Classroom layouts impact student learning

It’s the middle the week, and you’re in third period math class. You feel your eyelids drooping under the dull lighting. Fighting to stay awake, your eyes dart around the walls, scanning the array of posters and charts, the teacher’s voice being nothing but a mumble in the background. Eventually your attention shifts to the whiteboard, and you’re met with what looks like a foreign language. Struggling to catch up with the lesson, you look for a classmate to ask for help, but no one’s sitting close enough, so you’re left to piece it together yourself.

Many of us have been here before, myself included. According to the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, 75 percent of students are unhappy in school. Whether that be because of a class they dread or a subject they claim to hate, lack of focus is a large contributing factor. But why? Some blame it on the teacher, while others choose to criticize their own inability to retain information. Few take into consideration an extremely real and extremely possible contributing factor as to why you can’t focus in class: the decor of the classroom.

The fact that there is no mandatory classroom layout for teachers to follow in our school district is both a blessing and a curse. While it grants teachers creative freedom to decorate, it introduces the possibility of negatively altering students’ learning environments. Through recent studies, the University of Salford learned that rearranging classrooms to maximize student learning can improve test scores by 25 percent. Anything from lighting, to desks, to decor is impactful. While this isn’t the sole reason you can’t understand your math lesson or pass your science test, it does contribute.

With regard to Westview’s classrooms in particular, there are definitely pros and cons. Unlike many other schools in the district, our classrooms feature group tables rather than individual desks, allowing for collaboration among students. Having that support system of students who can aid each other during class when the teacher is busy can prevent students from falling behind and increase classroom productivity.

“I think tables promote collaboration,” Kristen Murphy (12) said. “It gives you a support group [and] boosts confidence .”

Collaborative learning in particular has been proven to increase the development of higher-level thinking and self-esteem, both beneficial to students.

While Westview students reap the benefits of tables, there are additional factors  that vary between classrooms that may effect on students’ learning.

Lighting is a prominent factor, as it sets the mood of the classroom. Most classrooms on campus have large windows that invite natural light. However, some areas of campus are burrowed in the shade and are consequently lit by light bulbs, not the sun. While this may seem insignificant, there is a disparity between the effects of sunlight and artificial light on focus in the classroom.

Through recent studies conducted by the World Green Building Council, it has been found that students in classrooms with natural lighting experienced a 16 percent increase in learning capability, measured by their ability to focus and retain information,  over students in classrooms with exclusively artificial light. Natural light has been shown to improve moods and reduce stress, thus improving a student’s mindset inside the classroom.

According to EarthSky, the sun emits more energy than a lightbulb in the blue and red region of the light spectrum, and is in turn brighter than artificial light. Hence why sunlit classes tend to feel more lively and hopeful, while artificialy lit ones create a dull, boring mood that may even make some students sleepy.

“I prefer natural light because sunlight keeps me awake,” Siya Sharma (11) said. “It brightens the class and creates a happier environment that helps me focus.”

If classrooms are in areas with lots of windows, the teachers should leave their blinds open, not twisted closed,  so that students can benefit from the sunlight.

Wall decorations also have a prominent effect on students’ mindsets. Some teachers choose to keep their walls bare, while others choose to fill them with motivational posters and useful charts. While decorations undoubtedly give a room more character, they aren’t always practical. Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University recently learned that decorations actually do more harm than good, causing a 13 percent increase in student distraction rate during lessons.

Color in particular plays a large role in the levels of distraction that decorations cause. According to the Kaplan Early Learning Company, red, for example, increases anxiety levels, while yellow encourages creativity. Generally, cool tones promote relaxation, while bright colors increase alertness. Perhaps if teachers eased up on the wordy quote-filled posters and decorated accordingly with colorful ones containing short phrases instead, students’ attention will remain on the teacher and not the walls.

While students and sometimes even teachers have no influence over the decor in a class or its arrangement, it’s important for both  to be  cognisant of the impact that they have. Again, while the interior design of a classroom can’t justify bad grades or learning habits, it may contribute; being aware of it can help make classrooms more effective learning environment for all students.