The light factor was defined as having a “good amount” of natural light without glare and “good” options for controlling the amount of light in the classroom. Flexibility was operationalized as how appropriate classroom design was for the ages of the students, presence of small group work areas in classrooms, and adequate in-classroom storage. For progress in reading and writing, moderately stimulating colors and visual complexity were best. For more information on whether colors are stimulating or relaxing, read this article and for more on visual complexity, connect to this one. For reading progress, width of corridors and effective wayfinding in corridors were significant: “[11 of the 27] schools in [in the study] had libraries in corridors or atrium spaces.” For progress in writing, links to nature were important and this factor was defined as natural elements, such as wooden furniture and plants in the classroom, views of nature, and direct access to outdoors. Finally, for progress in math, perceived ownership of the classroom was significant; this term was operationalized as student artwork on walls, assignment of lockers or coat hooks to individual students, and ergonomically appropriate furnishings for the pupils. The implications of designing spaces to support particular subjects can be important: “For each of the different subject models, the aspects of the classroom environment taken together explained approximately 10% of the variability in the pupil performance. These are big effects. . . . The biggest impact from classroom design is in math progress.” These findings are generalizable to the development of learning spaces for older learners, according to the Barrett team.
Space design is particularly important for 3-year-olds in school-type settings (Maxwell, 2007). Children’s ability to control spaces (for example, to position furniture) and to explore spaces (through coherent circulation paths and visual access, for example) were key factors linked to elevated cognitive capabilities, just as they have been linked to enhanced cognitive performance by adults generally (for more related information read this article). Maxwell concludes that “The findings indicate that the relationship between the classroom physical environment and children’s cognitive competency is especially important for younger preschool children (children between 3 and 4 years of age). Perhaps the adequacy of the physical setting is particularly critical for younger preschool children because they are more sensitive to the physical qualities of the setting. This could occur because they have less experience in child care settings.” Maxwell reached this conclusion using a classroom rating scale that assessed many features of child care centers such as the design of social spaces and area boundaries (features that distinguish group and privates spaces, for example), options for privacy (ability to regulate interactions with others), opportunities for personalization (by and for children, including, for example, ability to move furniture), presence of moderate design complexity (such as the variety of colors, shapes of floor spaces, mixes of colors and ceiling heights, and lighting levels), and appropriate scale (sink appropriate for hand washing by children, for example).
Richardson and Mishra developed a practical tool that can guide the development of learning environments that support student creativity (2018). The tool is based on a literature review, observations in primary school classrooms, feedback from school administrators, pilot testing with elementary school teachers, and a focus group with education-concerned members. The team reports that “The final version of the SCALE [Support for Creativity in a Learning Environment] consists of 14 items in three categories: Physical Environment; Learning Climate; and Learner Engagement. . . . The Physical Environment includes items related to the space of the learning environment itself. The space should be open, containing furniture that is flexible, allowing for multiple spaces in which small groups of students can work together. . . . Teachers should have a variety of resources and materials readily available for student use.” Although much of the data used to develop SCALE was collected at an elementary school, Richardson and Mishra believe that their findings are applicable in learning environments at other educational levels, in part because “the articles in the literature review spanned a variety of educational settings; from early childhood through college.”
Marchand and team (2014) set out to “investigate whether the combined environmental factors of light, sound, and temperature in a classroom built environment set to comfortable levels or just outside the comfort zone (OCZ) impacted undergraduate student learning, mood, and perceptions of environmental influence on performance during listening and reading tasks.” They learned that “participants in the OCZ listening condition had lower scores on a comprehension test than those in the normal listening condition. . . . Students in the OCZ condition reported more negative affect [mood] and believed that the sound and temperature of the room had a more negative impact on their performance than those in the normal condition. Participants in the reading conditions were more likely to attribute poor performance to the sound levels in the room than students in the listening condition.” Information on desirable classroom conditions, provided by groups such as ASHRAE, was used to create the test environments. In the “comfortable” situation, temperature was set at 72 degrees Fahrenheit, sound levels in the room were 35 dBA, and lighting levels were 500 lux. In the OCZ condition, room temperature was 80 degrees Fahrenheit and lighting was set at 2500 lux; sound levels were set to 65 dBA for the reading condition and 60 in the listening one.
Make sure learning spaces are flooded with natural light.
Natural light and window views of at least 50 feet enhance cognitive performance, and it is preferable that those views “overlook some form of life” (Tanner, 2008). The effects of natural light on the cognitive performance of adults is discussed here.
Principals and staff members in schools perceive that natural light influences their own performance and that of students (Bishop, 2009): “This case study involved the examination of three new high schools that opened in the Commonwealth of Virginia between 2006 and 2007. Principal and staff interviews and focus group interviews were conducted. . . . All respondents in both interview groups agreed that the amount of natural light incorporated into the design of the building had a positive impact on both student and staff behaviors, indicating that it may have positively impacted student achievement. At all three locations participants expressed a shared belief that natural light had affected their overall performance, their individual moods, and in some cases, their ability to maintain their levels of performance as the year progressed.”
And the right sorts of artificial light.
Mixes of artificial and natural light (preferably from windows on two sides of each room) support learning according to Tanner (2008).
Philips has developed an in-school lighting system named SchoolVision. A research team lead by Wessolowski describes the implications of exposing students to a SchoolVision light setting labeled the “relax” condition (325 lx, 3,500 K) (Wessolowski, Koenig, Schulte-Markwort, and Barkmann, 2014). As the researchers detail, their study, which was conducted in real classrooms over the course of nine months, “showed a significantly stronger decline in fidgetiness and observed aggressive behaviors and a tendency toward increased prosocial behaviors within the intervention group.” In other words, when experiencing “relax” lighting, students fidgeted less, were less aggressive, and behaved in a more positive, friendly way than kids in the classrooms without SchoolVision doing similar tasks/learning activities. Pupils in the 3rd grade and in the 10th grade experienced the “relax” light condition in their classroom (at times their teachers selected) or were assigned to classrooms that were comparable to the ones with SchoolVision (in terms of windows, etc.), except they were equipped with standard lighting (300 lx, 4,000K). This research builds from “Empirical studies [that] indicate an improvement in communication and an increase in prosocial behaviors as a result of using warm, dimmed lighting in work environments.”
Mott and colleagues wanted to learn how artificial light (i.e., not daylight) could be used to help students learn better; their work also used the SchoolVision apparatus (2012). Clearly defined lighting conditions were tested: “Focus lighting consisted of 1000 lux with a temperature of 6500 K. . . . It consisted of a Modified Softrace with three T5HO lamps: two 17000 K Activiva Active and one 2700 K, with one 1-lamp DALI ballast, one 2-lamp DALI ballast, and one DMBC320–DALI-NA controller. . . . Normal lighting consisted of 500 lux with a temperature of 3500 K (lens troffer 2 by 4 two-lamp T8 fluorescent fixtures.” All testing reported here was conducted independently of Philips, who developed SchoolVision. The other settings available via SchoolVision were Calm and Energy, and all of lighting options provided by Philips are based on previous well-respected lighting research. In the Focus-test condition the lighting conditions outlined above were used during reading-fluency instruction periods, but the Normal, Calm, and Energy settings were used at other times during the day, at the teacher’s discretion. When the Focus and Normal lighting conditions were tested, window shades were closed. Lighting conditions were maintained for a full year in the classrooms in which data were collected and all testing was conducted in the Normal lighting condition. The advantages of the Focus lighting condition were clear and using the “focus light setting as an instructional technology improved the reading performance of the experimental group [of third graders]."
Pulay and Williamson investigated the response of pre-K students to LED (light emitting diodes) and fluorescent lighting in classrooms (2019). They report that “Previous research has demonstrated that lighting influences adult worker productivity and mood in a workplace. However, because children process stimuli faster, it [was] unknown whether LED lighting would have the same influence in a learning environment. Researchers. . . . [observed] child engagement behaviours in a pre-K classroom under LED lighting and fluorescent lighting fixtures to compare differences. Students displayed more engaged behaviours under the LED lighting condition.”
Lasauskaite and Cajochen linked mental effort intensity and light color (2016). The team “tested effort-related cardiac response under four lighting conditions and found that it decreased with color temperatures [i.e., as light got bluer]. Thus, blue-enriched light in offices and schools might . . . preserve resources during cognitive activities.”
Kombeiz and team set out to learn more about how lighting influences conflict resolution (2017). They found that “dim warm light may foster collaborative conflict resolution. . . . When designing work places where collaboration is important (e.g., conference and meeting rooms in organizations, group learning spaces at schools and universities), lighting should be taken into account. It may not be enough to install lights that meet the requirements specified by the regulations or to simply opt for the brightest or most energy-efficient solutions. Dim warm light or dynamic light with the option to set ‘collaborative light’ in such rooms could contribute to cooperative decisions and discussions.” In the first of two studies conducted by the Kombeiz team the lighting conditions tested were: bright neutral (1000 lx, 4200 K), bright warm (1000 lx, 2800 K), dim neutral (300 lx, 4200 K) and dim warm (300 lx, 2800 K) while those used in the second study were bright cold (1500 lx, 5500 K), bright warm (1500 lx, 2500 K), dim cold (150 lx, 5500 K), and dim warm light (150 lx, 2500 K).
Choi and team (2019) “investigated physiological and subjective responses to morning light exposure of commercially available LED lighting with different correlated colour temperatures to predict how LED-based smart lighting employed in future learning environments will impact students. . . . university students underwent an hour of morning light exposure to both warm (3,500 K) and blue-enriched (6,500 K) white lights at recommended illuminance levels for classrooms and lecture halls (500 lux). The decline of melatonin levels was significantly greater after the exposure to blue-enriched white light. Exposure to blue-enriched white light significantly improved subjective perception of alertness, mood, and visual comfort. . . . Blue-enriched LED light seems to be a simple yet effective potential countermeasure for morning drowsiness and dozing off in class, particularly in schools with insufficient daylight.” People in the bluer light thus felt significantly more alert, etc., than those experiencing the warmer light.
Brink and colleagues (2021) evaluated links between college/university classroom conditions and student performance. They report that their literature review determined that “Warm white light provides a relaxing environment and supports communication, and should gradually change to blue-enriched white light after its prolonged use during the morning to prevent drowsiness. . . . these different correlated color temperatures imitates the natural change of daylight during the day and therefore supports teachers' and students' circadian rhythm. . . . a lighting system with a color temperature of 4000K in classrooms can also influence the ability to concentrate positively. . . . regulation of students' circadian rhythm is important because it influences students' alert state and cognitive performance. . . . The cognitive performance of students can decline by as much as 13% (P < 0.001) when the CO2 concentration increases from 600 to 1000 ppm. . . . this concentration of CO2 still meets prevailing guidelines.”
For additional information on the learning-related implications of experiencing different sorts of artificial light, read this article.
“Moderate” visual complexity.
Classrooms/Learning environments should be moderately complex visually (“Heavily Decorated Classrooms Disrupt Attention and Learning in Young Children,” 2014). As Fisher, Godwin, and Seltman report “Maps, number lines, shapes, artwork and other materials tend to cover elementary classroom walls. However, new research . . . shows that too much of a good thing may end up disrupting attention and learning in young children.” The Fisher team learned that “children in highly decorated classrooms were more distracted, spent more time off-task and demonstrated smaller learning gains than when the decorations were removed.”
The interiors of homes designed by Frank Lloyd Wright generally have moderate visual complexity. For more on visual complexity, read this article.
In their journal article Fisher, Godwin, and Seltman (2014) state: “young children with immature regulation of focused attention are often placed in elementary-school classrooms containing many displays that are not relevant to ongoing instruction. We investigated whether such displays can affect children’s ability to maintain focused attention during instruction and to learn the lesson content. We placed kindergarten children in a laboratory classroom for six introductory science lessons, and we experimentally manipulated the visual environment in the classroom. Children were more distracted by the visual environment, spent more time off task, and demonstrated smaller learning gains when the walls were highly decorated than when the decorations were removed. . . . In the decorated-classroom condition, the laboratory classroom was furnished with potential sources of visual distraction commonly found in primary classrooms (e.g., science posters, maps, the children’s own artwork provided by their teacher). . . . In the sparse-classroom condition, all materials irrelevant to ongoing instruction were removed.”
Erikson reviews research on distractions in children’s learning environments for a publication of the Association for Psychological Science (2018). She reports that when a lesson was taught “to a small group of children in a room that was either decorated with a high degree of visual clutter or a room that was relatively bare. . . . those who were taught in the visually sparse room learned more than did those taught in the visually cluttered room, even though the clutter consisted of educationally relevant items commonly found in classrooms.” Developing solutions that appropriately recognize and respond to both audio and visual distractions is important but complicated since “Many potentially distracting items, such . . . artwork the children created themselves, make children feel happy, comfortable, and open to learning.” A design option suggested by Erikson, that is likely to make students feel comfortable while also minimizing visual distractions, is projecting images such as children’s art onto Smartboards when instruction is not underway or using curtains to screen artworks and similar items from view during active learning sessions.
Sloutsky and Plebanek (“Children Notice Information That Adults Miss,” 2017) “found that adults were very good at remembering information they were told to focus on, and ignoring the rest. In contrast, 4- to 5-year-olds tended to pay attention to all the information that was presented to them – even when they were told to focus on one particular item. . . . The fact that children don’t always do as well at focusing attention also shows the importance of designing the right learning environment in classrooms, Sloutsky said. ‘Children can’t handle a lot of distractions. They are always taking in information, even if it is not what you’re trying to teach them. We need to make sure that we are aware of that and design our classrooms, textbooks and educational materials to help students succeed. Perhaps a boring classroom or a simple black and white worksheet means less distraction and more successful learning,’ Sloutsky added.”
For more information on the learning-related advantages of moderate visual complexity for both adults and children and how to lock it in, read this article.
Prudently manage acoustic experiences.
Acoustics are extremely important in learning environments:
- The existing body of research indicates the importance of preventing high levels of reverberation in classrooms. Baker and Bernstein (2012) reference work by Klatte and colleagues published in 2011: “in classrooms with different reverberation times (RT) . . . children’s short-term memory, speech perception abilities and attitudes about their classrooms and teachers [were compared]. They [Klatte et al.] compared classrooms with RTs from .49 to 1.1. seconds (the ANSI standard calls for a maximum of 0.6 seconds in regular size classrooms) and found a significant negative impact on short-term memory and speech perception as reverberation time increased.”
- Kristiansen and colleagues have researched how reverberation times and sound levels experienced are related to teacher stress and annoyance (2011). Their research was conducted in Copenhagen and “The schools [where research was done . . . were classified as ‘Short RT [reverberation times]’ (3 schools, mean RT 0.41-0.45 s), ‘Medium RT’ (3 schools, mean RT 0.51-0.55 s) and ‘Long RT’ (4 schools, mean RT 0.62-0.73 s).” Teachers reported higher levels of noise exposure when more children were in a classroom, students were younger, and the teachers themselves had less seniority. The researchers found that “Significant determinants of disturbance attributed to noise from children in the class were teacher seniority and ‘Long RT’ acoustic classification of the school” (most of the classrooms in the school had Long RT). Additional analyses indicated that “the consequences of noise and poor acoustics may not be limited to disturbance attributed to noise, but may have a wide negative impact on the perceived working environment.” The general health of the teachers who participated in the study, their gender, and the psychological pressure they might be experiencing due to factors outside work were statistically eliminated as possible explanations for the relationships found.
- Kristiansen and team reference other recent research whose findings are consistent with theirs in their concluding discussion: “Interestingly, negative effects of long classroom RT on the wellbeing of the children and on their perceived relation to the teacher have been found in a recent study (Klatte, Hellbrück, Seidel, & Leistner, 2010).” In the 2010 study by Klatte and colleagues pupils in the long RT classrooms felt teaches were less friendly and less patient compared to pupils in classrooms with shorter RT.
- Picou and team (2019) investigated the complicated relationship between sound reverberation in classrooms and school-aged children’s experiences in those spaces. The researchers determined that “Background noise and reverberation levels in typical classrooms have negative effects on speech recognition. . . . typically developing children (10 – 17 years old) participated. Participants completed dual-task testing in two rooms that varied in terms of reverberation, an audiometric sound booth and a moderately reverberant room. In each room, testing was completed in quiet and in two levels of background noise. Participants provided subjective ratings of listening effort. . . . [and] fatigue. . . . background noise, not reverberation, increased behavioral and subjective listening effort. . . . In total, these data offer no evidence that a moderate level of reverberation increases listening effort or fatigue, but the data do support the reduction of background noise in classrooms.”
- Astolfi and colleagues (2019) investigated the effects of classroom acoustics on the educational experiences of young people, age 6 to 7. They determined that “findings of the study suggest that long reverberation times, which are associated to poor classroom acoustics as they generate higher noise levels and degraded speech intelligibility, bring pupils to a reduced perception of having fun and being happy with themselves. Furthermore, bad classroom acoustics is also related to an increased perception of noise intensity and disturbance, particularly in the case of traffic noise and noise from adjacent school environments.”
- Limiting ceiling height to 9-12 feet can control the negative effects of high RT (Siebein, Gould, Siebein, and Ermann, 2002).
- Siebein and colleagues recommend that the total amount of sound absorbent materials on ceilings and walls equal the area of the classroom floor, and that these materials be preferentially placed on the back ceiling and in a band around the walls (2002). If the teacher speaks from a regular location at the front of the classroom, a non-absorbent ceiling such as gypsum-board above that position can help reflect the sound to the back of the room.
- Han and Mak learned that “increasing the absorption coefficient at the back wall [of a classroom] can increase speech intelligibility. . . to the largest extent in the classroom. . . . If one wants to improve the classroom acoustical conditions by using . . . sound absorbing materials, the best way is to put them at the back wall of the classroom” (2008).
- Finishes can also influence acoustic experience (Siebein, Gould, Siebein, and Ermann, 2002). Carpeted floors can be effective at reducing sound levels/echoes, but these benefits must be weighed against maintenance and replacement costs.
- Background noise influences toddlers’ ability to learn. McMillan and Saffran studied two sets of toddlers (22-24 months old and 28-30 months old) who were being taught new words in a space where other people could be heard speaking (2016). Both the older and younger children “successfully learned novel label–object pairings when target speech was 10 dB louder than background speech but not when the signal-to-noise ratio (SNR) was 5 dB [meaning when the teacher’s voice was only 5 decibels louder than background speech].”
- Caviola, Visentin, Borella, Mammarella, and Prodi (2021) tie in-classroom noise experienced by middle-school students (ages 11 to 13) to their in-classroom academic performance on mathematics problems. The negative effects of classroom noise were most severe for younger students and for children doing relatively easier math problems. The researchers determined that “The youngest children performed better in the quiet and traffic noise conditions than in the classroom noise condition, while in the older children these differences gradually disappeared. . . . With increasing task complexity, the difference between listening conditions faded. . . . when a task is difficult, the presence or absence of noise does not seem to affect accuracy or RTs [response times], because the task absorbs all the available cognitive resources.” The various noise conditions tested were described: “The quiet condition is typical of classroom life when the teacher is speaking and the students are sitting at their desks and not talking. . . The traffic noise condition was created by obtaining recordings alongside a road in conditions of busy traffic . . . [and] correcting for the sound insulation properties of a typical building façade. The classroom noise condition was obtained by digitally mixing sound events typical of a working classroom” and the sound of a woman speaking Italian. In all conditions speech was set at 63 dB(A) and in the traffic and classroom conditions, background noise was presented at 60 dB(A).
- Brill and Wang (2021) tie higher in-classroom noise levels to degraded ability to math test scores among students in grades 3, 5, 8, and 11. They report that “Three metrics describing the classroom acoustics, including the average daily A-weighted equivalent level for non-speech, the average daily difference between the A-weighted equivalent levels for speech and non-speech (a signal to noise ratio), and the mid-frequency averaged reverberation time, were analyzed against classroom-aggregated standardized reading and math achievement test scores, while controlling for classroom demographics including socioeconomic status. . . . A statistically significant relationship was found between the average daily non-speech levels in classrooms and math test scores; higher daily non-speech levels were correlated with lower math test scores. . . . No statistically significant main effects of acoustic metrics were found on reading achievement. . . . Children learn in occupied classrooms, and the findings from this investigation based on data from occupied conditions suggest that designing for lower unoccupied sound levels can lead to occupied environments that are conducive to better student learning outcomes.”
- Adding white noise to school environments enhances performance of some students, but harms that of others (Soderlund, Sikstrom, Loftesnes, and Sonuga-Barke, 2010). The cognitive performance of inattentive students improves and attentive students’ performance deteriorates when white noise is introduced “these effects eliminated the differences between high performing, attentive and low performing inattentive children.” In the test condition the white noise was 78 dB loud and study participants were 11 to 12 years old.
- In an investigation of textual information memory with adolescents, Sorqvist confirms how universally distracting spoken language is (2010). The distracting speech is processed through the same mental channel as the text being read, essentially overloading that processing channel. Sorgvist presents the design implications of his findings: “Interventions that aim to reduce the negative influence of irrelevant speech in classrooms should have particularly high priority, since speech stands out as the most devastating type of noise.” Sorgvist’s findings are also relevant to other spaces, such as libraries and study areas.
- Bratt-Eggen and team researched sound levels in open-plan study spaces (2017). The investigators collected information in “five open-plan study environments at universities in the Netherlands. A questionnaire was used to investigate student tasks, perceived sound sources and their perceived disturbance, and sound measurements were performed to determine the room acoustic parameters. This study shows that 38% of the surveyed students are disturbed by background noise in an open-plan study environment. Students are mostly disturbed by speech when performing complex cognitive tasks like studying for an exam, reading and writing. Significant . . . correlations were found between the room acoustic parameters and noise disturbance of students [so measured noise levels were higher in the spaces where students were most likely to have difficulty studying].”
- Research by Tamesue confirms that meaningful ambient noise degrades cognitive performance (2016). A press release detailing findings he presented at the 5th Joint Meeting Acoustical Society of America and Acoustical Society of Japan reports that “When carrying out intellectual activities involving memory or arithmetic tasks, it is a common experience for noise to cause an increased psychological impression of ‘annoyance,’ leading to a decline in performance. This is more apparent for meaningful noise, such as conversation, than it is for other random, meaningless noise. . . . the impact of meaningless and meaningful noises on selective attention and cognitive performance in volunteers, as well as the degree of subjective annoyance of those noises, were investigated. . . . selective attention to cognitive tasks was influenced by the degree of meaningfulness of the noise. . . . the subjective experience of annoyance in response to noise increased due to the meaningfulness of the noise. . . . That means that when designing sound environments in spaces used for cognitive tasks, such as the workplace or schools, it is appropriate to consider not only the sound level, but also meaningfulness of the noise that is likely to be present. . . . Because it is difficult to soundproof an open office, a way to mask meaningful speech with some other sound would be of great benefit for achieving a comfortable sound environment.”
- Higuera-Trujillo and colleagues (2021) evaluated experiences in a virtual reality university classroom. More details on their study: “Regarding noise, seven stimuli were developed. This number corresponds to combining two common sources (traffic noise and internal noise) with the three intensities (low 44 dBA, medium 54 dBA, and high 64dBA). . . . Regarding lighting, nine stimuli were developed. This number corresponds to combining common colour temperatures (3000K, 6000K and 9000K) with three intensities (100 lx, 300 lx, and 500 lx). . . . After analyzing the significant differences, the following design guidelines were found: Regarding Attention: Classroom with high traffic noise can enhance performance with 100lx illuminance. Regarding Memory: A classroom with traffic noise can improve performance with 100 lx illuminance. A classroom with low traffic noise can improve performance with lighting color temperature of 9000K. A classroom with high traffic noise can improve performance with lighting colour temperature of 3000K.” These findings are consistent with balancing visual and acoustic experiences to optimize learning outcomes, discussed in this article and this one.
For additional information on links between acoustic experiences and cognitive performance, read this article.
Ventilate, and manage the air, appropriately.
Scientists have extensively researched how ventilation and scents can support cognitive performance, and that material is presented in this article.
For example: Allen and team have learned that green office design is good for more than the planet (Allen, MacNaughton, Satish, Santanam, Vallarino, and Spengler, 2016). The researchers determined, via studying people who worked in a green environment for 6 full days, that higher order cognitive function was enhanced in the environmentally responsible structure. More details on the test conditions: study participants “On different days . . . were exposed to IEQ conditions representative of Conventional (high volatile organic compound (VOC) concentration) and Green (low VOC concentration) office buildings in the U.S. Additional conditions simulated a Green building with a high outdoor air ventilation rate (labeled Green+) and artificially elevated carbon dioxide (CO2) levels independent of ventilation.” Allen and colleagues found that “On average, cognitive scores were 61% higher on the Green building day and 101% higher on the two Green+ building days than on the Conventional building day. . . VOCs and CO2 were independently associated with cognitive scores. . . . Cognitive function scores were significantly better in Green+ building conditions compared to the Conventional building conditions for all nine functional domains.” At the sorts of carbon dioxide levels regularly found in indoor spaces, performance on 7 of the 9 cognitive tests administered was lower than on the same tests at lower concentrations of carbon dioxide. Examples of the cognitive functions tested: decision making, developing strategies and responding to crises. Study participants had a range of backgrounds including design and architecture, computer programming and engineering, as well as marketing and general management.
Another example: Snow and colleagues (2019) wanted to learn more about how concentrations of carbon dioxide influence cognitive performance. They investigated “cognitive performance. . . during short (< 60 min) exposures to normal CO2 (830 ppm) and high CO2 (2700 ppm. . .). The study was conducted in a small naturally ventilated office . . . . windows were closed while participants were in the room. . . . The chosen target for high CO2 concentration was 2700 ppm, well above guidelines for CO2 concentrations in offices (1200 ppm . . .) and classrooms (1500 ppm), but not uncommon in occupied buildings. . . . Under normal IAQ conditions (the absence of additional pure-CO2), participants performed better in the subsequent sessions of cognitive performance testing compared to the first. . . . Critically, however, short-term exposure to the raised CO2 concentration (∼2700 ppm . . .) did not produce this expected . . . . effect. . . . . Individuals already lacking sleep may be more susceptible to the effects of CO2 in enclosed spaces.”
Temperatures between 68 to 74 degrees Fahrenheit, and humidity levels from forty to seventy percent optimize students’ mental performance (Baker and Bernstein, 2012).
Research conducted at the University of California, Davis, indicates that the temperature and air quality in K-12 classrooms may be degrading students’ ability to learn (“Are Students Getting Enough Air? Many California Classrooms Don’t Have Sufficient Ventilation,” 2019). A press release from Davis, reporting on a study from UC Davis and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) published in Building and Environment, states that “Roughly 85 percent of recently installed HVAC systems in K-12 classrooms investigated in California did not provide adequate ventilation. . . . researchers visited 104 classrooms . . . that had been retrofitted with new heating, ventilation and air conditioning, or HVAC, units in the past three years. . . . ‘Previous research has shown that under-ventilation of classrooms is common and negatively impacts student health and learning,’ [quote attributed to Rengie Chan from Berkeley Lab]. . . . ASHRAE, a global professional society that sets standards for building performance, specifies a minimum ventilation rate for classrooms of 15 cubic feet per minute per person. . . . researchers found only about 15 percent of classrooms met the ventilation standard. . . . thermal comfort impacts student performance. . . . about 60 percent of the classrooms were warmer than the recommended average maximum temperature range of 73 F.”
Nair, Fielding, and Lackney determined that students learn best in naturally ventilated schools (2009).
Research completed by a Mullen-lead team (2020) not only confirms the value of air outside being fresh, but also the advantages of air brought into buildings being “scrubbed.” The investigators report that “Fine particulate air pollution is harmful to children in myriad ways. While evidence is mounting that chronic exposures are associated with reduced academic proficiency, no research has examined the frequency of peak exposures. . . . [the researchers examined] the percentage of third grade students who tested below the grade level in math and English language arts (ELA) in Salt Lake County, Utah primary schools . . . where fine particulate pollution is a serious health threat. More frequent peak exposures were associated with reduced math and ELA proficiency, as was greater school disadvantage. High frequency peak exposures were more strongly linked to lower math proficiency in more advantaged schools. Findings highlight the need for policies to reduce the number of days with peak air pollution.”
Coordinate furnishings and finishes to support learning.
Furniture and finish selections influence student academic performance.
Lowe (2020) reports on a good deal of the published research on the implications, psychological and otherwise, of using wood in commercial and institutional buildings, such as offices and healthcare facilities. “In school classrooms with wood interiors, students experience less stress and better learning outcomes. . . . Wood can create healthy and productive buildings.”
Kelz, Grote, and Moser studied stress levels in Austrian classrooms, and learned that students were less stressed in classrooms that used predominantly wood finishes than students in classrooms that were not wood-dominate (2011). Research with adults has shown that looking at wood grain generally de-stresses humans, as discussed here. The cognitive advantages of lower stress levels are reviewed here.
Student brains seem to work better when pupils have desks that encourage them to move and stand up.
A study in the International Journal of Health Promotion also indicates that standing desks in classrooms are a good investment (“Want Kids to Pay Attention in Class? Give Them Standing Desks,” 2015). A research team found that “students provided with standing desks exhibited higher rates of engagement in the classroom than their seated counterparts. Preliminary results show 12 percent greater on-task engagement in classrooms with standing desks, which equates to an extra seven minutes per hour of engaged instruction time.” Children in grades 2 to 4 participated in this study and data were collected over a school year. The researchers report that “Engagement was measured by on-task behaviors such as answering a question, raising a hand or participating in active discussion and off-task behaviors like talking out of turn.” Stools were readily available to the students with the raised standing desks, so that pupils could choose when to sit and when to stand.
A sit-stand desk intervention for 10 year olds in a New Zealand classroom influenced those children’s school-related experiences. Aminian, Hinckson and Stewart (2015) describe their study: “The intervention class received height-appropriate workstations for 22 weeks while the control class retained traditional desks and chairs. Children's sitting and standing were measured at three time points (baseline, week 5, week 9). Pain, inattention and hyperactivity were also assessed. . . . On weekdays (during waking hours) there was on average a large increase in overall standing, 55 minutes per day over nine weeks of intervention compared with the control classroom. Children's overall sitting time reduced, but the changes were small. There were no substantial differences between the control and intervention classrooms in pain and inattention-hyperactivity mean scores. Children enjoyed working at the height-appropriate standing workstations.”
Benden and colleagues investigated how providing elementary school students with stand-biased desks (taller desks equipped with footrests for one foot while students stand and tall-ish stools) instead of conventional school desks influenced experiences at school (2014). Students with the stand-biased desk were free to sit or stand, as they wished. The researchers learned that “activity-permissive classrooms do not cause harm to [elementary-school age] students; result in increased energy expenditure that may combat obesity among those in the highest risk categories; and improve behavioral engagement. . . . this should serve as an incentive for schools to invest in altering their standard for classroom furniture to stand-biased modifications.” Improved behavioral engagement means more time spent focused on educational activities.
Flippin, Clapham, and Tutwiler (2021) studied the on-task behavior of elementary (grade 2) students in kinesthetic classrooms. They share that “During intervention weeks, each classroom was fitted with five types of kinesthetic equipment (i.e. exercise balls, standing desks, kneel-and-spin desks, under desk pedals, and bouncy bands). . . . Use of kinesthetic equipment was associated with significant increases in the proportion of students’ time on-task during equipment weeks. . . . with a stronger relationship during active equipment use. . . . effects of increased student on-task time were found for intervention weeks during intervals when students were actively using equipment (e.g. sitting on ball) and also when students were not actively using kinesthetic equipment (e.g. sitting on classroom rug). . . . With four out of the five kinesthetic equipment types used in the study (i.e. balls, pedals, standing desks, kneel-and-spin desk), the proportion of student on-task time during active equipment use was over 90%.” On-Task behavior time did not seem to be affected by the use of bouncy bands.
Attai and colleagues (2021) probed the value of elementary (third and fourth grade) classroom furnishings that support movement and flexibility in use. They report that data gathered in 10 classrooms indicated that “students who experienced flexible furniture reported greater satisfaction with the learning environment than did peers with traditional furniture. . . . students in classrooms equipped with flexible furniture perceived their classroom as more comfortable than did students in classes that maintained the traditional furniture. . . . Students in classes with flexible furniture were allowed freedom to move throughout the day. . . . PD [professional development] offered to the intervention group encouraged teachers to examine and reevaluate classroom management techniques that would allow students the freedom to move and utilise the flexible furniture to build student autonomy and promote activity. . . . . Classrooms were designed to support student choice by offering a variety of seating choices, having more seats available to students than were being used, having a variety of heights in seating options and having various types of seating (soft, active, standard).”
Mehta, Shortz, and Benden (2016) report that their research goal was to investigate “neurocognitive benefits, i.e., improvements in executive functioning and working memory, of stand-biased desks and explore any associated changes in frontal brain function. . . . Continued utilization of the stand-biased desks was associated with significant improvements in executive function and working memory capabilities. . . . These findings provide the first preliminary evidence on the neurocognitive benefits of standing desks, which to date have focused largely on energy expenditure.” Freshman high school students participated in the study by Mehta and team.
Research with adults related to cognitive performance and use of sit-stand type furniture is discussed here.
Peper and colleagues (2018) studied how posture influences academic performance and their findings should encourage the development of design options that make good posture more likely. The research team reports that “Half the students [mean age 23.5] sat in an erect position [shoulders relaxed and back] while the other half sat in a slouched position and were asked to mentally subtract 7 serially from 964 for 30 seconds. They then reversed the positions before repeating the math subtraction task beginning at 834. They rated the math task difficulty on a scale from 0 (none) to 10 (extreme). The math test was rated significantly more difficult while sitting slouched . . . than while sitting erect. . . . Participants with the highest test anxiety, math difficulty and blanking out scores (TAMDBOS) rated the math task significantly more difficult in the slouched position . . . as compared to the erect position. . . . clinicians who work with students who have learning difficulty may improve outcome if they include posture changes.”
Schnobrich’s research indicates the importance of having the eyes of all people participating in a conversation at the same, or nearly the same, height above the floor (2012). In a study of conversations among academic counselors and their advisees, Schnobrich found that there was more discussion if the advisees were standing when the counselors were sitting at a table seven inches higher than a standard conference table; indicating that when one participant in a conversation must stand and the other sit—for example, because the sitter will be participating in multiple conversations over a period of time while the person standing will participate in one, brief conversation—counter and chair heights should be elevated.
Additional research on the implications of group members’ heads being at significantly different heights is discussed here. This material on relative head height is particularly important because educational spaces, such as amphitheater classrooms, often result in dramatically different head elevations among people present.
Sanders probed the relationship between the arrangement of chairs in classrooms and student engagement (2013). She learned that “students in lecture-based classes showed higher cognitive engagement in classrooms organized in traditional rows, whereas students in group-focused classes showed higher cognitive engagement in classroom space organized around grouped tables. Results did not support the current belief that innovative seating improves student engagement across all contexts.”
Costa investigated the tendency of people to sit in the same seat each time they are in a public space (2012). As Costa states, “students choose the same seat over time in university classrooms.” The chair selection-related goals of study participants may vary: “The goals . . . could be to facilitate attention and visibility during lectures for those students who preferred to sit in the first few rows or to promote independence, privacy, and freedom of movement for those students who preferred to stay at the back of the hall.” Designers need to determine if they want to support or discourage these motivations through design choices, such as raising the floor toward the back of classrooms to make people sitting there more visible to others. Costa also learned that “The design of the public space can influence the shape of the occupant’s territory. For example, in a lecture room in which rows are perceptually salient, due to their length or due to their uniformity, student territories tend to be elliptical and not circular, with the major axis in the direction of the rows.” This last finding has implications for the shape of desks/seats used in classrooms and other spaces.
Insure visual (and when possible, physical) access to outdoor areas.
Nature, seeing it (in images or through windows) and being in it (actually or virtually), is great, whether we’re adults or children, for our mental performance (as discussed here) and our ability to learn.
Get outdoors when feasible.
- Taylor and Butts-Wilmsmeyer (2020) studied kindergarten students’ ability to self-regulate their behavior after spending class time in green schoolyards. The researchers found via data collected at several schools that “girls in classes engaging in curriculum in greenspaces daily [for a minimum of 30 or 60 minutes, depending on the season] scored higher on measures of self-regulation post-intervention, controlling for baseline scores, than did girls engaging at a low frequency [once weekly for 60 minutes or less]. Furthermore, students who spent more minutes in greenspaces weekly tended to score higher post-intervention, although this relationship was more consistent for girls than boys. Results suggest that green schoolyards support children's self-regulation development, and the higher the frequency of visits, and the more minutes weekly, the greater the gains. . . . behavioral self-regulation is broadly defined as including ‘both top-down planning processes (e.g., executive functions or EF) and bottom-up regulation of more reactive impulses’ (McClelland et al., 2014, p. 2). EF includes attentional or cognitive flexibility, working memory, and inhibitory control (McClelland et al., 2014).” The researchers report that self-regulation as a young child has been tied to later-in-life academic success and wellbeing.
- Should preschool classrooms have direct access to the outdoors? TopdemirIn and Kepez have done research indicating that’s the case (2014). The researchers learned that “immediate access to nature plays an important role in providing nearly seamless connection between play and learning. Students with direct access to nature spend more time in play during breaks, use the outdoors during classes more often, and are more peaceful during the in-class time. Both children and teachers also liked to be close to nature and were willing to spend more planned and impromptu time outdoors.”
- Kuo and team have learned that outdoor teaching sessions have positive implications after students return to their indoor classrooms (2018). The researchers report that “Using carefully matched pairs of lessons (one in a relatively natural outdoor setting and one indoors), we observed subsequent classroom engagement during an indoor instructional period. . . . Classroom engagement was significantly better after lessons in nature than after their matched counterparts for four of the five measures developed for this study: teacher ratings; third-party tallies of ‘redirects’ (the number of times the teacher stopped instruction to direct student attention back onto the task at hand); independent, photo-based ratings made blind to condition; and a composite index each showed a nature advantage; student ratings did not. . . . And the magnitude of the advantage was large. . . . The rate of ‘redirects’ was cut almost in half after a lesson in nature, allowing teachers to teach for longer periods uninterrupted. . . . Such ‘refueling in flight’ argues for including more lessons in nature in formal education.” Lessons outdoors in nature and inside in classrooms were 40 minutes long and the outdoor classroom, in the midwestern United States, was grass covered and had a view of some woods. Study participants were third graders.
- Research published in PLoS ONE indicates that holding some classes outdoors can be a positive experience for both teachers and students (“Study Reveals How Just an Hour or Two of Outdoor Learning Every Week Engages Children, Improves Their Wellbeing and Increases Teachers’ Job Satisfaction,” 2019). This finding supports the design of outdoor teaching spaces. Investigators studied, via interviews and focus groups with students (age 9-11) and teachers at primary schools in Wales, the implications of implementing “an outdoor learning programme, which entailed teaching the curriculum in the natural environment for at least an hour a week. . . . Lead author of the study Emily Marchant . . . explained: ‘We found that the pupils felt a sense of freedom when outside the restricting walls of the classroom. They felt more able to express themselves, and enjoyed being able to move about more too. They also said they felt more engaged and were more positive about the learning experience. We also heard many say that their well-being and memory were better, and teachers told us how it helped engage all types of learners. . . . once outdoor learning was embedded within the curriculum, [teachers] spoke of improved job satisfaction and personal wellbeing.’”
- Ulset and research team investigated links between time spent outside and cognitive development (2017). The team conducted a study in Norway that “examined the . . . relations between the amount of time children [average age when study began was 52 months] attending daycare spend outdoors [in naturalistic settings] and their cognitive and behavioral development during preschool and first grade. . . . analyses showed a positive relation between outdoor hours and [development of attention skills] and an inverse relation between outdoor hours and [inattention-hyperactivity symptoms]. . . . outdoor time in preschool may support children's development of attention skills and protect against inattention-hyperactivity symptoms. . . . the findings from this study suggest that high exposure to outdoor environments might be a cheap, accessible and environmentally friendly way of supporting and enhancing children’s self-regulatory capacities and cognitive development. . . . Nature is easily accessible even in urban areas. Large cities usually have parks and vegetation. Placing daycare centers near parks enables daily trips to green environments.”
- Particular sorts of outdoor play spaces have more positive effects on children’s health and mental development (“Mother Nature: Reshaping Modern Play Spaces for Children’s Health,” 2020). Researchers lead by Dankiw and Baldock determined that understanding “the importance of nature play could transform children’s play spaces, supporting investment in city and urban parks, while also delivering important opportunities for children’s physical, social and emotional development. . . . . [for] children aged 2-12 years . . . nature play improved children’s complex thinking skills, social skills and creativity. . . . this study . . . supports the development of innovative nature play spaces in childcare centres and schools. ‘In recent years, nature play has become more popular with schools and childcare centres, with many of them re-developing play spaces to incorporate natural elements, such as trees, plants and rocks. But as they transition from the traditional ‘plastic fantastic’ playgrounds to novel nature-based play spaces, they’re also looking for empirical evidence that supports their investments,’ Dankiw says. . . . nature play improved children’s levels of physical activity, health-related fitness, motor skills, learning, and social and emotional development.”
- Khan, McGeown, and Bell (2020) studied primary school learning environments in Bangladesh. They share that at “the intervention school, a barren school ground was redesigned with several behavior settings (e.g., gardens and amphitheater) for teaching and learning. Treatment group children . . . received math and science classes outdoors, while a comparison group . . . received usual indoor classes. . . . The redesigned school ground was associated with higher levels of academic attainment. Furthermore, all intervention schoolchildren perceived more opportunities to explore in the redesigned school ground.” Children taught outdoors performed better on exams than children taught indoors.
- Van Dijk-Wesselius and colleagues (2022) studied how children (their sample was 7 – 11 years old) responded during recess breaks when additional plants are added to their schoolyards. The team determined via data collected through videotaping at 5 primary schools (all of whose school yards were paved when baseline measurements were taken) in The Netherlands that “Results show an increase in observed play, as compared to non-play, behavior, after greening. Furthermore, there was an increase in games-with-rules, a small increase in constructive and explorative play behavior, and a decrease in passive non-play behaviors. This impact of greening was stronger for girls compared to boys.” Also, “The finding that greening increased the prevalence of constructive and exploratory play, is in line with the assumption that greening schoolyards creates a more fascinating, unpredictable and flexible environment that affords more varied play behavior compared to paved schoolyards. . . . children still predominantly engaged in functional play [use of objects as they were intended] and games-with-rules in their new green schoolyard.” Two key definitions “Constructive play – manipulation of objects to construct or ‘create’ something. . . Exploratory play - a focused examination of objects (or other people or situations) in the environment.” Data were gathered during a baseline period and again after two years had passed.
- Children have clear preferences for particular school playgrounds design options. Aminpour (2022) reports that their “study's primary objective . . . in the context of primary school grounds with 8–10 year-old children [is] to understand the nature of play activities that are not compatible and the role of school layout in shaping the conflict between them. . . . to avoid conflict, children preferred play settings organized around distinct zones. Children identified the character of each zone by the affordances it contained, the governing school rules, and the activities it supported. They asked for multiple separate zones for gross motor activities, and for each social group to play with their own year and gender. They also required physical barriers and sufficient buffer space around play settings to prevent disruption.” And: “Grassed areas support multiple activity types that usually come into conflict” and “Children choose to move along the paths that hug the edges of play settings” and “Incompatible play activities need appropriate boundaries if located adjacently.”
Look at nature while learning, even if you can’t spend time in it.
- Trees in schoolyards have been linked to improved academic performance (“Schoolyard Tree Cover Predicts Math Performance in High-Poverty Urban Schools,” 2018). Kuo lead a study which “investigated the link between greenness and academic achievement in 318 of Chicago’s public elementary schools. The district serves a predominantly low-income minority population with 87 percent of third-graders qualifying for free lunch during the study year (2009-2010). . . . Previous studies have documented a positive relationship between greenness and academic achievement, but, until now, no one had examined the relationship in high-poverty schools. . . . Schoolyard tree cover predicted academic performance. . . . Grass, it turns out, does nothing for learning. . . . schoolyard trees positively predicted math scores. Reading scores tended to be better with more schoolyard trees, but the effect fell just short of statistical significance.” Kuo reports in a press release from the University of Illinois (“Schoolyard Tree Cover Predicts Math Performance in High-Poverty Urban Schools,” 2018) that “’you don’t have to plaster the schoolyard with trees - just bringing schools up to average looks like it could have a substantial effect.’”
- Research confirms that trees do indeed add value to our lives (“Trees Set Sixth-Graders Up for Success,” 2020). Kuo, Klein, Browning, and Zaplatosch collected data for 450 schools and 50,000 students in communities ranging from rural to urban in Washington State and report that “‘Hundreds of studies show a positive link between contact with nature and learning outcomes. . . . We wanted to make sure the same pattern was true in this vulnerable and overlooked population,’ says Ming Kuo. . . . Even after taking a whopping 17 variables into account including student demographics, school resources, and neighborhood characteristics, Kuo and her co-authors found that the more tree cover around a school, the better its standardized test scores in both math and reading. . . . [researchers] compared the importance of greenness in different buffer zones around schools, within 250 meters (around two blocks) and 1000 meters. It turned out trees closer to the schools made all the difference, even when controlling for greenness at farther distances. In other words, even if the larger neighborhood was leafy, students were no better off if the schoolyard wasn’t.” This study is published in Landscape and Urban Planning.
- Tallis and teammates (2018) looked into relationships between the number of trees near schools and the academic test scores of elementary school students. They report that “greenspace around school grounds has been associated with benefits to students’ cognitive function. . . . After controlling for common educational determinants (e.g., socio-economic status, race/ethnicity, student teacher ratio, and gender ratio) we found a significant, positive association between test scores and tree and shrub cover within 750 and 1000 m of urban [elementary] schools. Tree and shrub cover was not associated with test scores in rural schools or five buffers closer to urban schools (10, 50, 100, 300, and 500 m). . . . Within our urban sample, average tree-cover schools performed 4.2% . . . better in terms of standardized test scores than low tree-cover urban schools.”
- A research team lead by Claesen (2021) confirms the value of greenery near elementary school buildings. The group report that “Greenery was measured within school boundaries and surrounding Euclidean buffers [essentially, rings around the schools] (100, 300, 1000 and 2000 m) using the Normalized Difference Vegetation Index. . . . . Greenery was positively associated with Reading [test] scores in Year 3 (all buffers except 2000 m) and in Year 5 (all buffers), with Numeracy [test scores] in Years 3 and 5 (all buffers) and with Grammar & Punctuation [test scores] in Year 5 (all buffers). . . . TRAP [traffic related air pollution] partially mediated [explained] associations of greenery within 300 m with Numeracy in Year 3 and Grammar & Punctuation in Year 5, and within 2000 m for Reading in Year 5.”
- Browning and Rigolon (2019) evaluated academic performance near green spaces via a literature review: “Of the 122 findings reported in the 13 articles, 64% were non-significant, 8% were significant and negative, and 28% were significant and positive. Positive findings were limited to greenness, tree cover, and green land cover at distances up to 2000 m[eters] around schools. End-of-semester grades and college preparatory exams showed greater shares of positive associations than math or reading test scores. Most findings regarding writing test scores were non-significant.”
- Dadvand and team corroborate earlier studies indicating that developing children benefit from being around green spaces—at home, at school, and on their commute between home and school (2015). Green areas around schools seem particularly advantageous. The authors studied second to fourth graders in Barcelona and where they live and go to school: “Cognitive development was assessed as 12-month change in developmental trajectory of working memory, superior working memory, and inattentiveness by using four repeated (every 3 months) computerized cognitive tests for each outcome. We assessed exposure to green space by characterizing outdoor surrounding greenness at home and school and during commuting by using high-resolution (5 meter x 5 meter) satellite data on greenness. . . . We observed an enhanced 12-month progress in working memory and superior working memory and a greater 12-month reduction in inattentiveness associated with greenness within and surrounding school boundaries and with total surrounding greenness index (including greenness surrounding home, commuting route, and school).” Important definitions used by Dadvand and team include: “working memory (the system that holds multiple pieces of transitory information in the mind where they can be manipulated)” and “superior working memory (working memory that involves continuous updating of the working memory buffer).”
- When some university students took a writing class in classrooms with views of a green, natural environment and similar students took a comparable class in a room with a view of a brick wall, Benfield and team identified differences in learning outcomes (Benfield, Rainbolt, Bell, and Donovan, 2015). More specifically, “students in the natural view classrooms were generally more positive when rating the course. Students in the natural view condition also had higher end of semester grades, but no differences in attendance were observed between conditions. Such findings suggest that classrooms with natural views offer advantages and also suggest that the inclusion of natural elements in courses could facilitate positive perceptions and better grades. . . . The views available, rather than the window itself, are worth considering when planning future classroom architecture.”
- Looking at nature is mentally refreshing for learners of all ages, and that means incorporating opportunities for mental refreshments into learning environments is important. More information on cognitive refreshment, including its benefits and how it can be achieved with nature views and other means, regardless of age, is available here. For example, Maxwell concludes that children 3 to 4 years old require restorative experiences, in daycare centers and elsewhere (2007). Kelz and colleagues (2015) “investigated the influence of a redesign (greening) of a [middle school] schoolyard on pupils’ [average age 14.4 years] physiological stress, psychological well-being, and executive functioning.” Research was conducted at three schools in rural Austria and “The renovated schoolyard significantly diminished pupils’ physiological stress levels and enhanced their psychological well-being. Pupils in the renovated schoolyard setting also perceived the environment as more restorative following the redesign.”
- Research at the University of Illinois supports providing nature views for high school students (“A Green View Through a Classroom Window Can Improve Students’ Performance, Study Finds,” 2016). Professor William Sullivan and graduate student Dongying Li found that high school “students with a green view outside a classroom window performed better on tests requiring focused attention and recovered better from stress. . . . Students’ capacity to pay attention increased 13 percent if they had a green view outside their classroom window.” Sullivan indicates that the study, to be published in Landscape and Urban Planning “is the first study to establish a causal relationship between exposure to a green view and students' performance.” The press release for Sullivan and Li’s study includes planning and design recommendations: “The researchers suggest their findings can help designers, planners and policymakers enhance students' well-being and learning. For example, planners can identify sites for new schools that already have trees and other vegetation, or they can plant many trees on the site; architects can locate classroom, cafeteria and hallway windows so they look onto green spaces.”
- Another study discussed at the linked to article: Felsten (2009), in a study of college students, found that “Students rated settings with views of dramatic nature murals, especially those with water, more restorative than settings with window views of real, but mundane nature with built structures present.” Spaces without views of real or simulated nature (the murals) were felt to be least restorative. Felsten concludes that large, wall-sized nature murals in indoor settings can help people taking a break from an intellectual activity restock their mental energy (which helps them focus, for example) and may be particularly useful when views of natural elements are otherwise limited or nonexistent.
- Snell and colleagues investigated whether the psychological effects of viewing nature videos are influenced by viewer beliefs about whether the scenes being observed are live or recorded (2019). As the Snell team reports, their “study investigated whether a video of a natural landscape would be more effective for restoration, including attention restoration and recovery from stress, when perceived as live rather than recorded. . . . participants undertook attention-expending and stress inducing tasks, before being randomly assigned to one of three conditions (perceived live video, recorded video, and control). . . . [data collected indicate that] both perceived live and recorded videos effectively reduced sympathetic stress responses. . . . These findings suggest that attention restoration was higher among the group that believed they were watching a live stream.” “Live” images are thus likely to be better options in schools and workplaces without actual views to restorative nature, for example.
- And in a related study: Greenwood and Gatersleben investigated cognitive restoration among teenagers (2016). As they report “Adolescents are experiencing an increasing number of psychological difficulties due to mental fatigue and stress. Natural environments have been found to be beneficial to psychological wellbeing by reducing stress and improving mood and concentration for most people” (in other words, they support cognitive restoration). Research was conducted with 16-18 year olds at their schools in the United Kingdom. The scientists studied “the restoration of stress and mental fatigue in an outdoor or indoor environment, alone, with a friend or while playing a game on a mobile phone. The findings showed greater restoration amongst adolescents who had been in an outdoor setting containing natural elements, compared with those who had been in an indoor one. Moreover, being with a friend considerably increased positive affect in nature for this age group. The findings indicated that spending short school breaks in a natural environment with a friend can have a significant positive impact on the psychological wellbeing of teenagers.” In addition, “Playing computer games on a phone does not affect restorative experiences.”
Biophilic design has been shown to enhance cognitive performance generally, as discussed in this article.
Determan’s team (2019) presents a concise but useful review of the effects of biophilic design on student/teacher experiences/learning outcomes as well as the results of field research they conducted at a Baltimore public charter middle school (in math classrooms). Their work is lavishly illustrated with images that convey important information visually. The discussion of fractals in the literature review is particularly useful, for example: “Experiences of fractals in the built environment that have the characteristics of those most found in nature lead to measurable stress reduction responses. . . . both non-fractal artwork and high-dimensional fractal artwork have been shown to induce stress.” In the original research conducted by Determan and colleagues, student performance and experience (generally) were compared in a traditional classroom and one that had been biophilicly enhanced via the addition of a garden featuring evergreen and deciduous plants outside the classroom window that could be seen by students during class, installation of motorized translucent roller shades (complete with an imprinted tree image) that were raised or lowered automatically based on sunlight levels at the window where they were mounted (these blinds replaced opaque mini-blinds), and application of nature-inspired patterns to some classroom surfaces (images of these patterns are available in the text). Outcomes of the study conducted by the Determan team include: “Students felt significantly more positive in the biophilic classroom when compared to the control classroom regarding physical space, their enjoyment of math lessons, and their level of involvement. Students claimed to feel ‘more relaxed’, ‘calm’, ‘better able to concentrate’, ‘easier to focus’ and have ‘more of a purpose to learn’ in the biophilic classroom when compared to their other classrooms. . . . Improvement in average Math test scores over a 7 month period was more than 3 times higher in the biophilic classroom when compared to a control classroom. After 7 months in the biophilic classroom, 7.2% more students tested at grade level than control classroom students.”
Plants in a classroom improve the in-class behavior of students, even when the plants are not always in the direct line-of-sight of those students (Han, 2009). When six relatively large (135 cm high and 80 cm wide) house plants were placed along the back wall of a conventional junior high Taiwanese classroom, students studying in those rooms “had immediately and significantly stronger feelings of preference, comfort, and friendliness [toward other students] . . . [and] . . . significantly fewer hours of sick leave and punishment records due to misbehavior.” Students in classrooms with plants performed slightly better academically than students in classrooms without plants, but this difference was not statistically significant. Students in the rooms with the plants had “significantly fewer hours of sick leave and punishment records due to misbehavior” than the students in classrooms without plants. Data were collected throughout an academic semester and the single student desks used in the classroom all faced a white board at the front of the room. The classroom with the plants had the same sort of window view (which as not described) as the classroom without the plants used as a comparison group to assess the influence of the plants. These results are consistent with the relationship between in-office plants and workplace experience seen in adults, discussed here, for example.
Van den Berg, Wesselius, Maas, and Tanja-Dijkstra (2017) investigated the implications of including green walls with living plants in elementary school classrooms (pupils aged 7 to 10). They found that “children in the four classrooms where a green wall was placed, as compared with children in control groups [comparable classrooms without green walls], scored better on a test for selective attention. . . . The green wall also positively influenced children’s classroom evaluations.” So, students rated classrooms with green walls more positively and were also better able to pay attention and focus in classrooms with green walls. The green walls installed were described as “a closed system, which consists of a metal frame with layers of felt, which provide fertile soil for the plants. . . . In each classroom, a single wall unit of 1.25 m wide and 2 m high was placed in the back of the room against the rear wall or in one of the corners against a sidewall. The unit was stocked with eight types of green plants, including Spathiphyllum, Philodendron, and Dracaena.”
Doxey, Waliczek, and Zajicek investigated the influence of in-classroom plants on academic performance and student impressions of professors and courses (2009). When tropical plants were included in classrooms, student performance did not seem to be affected in this study, although previous research has shown that as plants increased so did performance. However, students perceived they learned more when plants were present. Instructors’ evaluations were higher (they were seen as more enthusiastic and more organized, for example) in classrooms with tropical plants as opposed to classrooms without tropical plants. In addition, “the plants appeared to have the greatest impact on students in the room that was void of other natural elements.”
Van den Bogerd and colleagues (2020) studied the effects of having plants in a university and secondary school classrooms. They report that after students attended one lecture in a classroom with plants in it that “Perceived environmental quality of classrooms with (rather than without) indoor nature was consistently rated more favourably. Secondary education students also reported greater attention, lecture evaluation, and teacher evaluation after one lecture in classrooms with indoor nature compared to the classroom without.”
Research completed by van den Bogerd and associates (2021) confirms that people like to be around plants. Data collected in an actual university library, not a laboratory, determined that “Students preferred the [library area] with potted plants to the [library area] without plants. . . . 60% of the students indicated they would choose the room with plants next time. . . . No associations with fatigue, [self-reported] cognitive performance, or duration of stay were found. . . . potted plants were introduced in one [library area] (intervention group) whereas nothing changed in another [comparable library area] (control group). . . . Students’ reasons to study in the room with potted plants next time they study included the perceived environmental quality, atmosphere, it being more relaxing, the homey feel, and indoor climate.” The test areas were quiet spaces for individual work in the University of Amsterdam library and in the space with plants, the researchers attempted “to surround students with plants so that they would have a view of nature from every angle. However, the views and the number of plants within the same distance differed per seat.”
For more information on the cognitive implications of seeing indoor plants, read this article.
Green school design has been tied to better academic performance by students (Kats, 2006). Students attending schools constructed using principles outlined in the US Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program perform at a higher level academically, miss fewer school days, and in general are healthier. As Kats states, “a 3-5% improvement in learning ability and test scores in green schools appears reasonable and conservative. It makes sense that a school specifically designed to be healthy, and characterized by more day lighting, less toxic materials, improved ventilation and acoustics, better light quality and improved air quality would provide a better study and learning environment.”
Bernstein, Russo, and Laquidara-Carr (2013) “looked at green in both new construction/major renovations and retrofits/operational improvements,” and gathered information from school personnel, finding that “Two-thirds report that their school had an enhanced reputation and ability to attract students due to their green investments; 91% of K-12 schools and 87% of higher education state that their green schools increase health and well-being; 74% of K-12 and 63% of higher education respondents report improved student productivity.”
Environmentally responsible design has been tied to enhanced cognitive performance generally, as discussed in this article.
Don’t forget the bathrooms.
Cascades Tissues Group surveyed people in the US who are or have been on-campus students at the kindergarten through graduate school level (“Are Restrooms a Litmus Test for School Quality,” 2015). The Cascades team found that “65 percent [of the people answering Cascades’ questions] somewhat or strongly agree that restrooms help shape the perception of the quality of schools they’ve attended over the past 15 years. In fact, 60 percent of those participating in the Cascades 2015 U.S. School Restroom Survey recommend prospective students inspect restroom quality at schools they’re visiting before making decisions to enroll. . . . More than 57 percent admitted to using mobile devices in the bathroom, and 6 percent said they’d worked on their laptops there. More than 14 percent had studied or read in their restroom while nearly 12 percent say they’d eaten in the bathroom.” Designers can either enhance restrooms so they align with activities such as studying, or insure that areas outside bathrooms adequately support those activities so students are less likely to use restrooms for these purposes.
For more on designing public restrooms, read this article.
Create home-y spaces, particularly for young students.
School environments should, in many ways, be similar to residential environments, according to Jeffrey Lackney (n.d.). Lackney suggests that schools designed to meet the needs of students, “Use friendly, ‘home-like’ elements and materials in the design of the school at all scales when appropriate and possible. Home-like characteristics might include: creating smaller groupings of students often called ‘families’ in the middle school philosophy, designing appropriately-scaled elements, locating restrooms near instructional areas, providing friendly and welcoming entry sequences, creating residentially sloping roofs, and creating enclosed 'back-yards'. Use familiar and meaningful elements from the surrounding residential neighborhood as the ‘template’ for the imagery of the new school/community learning center.” These home-like features reduce student stress and facilitate concentration on the academic program. The cognitive value of familiar spaces for adults is discussed here.
Learning space design has a significant effect on learning outcomes, and user groups have definite opinions about where they prefer to learn/teach:
- Vasquez and colleagues (2019) studied children’s (their sample was kindergarteners, 3.5 – 6.6 years old) classroom design preferences. They determined that “young children can differentiate lighting needs according to the activity performed. Visual contact with the view seen through the classroom window was important to the children, with a higher preference for natural views. . . . the children preferred the classroom with open curtains. . . . most of the children enjoyed looking out of the window, without any difference related to gender or age. The main reason that made them look out of the classroom window was the possibility of seeing natural elements, mainly the sky.” In their conclusion, the researchers suggest that kindergarten design can succeed by “incorporating green areas near the classroom windows, locating the project in surroundings that favor and stimulate children, placing openings that allow children to see outside, designing openings that allow access to natural light and control of direct radiation, and favoring the use of zenithal openings to ensure a homogeneous distribution of natural lighting.”
- Roetzel and colleagues probed where university-level students prefer to study. They learned that “Important influences on participant’s selection of their preferred place to study were spatial characteristics, in particular a balance of prospect and refuge as well as individual past experiences, and the nature of the given task in this case study. . . . in buildings where a variety of tasks are performed, providing for a diversity of spatial and indoor environmental conditions could help satisfy larger numbers of occupants”
- Milligan and Paterniti (2021) collected data from university faculty regarding the design of classrooms used and their findings are consistent with previous studies. The Milligan-Paterniti team report “Instructors asserted that classroom spaces should (1) be flexible in order to accommodate physical engagement and movement, small student work groups, classroom discussion ‘in the round,’ and standard lectures; (2) allow ease of movement around the perimeter of the room and between desks/tables for both instructors and students; (3) allow instructors and students access to engage successfully in the teaching and learning environment, including useable furniture, clear sight lines, and reduced noise; (4) convey clear physical organizational arrangements (seat placement, teaching station configuration, etc.) that are easy to interpret and easy to maintain across different class sessions; (5) allow instructor control over the climate of the classroom, specifically, the ability to adjust lighting and temperature, and reduce noise from outside the classroom, with easy-to-use technology; and (6) ensure emotional and physical safety in the setting, as well as facilitate engagement and inclusion of diverse users.”
- Soares and colleagues (2022) researched which sorts of places people felt they were most likely to have shared knowledge/ideas in. The team learned via data collected at two sorts of Dutch university campuses (inner city ones and “science parks”) that “locations of built environment features influenced creativity between people. . . . ‘creativity’ or ‘creative encounters’ were represented by the act of sharing knowledge and the exchange of ideas with others. . . . At inner-city campuses, creativity was localized in one or two spots, and somewhat dependent on university buildings. This was different for SPs as there was a greater variety of creative encounters throughout the campuses, proving that creativity did not necessarily depend on buildings. . . . The presence of ‘third places’, such as cafés, restaurants, and canteens, have the power of facilitating a sense of community-gathering on campus and consequently communication between people from multiple backgrounds. . . . even though . . . natural features could be significant for creativity, in the cases of Dutch inner-city campuses and science parks, their presence did not necessarily play a role in the number of creative encounters.”
Several important resources, packed with information on design-related research and its implications, are available to learning space designers:
- The World Bank/United Nations has issued an important literature review focused on the effective design of primary and secondary schools (Barrett, Treves, Shmis, Ambasz, and Ustinova, 2019). The researchers conclude, for example, that to optimize learning classrooms should feature “Abundant daylight. . . . Control of heating and cooling in each classroom. . . . Big window opening sizes at different heights to provide good ventilation in varying conditions.. . . . Carpeted floors. . . . Natural materials in the classroom such as furniture coverings and plants. . . . Distinct design characteristics, personalized displays, and high-quality chairs and desks to foster a sense of ownership among students. . . . Larger, simple areas for older children, but more varied layouts for younger pupils. . . . Well-defined learning zones. . . . Circulation spaces large enough to use for educational activities, such as ‘corridor libraries.’. . . Visual variety in the room layout, ceiling, and display in balance with the use of displays to create interest but with a degree of order. . . . Light walls generally, but with a feature wall or areas highlighted with brighter color. . . . Mid-level ambient stimulation using color and visual complexity.”
- Researchers affiliated with the Harvard School of Public Health (2017) reviewed published studies of school design linked to physical as well as mental health. They report on “robust public health evidence that environmental exposures in school buildings can impact student health, student thinking and student performance. Studies show that environmental factors within and around the school building can interact with each other in complex ways. . . . More than 40 years of scientific research has led to many insights about how the indoor environment influences student health, well-being and productivity. School building conditions such as ventilation, indoor air quality (IAQ), thermal comfort, lighting and views, and acoustics and noise play an important role in a student’s ability to focus, process new information, and feel engaged at school. These environmental factors can have both detrimental and positive impacts on student health and performance. This report examines when and how these various building conditions affect a student and pays special attention to articulating the nuanced effects these parameters have on how our students feel, thing, and perform.” Additional materials at the Harvard site provide information on pandemic-related topics.
- The AIA has released a report “detailing strategies that can reduce risk of COVID-19 transmission in K-12 facilities.” It is available at this web address: https://www.aia.org/resources/6304062-strategies-for-safer-schools. As the AIA website notes: “The report and 3D models were developed by a team of architects, public health experts, engineers and facility managers as part of AIA’s initiative, ‘Reopening America: Strategies for safer buildings.’ The team used emerging research and public health data to develop the strategies, which can be implemented immediately.”
And in an interesting twist - Brisson and Bianchi (in press) link education to concern about aesthetics; their findings can guide programming, for example. The research duo reports that “Aesthetic disposition has been defined as the propensity to prioritize form over function and to approach any object as potentially valuable from an aesthetic standpoint. . . . We compared students from a general high school (“high” educational-capital group) with students from a vocational high school (“low” educational-capital group). . . . aesthetic disposition was positively associated with educational capital and, to a lesser extent, with openness. . . . openness and educational capital both contribute to explaining variance in aesthetic disposition, although the impact of educational capital appears to be stronger. . . . about 50% of the parents of vocational high-school students had no diploma at all, and 93% possessed a relatively low educational capital. . . . Among general high-school students, these rates were about 19% and 50%, respectively.” For more information on “openness,” one of human’s five personality traits, and its design-related implications, read this article, for example.
Designing learning environments is challenging—but applying related neuroscience research encourages positive learning—and teaching—experiences.
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