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Friday, September 01, 2006

Physical Features of Learning Environments

Below are identified some of the physical features of learning environments (classrooms) that can affect learning -

Noise can be defined as being unwanted sound. Thus although sound is a physical phenomena, nevertheless the interpretation and understanding of sound becomes a psychological process. The psychological effects of noise are centred around the experience of annoyance (negative feelings and irritability). For example, Kryter (1994) identifies three dimensions that relate to noise and how annoying it is -

a) Volume: This will interfere with communication and may cause physiological harm.

b) Predictability: Periodic bursts of noise are more annoying than non periodic, they are more arousing, require more attention and make communication harder (Glass & Singer 1972).

c) Perceived control: The more perceived control the less annoying the noise. For example, learned helplessness may be a response to continued efforts which fail to control the noise.

In addition noise can be made worse if -

  • It is perceived as unnecessary
  • Those making noise are unconcerned about the effects
  • The individual holds a belief that it will damage their health
  • The individual associates noise with fear
  • The individual is also unhappy about other aspects of their environment (Miedeman & Vos 1999)

Thus there are a significant amount of variables that influence how annoying or otherwise we find a sound to be. This means that when investigating this area, researchers will not usually be able to establish direct noise - behaviour causation, but rather will have to acknowledge the many factors that influence and shape our responses to noise.

Crowding. Density refers to the amount of people in a defined area, whereas crowding is that psychological interpretation of density. This means you could be in a very densely populated room (nightclub) but not feel crowded, indeed you may enjoy it, whereas at other times the same amount of people in a different place makes you feel crowded (on a bus). Thus the size of a learning environment (classroom, lab, lecture hall, etc) and the number of people in it and how you feel about the environment will determine whether you feel crowded or not.

Seating Arrangements.

The traditional form of classroom layout has individual desks facing the front of the classroom with the teachers desk and white/blackboard at the front. Whilst this allows for high degree of classrom control by the teacher, nevertheless it may be that such seating arrangements are not always beneficial for certain types of learning and eucational activities.


The quality and amount of light seesm to have affects on learning performance, which is why most modern classrooms have plenty of window space to let in the best source of light.

Effects of Physical Features on Performance and Feelings

Point 1: Noise

A common expectation is that noise will have a negative effect on task performance, however laboratory research results are mixed. This is mostly due to the number of variables involved, e.g. the properties of the noise, the type of task being performed, the stress tolerance and other personality characteristics of the individual (Baker & Holding 1993) lead to inconclusive findings since it would be very hard to control all these variables. This places some doubt over the validity of laboratory experimental research methods to investigate this phenomenon.

Nevertheless there are some interesting findings. For eample, loud noise does not seem to effect the performance of simple motor or mental tasks, though sudden noise may distract and break concentration. Worse is unpredictable noise which does seem to have a negative effect on more complex tasks, however these effects seem to be overcome if the individual perceives that they have control over the noise (Glass & Singer 1972). Persinger et al (1999) undertook a study looking at the effect of background noise sound fluctuation from ventilation fans on the tiredness of students. During four consecutive lectures, data was collected after each hour, that reflected student fatigue and their ability to concentrate. During half of these lectures, overhead ventilation fans in the lecture hall were turned on, generating sound that was more or less continuous and averaged about 60-65dB. During the remaining lectures the fans were turned off. The effects of noise were dramatic: Student reported greater fatigue when exposed to the noise conditions and this may have interfered with their ability to concentrate.

However the effects of noise on performance may not always be immediate, this may be because the arousal which noise creates will last after the event and therefore we may see 'after-effects'. Glass et al (1969) found that participants who were exposed to high volumes of unpredictable and uncontrollable noise before attempting a task showed lower levels of frustration tolerance (as indicated by continuing, or not, with an insoluble puzzle problem). Similarly Sherrod et al (1977) found that the greater the perceived control that participants had over noise the more persistent they were in working through unsolvable puzzles once the noise had stopped.

Point 2: Crowded Conditions

The ability to perform well or otherwise in crowded conditions has very significant 'real world' implications. For example, the number of students that are appropriate in a classroom for effective learning to take place. Early research tended to show that there was little or no effect on performance in crowded or overcrowded conditions (Freedman et al, 1971). Recently the UK government has endorsed research that showed student learning was not affected by class size. However this does not fit with our lived experience of teaching and learning nor indeed with other research findings. For example, in general, high density has minimal effects on learning of simple concepts appropriate to a lecture format, but interferes with learning of complex concepts and with activities that require students to interact (e.g., Ahrentzen et al., 1982; Weinstein, 1979).

Point 3: Seating Arrangements

Sociopetal spacing (spacing that brings people together) as opposed to sociofugal spacing (spacing that separates people) tends to be closely associated with more interaction. For example, Sommer & Ross (1953) found that by altering the layout of chairs from being in lines around the room of a psychiatric ward to being in circles doubled the level of interaction between patients. One may presume that this will be the same in educational environments. However learning is not all about group interaction, indeed much teaching and learning occurs in fairly traditional didactic formats. The study below highlights the need for us to recognise that different classroom layouts are only as good as the educational objectives that are set.

A study that you may find of interest (because it obtains results that you may not anticpate) in regards to the impact of seating arrangements and learning is outlined below -

Wheldall et al (1981)

Aim: To compare the effect of classroom seating arrangements (in rows or around tables) on children's 'ontask' behaviour.

Method: Two mixed-ability classes from different schools in the UK, containing children aged 10 and 11, where seating was normally around tables, were systematically observed for two weeks in their usual 'tables' seating arrangement, followed by a further two weeks seated in rows, and finally for another two weeks seated around tables. The classes were observed daily by two independent observers for 30 to 40 minutes during academic lessons. Using a stopwatch and pre-prepared sheet, each child was observed and rated every 5 seconds as to whether s/he had been 'on-task' for the whole of he preceding 5 seconds or not. 'On-task' behaviour was defined as compliance with teacher instructions, eye contact with the teacher when requested, eye contact with textbooks and materials when asked to get on with set work. 'Off-task' behaviour included calling out, interrupting a neighbour, talking to a neighbour, being out of one's seat without permission, non-compliance with teacher instructions and not getting on with the set work.

Results: The inter-observer agreement was around 90%, supporting the reliability of the measures obtained. For both classes, mean on-task behaviour was higher when the children were placed in rows then when they were seated around tables. The rows condition had its most powerful effect on children with low initial on-task behaviour. Overall, on-task behaviour was lower in the final tables condition than in the initial one. After the study was carried out, the children said that they preferred sitting in rows, and the teachers of both classes opted for a permanent change to rows.

Conclusions: Children pay more attention in class when they are seated in rows.

Sourced from Legge & Harari (2000).

Point 4: Lighting

We know that natural lighting, or rather the lack of it, can directly affect mood levels because of the diagnosable disorder of S.A.D (Seasonal Affective Disorder). So we would expect that lighting, in paces like schools, will have some affect on student learning behaviours and mood. Below are some studies that suggest there is a link between lighting and educational performance.

Titoff (1999) using a controlled study verified that depression was lowered among those students who experienced learning under full-spectrum lighting. Also, depression actually increased under standard fluorescent lights among the fourth graders (USA system). As an elementary school principal, Titoff discovered that when the project was completed, “the teachers with the full-spectrum lighting refused to let me take it out and put back the old-style fluorescent bulbs.”

Harmon (1938) found that over 4000 children developed observable deficiencies associated with Malillumination (poor lighting). In the late 1940's conditions of the learning environment (lighting, seating and decor) were improved in a selected number of schools, resulting in the following student improvements: 65% reduction in visual difficulties, 47.8% decline in nutritional problems, 43.3% reduction in chronic infections, 25.6% reduction in postural problems and, finally, 55.6% decline in chronic fatigue. Though we should note that this research is correlational, not experimental.

Ott (1960) first discovered that mice lived an average of seven to eight months under pink and daylight-white fluorescent lights; whereas those mice living under natural, unfiltered daylight lived twice as long and were hardier. In 1973, Ott studied four, first grade classes in Florida. Two classrooms were installed with full-spectrum, radiation-shielded fluorescent light fixtures, while the other two classrooms remained with the traditional cool-white fluorescent bulbs. Concealed time-lapsed cameras took random sequences of students and teachers in the classrooms. Although teachers were aware of the research, neither they nor the students were aware of when they were being photographed. With cool-white fluorescent lighting, some students demonstrated hyperactivity, fatigue, irritability, and attention deficits. In the classrooms with full-spectrum lighting, however, behavior and classroom performance, as well as overall academic achievement, improved markedly within one month after the new lights were installed. Furthermore, several learning-disabled children with extreme hyperactivity problems calmed down and seemed to overcome some of their learning and reading problems while in classrooms with full-spectrum lighting.

Creating Better Environmental Conditions for Learning

One recent area of interest in regards to creating better environmental conditions for learning has focused on the use of background music. For example, Davidson and Powell (1986) took up this exact subject in their study of American fifth-grade science students. They reported the observations of on-task-performance (OTP) of children in the classroom over 42 class sessions, with data recorded every three minutes (10 times) per session. Treatment, in the form of easy-listening music, was delivered in between two control observations (i.e. 15 sessions without background music, 15 with, and 12 without, in that order). They determined a significant increase in OTP for the males in the classroom, and for the class as a whole. Thus they concluded that the use of easy-listening background music was effective in increasing on-task-performance of children in an elementary science classroom

More recently the so-called 'Mozart Effect' has prompted interest in specific types of music having certain effects on learning. This was sparked of by research published in 1993 by Frances Rauscher, Gordon Shaw and Katherine Ky that was printed in the journal Nature. They asked whether brief exposure to certain types of music could increase a cognitive ability. Thirty-six college students were divided into three groups which spent ten minutes in one of three conditions: listening to (1) a piano sonata by Mozart (sonata for two pianos in D, K 448), (2) a tape of relaxation instructions or (3) silence. Immediately after, they were tested on spatial/temporal reasoning. The measurements of spatial/temporal (S/T) reasoning were obtained using subtests from the Stanford-Binet IQ Test. The important subtest was a paper folding and cutting task (PF/C). The P has to imagine that a single sheet of paper has been folded several times and then various cut-outs are made with a scissors. The task is to correctly predict the pattern of cut-outs when the paper is unfolded. The researchers found significantly higher scores for the Mozart group than for the relaxation or the silence groups. The differences translated into spatial IQ scores for the Mozart group that were 8-9 points higher than the other two groups. However, the effect was very brief; it did not last beyond 10-15 minutes. The authors did not claim that the effects would be limited to Mozart’s music but did think that the benefits to S/T reasoning would require complex rather than repetitive music. However no further definitions of complexity were presented. Also, the authors did not claim that the effects would be found for other aspects of intelligence, such as verbal reasoning or short-term memory, but suggested that these be tested.

Thus we may like to conclude that having some types of background music for some lessons may be of benefit to student learning. However, as noted at the start of this section, it should not be so intrusive that it becomes perceived as noise and thus detrimentally affect performance.