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Learning Spaces That Make the Grade

Design elements within learning spaces play an important role in enabling teaching and learning outcomes.


Design elements within learning spaces play an important role in enabling teaching and learning outcomes.

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However, one very critical tool to support teaching and promote learning has been largely ignored during these discussions: the physical design of learning spaces.

According to the National Education Association, the average public school building is close to 50 years old. Only 10 percent of America’s public schools have been built in the past 20 years. That means that the estimated 25 percent of our nation’s population that goes to school every day is being failed miserably by the nearly 140,000 schools, colleges and universities they are attending.

The use of evidence-based design and responsive research, however, intends to change that.

Evidence-based design (EBD) emphasizes the use of credible data in order to influence the design process to achieve the best possible outcome. Responsive research takes EBD one step further by considering academic research along with professional experience and economic, social, cultural and political factors to form the context of the design.

Learning Objectives

Interiors & Sources’ Continuing Education Series articles allow design practitioners to earn continuing education unit credits through the pages of the magazine. Use the following learning objectives to focus your study while reading this issue’s article. To receive one hour of continuing education credit (0.1 CEU) as approved by IDCEC or one Learning Unit (LU) as approved by AIA, read the article, log in to take the test associated with this article.

After reading this article, you should be able to:

  • Identify the primary benefits that can be achieved when the physical environment is used as a tool to promote teaching and learning.

  • Discuss how evidence-based design and responsive research plays a role in exploring how specific design elements within a space can enable or inhibit teaching and learning outcomes.

  • Explain the importance of design elements such as acoustics, daylighting and furnishings in the design of learning spaces.

  • Identify the importance of indoor air quality in the design of learning spaces.


Both EBD and responsive research explore how specific design elements within a space can enable or inhibit teaching and learning outcomes. While it’s true that learning is no longer confined to a physical environment, brick and mortar spaces will continue to be important places for students and teachers to connect and communicate face to face. The goal is to keep learning as the primary objective. So what specific design elements help students and instructors best engage in the process of teaching and learning?

acoustics An estimated 45 percent of a student’s day at school involves listening. As a result, the ability of students to hear what teachers and fellow students are saying is mandatory for learning to occur. When researchers G.W. Evans and L. Maxwell studied 100 New York City students enrolled in two schools, one of which was in the flight path of an airport, they discovered that those students exposed to the air-traffic noise scored as much as 20 percent lower on a reading test than children in the other school.

Classroom noise affects students and teachers alike. Teachers can experience voice fatigue if they are constantly fighting to talk over ancillary sounds such as background noise, reverberations and outside traffic. In a study of the effects of classroom noise on 1,200 teachers by N. Ko, results indicated that noise related to classroom activities and traffic or airplane noise resulted in increased tension and discomfort, and an interference with teaching and speech recognition.

So while open space classroom designs provide functional flexibility, care must be taken to consider the acoustical quality of ceilings, floors, walls and large areas of glass. Reflective surfaces must also be designed to absorb more sound.

colorResearch indicates that color influences student attitudes, behaviors and their ability to learn. Color can also transform a space from dreary and monotonous to exciting and stimulating. Warm colors such as reds, oranges and yellows tend to be more stimulating, and have the effect of exciting children and increasing their brain activity—ideal for learning spaces where new concepts are being introduced. Cool colors such as blues, violets and greens are great for relaxation and thus more appropriate for reading areas where students need to focus. Mild colors are recommended for walls and floors in classroom settings to minimize glare and brightness contrast. Bright colors are effective as accents in corridors, on doors or in large social spaces.

configurationThe position of both student and teacher in the learning space and in relation to each other can dramatically affect learning outcomes. If teachers maintain a left or right side instructional preference, it can put them at a greater distance from students on the opposite side, and may impede these students’ ability to distinguish visual detail or to understand what is said. The article “School Design Impacts upon Cognitive Learning” reports that as teachers look left and right for emphasis, the volume of their voice can diminish by as much as 50 to 80 percent for those students not directly facing the teacher. Research shows that a person’s ability to see, hear and understand is best within 8 feet.

Equally important is the ability of students to see and hear one another. In today’s world, learning is a social process—it’s about making connections with others. Increasingly, that means collaborative discussions and team work. Learning spaces need to facilitate these connections, which are not just verbal or spatial, but also visual. Students need to see and feel that they are part of something bigger. Additionally, when a student sees others learning, he or she is energized to learn as well.

lighting & daylightThe amount and type of lighting required is determined by the learning activities that will occur within the space. Lighting is especially crucial, as the visual environment affects a learner’s ability to perceive and retain visual information. In most cases, inappropriate lighting can lead to the misinterpretation of written words on handouts or whiteboards. Poor lighting or overlighting can also cause eye strain, headaches, muscular tension and fatigue.

Increasing the amount of daylight has been shown to improve alertness and motivation as well as student performance. In its landmark 1999 study, the Heschong Mahone Group showed that students in classrooms with the largest window areas were found to progress 15 percent faster in math and 23 percent faster in reading than those with the least window area.

Furthermore, a study sponsored by the Alberta Department of Education examined the effects of different lighting systems on students. A key finding was that students who attended class in an environment that included ultraviolet light supplements had better attendance and academic performance, increased physical development and lower dental cavity rates than those pupils who did not receive extra ultraviolet light. The authors concluded that lighting systems have effects on pupils beyond mere illumination of the classroom.

furnitureA number of elements are considered when selecting furniture: cost, durability, safety and aesthetics. However, it’s also important to remember that students come in all shapes and sizes. As a result, most standard or non-adjustable tables, desks or chairs will not fit every student. Care should be taken to specify furniture that can be adjusted to accommodate someone who is 5 feet tall, as well as someone who might stand 6-foot, 3 inches tall.

A German study measured the impact of movement and furniture adjusted to fit the student by comparing three groups: students using conventional, static, non-adjustable furniture; students using conventional desks with chairs providing moderate movement and adjustments; and students using “optimal” height-adjustable furniture and chairs supporting free movement. The results indicated that environments that “fit” the students and promoted both seated motion and physical activity enabled significantly better performance because students were more comfortable and better able to maintain focus and attention on the task at hand.

Britain’s Furniture Industry Research Association also warns of the long-term physical ramifications from the use of furniture that doesn’t fit the student. Despite an increase in more collaborative learning modalities, students spend about 15,000 hours sitting down during their school years. Approximately 13 percent of children aged 10 to 16 have a significant incidence of recurrent back pain. This increases to adult levels by the age of 16. This can be attributed to a number of factors, including poor seating which does not match the size of the children and tables provided at the wrong height. To overcome this, desks with adjustable heights and depths are better able to adapt to the shape and weight of students, thus making them more comfortable and receptive to learning.

Benefits Add Up

Research demonstrates that a variety of design elements offer distinct advantages to both students and teachers.

  1. Higher test scores.
    A growing number of studies confirm the relationship between a school’s physical condition, especially its acoustics, lighting and indoor air quality, and improved student performance. A study of 1,200 students in three North Carolina schools by Michael Nicklas and Gary Bailey showed that students who attended schools with natural lighting outperformed the students in schools without natural lighting by 5 to 14 percent. Other studies project that a healthier indoor environment results in about a 5 percent increase in student test scores. Higher academic achievement translates into greater future earnings, estimated to be nearly $7,000 over the working life of a green school graduate.

  2. Increased average daily attendance.
    Superior indoor air quality reduces many sources of health problems, such as mold, and inhibits the spread of airborne infections. The result is that students and teachers are sick less often, especially those who suffer from respiratory ailments. Improved indoor air quality in an average 900-student new school is projected to result in a 25 percent drop in asthma incidence. Studies show that better ventilation can mean a 9 to 20 percent decline in colds and flu. Other estimates indicate that a healthier indoor environment leads to an estimated 15 percent drop in student absenteeism, which is especially important if a school’s revenue is based on average daily attendance.

  3. Reduced operating costs.
    Schools that use less energy and water than standard schools lower overall operating costs. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that school districts can save 20 to 40 percent on annual utility costs for new schools and 20 to 30 percent for renovated schools by applying conservation
    concepts. The U.S. Green Building Council’s (USGBC) Center for Green School estimates these savings average $100,000 annually on operational expenses—enough to hire at least one teacher,
    purchase 200 computers or buy 5,000 textbooks.

  4. Increased teacher satisfaction
    and retention. Classrooms where visual and thermal comfort is high, acoustics are good, and indoor air is fresh and clean are pleasant places to be. These positive environments help in recruiting and retaining teachers by improving their satisfaction with their work, an important consideration for school districts who want to avoid the high costs of hiring and training. A 2005 report to the Washington Legislature showed that when schools in the state went green, teacher retention improved by 5 percent.

  5. Reduced liability exposure.
    Because these spaces are healthy and emphasize superior indoor environmental quality, high performance school buildings reduce a district’s exposure to health-related problems (and the costs of remediation), lawsuits and loss of credibility.

  6. Reduced environmental impacts.
    Designed to have low environmental impact, these spaces are noted for their energy and water efficiency, and use of durable, non-toxic materials that are high in recycled content. Often the buildings themselves can be recycled. They preserve pristine natural areas on their sites and restore damaged ones. And they use non-polluting, renewable energy to the greatest extent possible. Once a school is operating, a school-wide recycling program saves more money and creates jobs.

  7. Serves as an effective teaching tool.
    Above all, when advanced technology and design in new schools is made visible, buildings can become teaching tools and important features of science, math and environmental curriculums.


indoor air quality (iaq)The U.S. General Accounting Office has found that 15,000 schools suffer from poor IAQ, affecting more than eight million (one in five) children in America’s schools. IAQ symptoms include irritated eyes, nose and throat, upper respiratory infections, nausea, dizziness, headaches and fatigue or sleepiness—all of which lead to inattentiveness and detract from teachers’ and students’ desire and ability to learn or teach. The American Lung Association found that American children miss more than 10 million school days each year because of asthma exacerbated by poor IAQ.

A report by Science Applications International Corporation for the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority cites adequate ventilation and levels of outdoor air as two of the most important ways to maintain the health and well-being of students and staff in a school building. Lack of sufficient outdoor air, it noted, may create “stuffiness” due to increased carbon dioxide, odors and moisture build-up.

Proper ventilation rates can also help diffuse the volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that are emitted from paints, solvents, building materials, air fresheners, adhesives, fabrics, furniture, flooring and cleaning chemicals. In fact, indoor air may contain several hundred different VOCs. An increasing body of science has identified a wide range of negative health impacts from the chemicals now widely used throughout the building material industry, ranging from bronchial irritants to endocrine disruption and cancer. The good news is that the increasing awareness of the connections between green chemistry, indoor air quality and health has resulted in the development of a wide range of responsible product choices. Many options now exist that are healthy, durable, appropriate and easily maintained with minimal environmental impacts.

technologyClassrooms today are technology-rich for a reason: Studies show that when technology is integrated into the curriculum, student learning processes and outcomes improve. Today’s college students, who began using computers more than a decade ago as preschoolers, think and process information differently than preceding generations. Teachers who use computers as problem-solving tools actually change the way they teach and are more effective at engaging students because they are able to interact with them in the ways that young people think and learn. In fact, the Center for Applied Research in Educational Technology (CARET) found that, when used in collaborative learning methods and with leadership committed to improving the school through technology planning, technology impacts achievement in content area learning, promotes higher-order thinking and problem-solving skills, and prepares students for the workforce.

The best-designed classrooms offer sophisticated technology that is adapted and reorganized for the needs of various teaching styles and student groups. It must be supported with flexible furniture that offers ease of access and security.

windowsThe placement of windows is important to control glare and heat. Too much light in the students’ or teacher’s field of view may be uncomfortable. Clerestory windows let light in high, while lower height windows provide desirable views to the outdoors. In fact, rather than being a distraction to students, “transitory window gazing” offers a beneficial break from attentive listening, an activity from which it is easier for students to refocus back to the teacher than if they were diverted by an activity such as doodling in notebooks.

a powerful statementAs we learn about the impacts of design on students and teachers, we more clearly understand how the design of a classroom makes a powerful statement about how we view education.

Consider these dismal statistics: Every year in the U.S., some one million students drop out of high school before earning a diploma. Only 56 percent of those enrolling in a four-year college attain a bachelor’s degree after six years, and less than 30 percent of those who enroll in a community college succeed in obtaining an associate’s degree within three years.

Additionally, the U.S. now has the highest college dropout rate in the industrialized world despite spending $400 billion annually on post-secondary education.

The bottom line is that engaged students are more likely to remain engaged—and in school. Design is a powerful tool to encourage them to do just that. When learning spaces are well-designed and respect students’ needs, the students in turn are more likely to feel proud of their work, proud of their school and proud of the results of their work—key factors in improving the recruitment and retention rates of these 21st-century scholars. A poorly-designed environment, on the hand other, is demoralizing and highly unlikely to attract or keep any student. The challenge is to explore how a diverse offering of design elements work—or don’t work—to create the kinds of dynamic and effective learning spaces that make the grade with both teachers and students alike.


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REFERENCES: back to top

  • “Analysis of the Performance of Students in Daylit Schools” by M.H. Nicklas and G.B. Bailey, Innovative Design. Online:
  • “A Study into the Effects of Light on Children of Elementary School Age—A Case of Daylight Robbery,” Edmonton, Alberta, Canada: Alberta Department of Education, 1992
  • Building Minds, Minding Buildings, © American Federation of Teachers, AFL-CIO (AFT), 2008
  • Center for Applied Research in Educational Technology (CARET),
  • “Chronic Noise Exposure and Reading Deficits: the Mediating Effects of Language Acquisition” by G.W. Evans and L. Maxwell, 1999. Environment and Behavior 29(5): 638-656.
  • Cornell University study of environmental noise and student performance, G. Evans and L. Maxwell, quoted by John Lyons
  • “Daylighting in Schools: An Investigation into the Relationship Between Daylighting and Human Performance,” research study conducted by the Heschong Mahone Group, 1999