ABCs and 123s of Creating Optimal Learning Environments for Students

It’s easy to understand why children who attend clean, well-maintained schools have an easier time succeeding than those who don’t. But do classroom environments have a direct impact on a student’s ability to learn?

Yes.

According to Dr. Sheryl Reinisch, Dean of the College of Education at Concordia University-Portland, studies indicate that high-quality classroom environments “help children feel safe, secure, and valued. As a result, self-esteem increases and students are motivated to engage in the learning process.”

What happens when you make a classroom feel more like home?

School districts and higher education institutions are realizing that optimal thermal comfort and light levels are directly correlated with a student’s ability to learn.

“When students struggle to see because of poorly lit rooms or are too cold or too hot, they can’t learn at their highest potential,” said energy optimization expert Geoff Stim. “They could also face sickness, headaches from eye strain and miss school because their learning environment is not optimized.”

Stim said it is important to design classrooms with lighting and temperature solutions that deliver the optimal place for students to think, focus, create, and collaborate.

While it’s tricky to try to quantify the relationship between a comfortable school facility and learning, there are several key areas that do show a measurable impact, he said.

Lighting

One of the most persuasive studies, Daylighting in Schools—An Investigation into the Relationship between Daylighting and Human Performance, funded by the California Public Utilities Commission, looked at school districts in California, Washington and Colorado.

The study showed a strong link between an increase in daylighting and an increase in performance. Students in classrooms with the most daylighting progressed 20% faster on math tests and 26% faster on reading tests as compared to students in classrooms with the least amount of daylight.

“It is no surprise that optimal light levels make people more awake, more alert and ready to learn or work,” said Tom Cariola, a lighting expert who has implemented lighting optimization projects at the University of Rochester. “This study just shows that if you invest in lighting, you are really investing in learning and safety.”

But it is not just the amount or intensity of the light that matters — light color is also considered. Studies have found blue-enriched light bulbs can mimic the effects of natural sunlight and positively affect health and productivity. In one study, researchers found people exposed to blue-enriched bulbs reported feeling happier and had less eye strain. The blue bulbs support alertness by lowering levels of melatonin, the sleep hormone.

Ventilation

Frequency of sickness has been conclusively linked to indoor air: Poor indoor air quality in schools can cause recurring illness that requires absence from school, as well as negative health symptoms that can decrease students’ performance while at school. Many reports indicate that deficient ventilation can cause asthma, headaches, fatigue, and nausea—all of which make for a hostile environment for concentration.

Heating & Cooling

As temperature increases beyond the ideal range of 68 to 74 degrees Fahrenheit, students’ ability to achieve deteriorates dramatically. In Special Report: Rebuilding America’s Schools, published in Parade magazine, Glen Earthman, Ed.D., a professor emeritus of educational administration at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va., says, “We know that when the heat gets up to 78, 80 degrees, the learning curve drops precipitously.”

Energy expert Brian Burcham, a member of the North Texas Association of Energy Engineers, points out that even if a school building has high costs associated with maintaining a comfortable learning environment, those costs are vastly outweighed by positive effects on student performance and the economic value of that increased achievement.

If room temperature is too low in a classroom, a student is likely to make more mistakes than a student working in a room with optimal temperature. And, while warmer temperatures are generally better than colder ones, experts also note that if it’s too warm (over 77 degrees), productivity will drop as well.

So how can students achieve high-performance goals if the environment itself is substandard?

They can’t.

A clean, cool, quiet, well-lit classroom can make all the difference to a student’s ability to progress — and a teacher’s ability to teach.

“Don’t underestimate the impact of an energy systems optimization project can have on both a building’s—and students’—performance,” Burcham said. “The right infrastructure can foster a space conducive to learning, promote healthy students, and help close the achievement gap.”

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