Lighting the Way to Improved Student Performance

Lighting typically accounts for as much as 30% to 40% of a school’s total energy costs – making it the second largest operational expense for school districts – just behind salaries. Optimizing lighting systems can cut those energy costs by more than half – in some cases up to 70%.

Most importantly, every dollar saved by upgrading to energy-efficient lighting is a dollar available for student programs.

But cost savings is only one of the reasons schools should optimize lighting – improving student performance is another.

To understand how, here’s a quick primer on how lighting variables of color and temperature affect mood, focus, motivation, concentration, and performance:

The color of natural light changes throughout the day: from a warm white at dawn to a cooler blue/white in the afternoon, back to natural white, and eventually to an ultra warm white at sunset. Human bodily rhythms are directly influenced by this light/color cycle.

An optimized indoor lighting system should mimic the natural light cycle.

Artificial lights that deviate from the natural lighting cycle can throw off our circadian rhythms (physical, mental and behavioral changes in response to light and dark). Different light colors trigger different physiological effects. For example, mid-day blue/white light suppresses melatonin and increases serotonin – resulting in heightened alertness and improved performance.  At the other end of the spectrum, red/orange light triggers melatonin production in preparation for going to sleep.

Research conducted within the healthcare industry has proven that optimized lighting can improve cognitive skills, lower error rates and boost productivity.  Since light affects a body’s circadian system, using effective lighting technology can improve patient sleep quality, reduce depression, and improve recovery times.  For healthcare staff, effective lighting helps reduce accidents and errors, eases the adjustment to night-shift work and improves performance.  Effective lighting also improves security for both visitors and staff.

How does lighting affect student productivity?

Enabling the performance of visual tasks, controlling the body’s circadian system, affecting mood and perception, and triggering critical chemical reactions in the body are just some of the ways lighting influences student performance and well-being.

The benefits of adjustable white lighting have been proven by study after study. Research dating back to the 1970s revealed that cool white fluorescent lighting (which is still the standard for many schools across the U.S) increases hyperactivity, fatigue, irritability, and attention deficits in some students.

When fluorescent fixtures were replaced with full-spectrum lighting, student behavior and academic performance show notable improvements — increasing reading speed, and decreasing errors. For example, one study has found that students perform better on math tests taken under 6500K cool white light. The study also revealed that warm white light was best for recess activities.

Unlike fluorescent lights, LEDs can be tuned to a cool 600K at the start of the school day to increase the general sense of alertness of adolescents who, let’s face it, are rarely at their best early in the morning. As the day progresses, LEDs can be tuned to a warmer 2500K to match natural lighting cycles.

Lighting controls can also be preset to match illumination levels to specific activities and times of day, offering adjustable color temperature that teachers can adjust to encourage alert activity or quiet calm as needed.

Even simple light dimming can make a big difference. Many LED light fixtures automatically respond to ambient light levels for daylight harvesting to further cut energy costs.

One European research project showed that the performance of some students improved by one-third or more under these color-balanced lighting conditions.

Optimizing lighting systems give educators control over how they light their classrooms to create environments that maximize the beneficial effects of light for optimum student performance, safety, and well-being.

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