Research Shows Simple Changes in Classroom Design can Improve Children’s Learning


Classroom Setting

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As schools look for additional ways to improve the learning experience of the children in their care, one area they are beginning to consider is the classroom environment. The question they are debating is, can small changes in a classroom like a furniture or chairs make a noticeable difference in a child's ability to learn? The answer seems to be a resounding, yes. Studies and statistics seem to back up these innovative ideas.

What elements in the classroom affect learning?

While any element of a classroom can affect a child's ability to learn, certain classroom elements have shown up repeatedly in studies. Those everyday items are:

  • Air quality
  • Lighting
  • Student ownership of classroom design
  • Classroom layout

A 2015 study published in the journal Building and Environment found that changes to classroom elements and statistics can improve rates of student learning by 16%. 

Lighting issues and their impact on learning

The first issue schools are debating is lighting in their classrooms. The amount of light that enters a room or office has been a topic for debate for years in places with low levels of natural light. Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a prevalent issue in climates that get little to no sunlight or experience heavy rainfall-like the Pacific Northwest city of Seattle. Residents have taken to installing sunlamps in their homes and offices to help improve their moods and their mental well-being.

Research shows school children react similarly to bad lighting in their classrooms and buildings. Poor lighting in school classrooms contributes to these same negative feelings in children that they do in adults. Children experiencing these feelings of depression have shown they struggle to learn. Multiple groups representing educators have written pieces on how natural light improves student learning and reduces anxiety and depression. 

Classroom air quality and how it impacts students

Air quality is another area that schools are examining as a way to improve the classroom experience. The area that they seem to recognize as an opportunity area is a building's HVAC systems. HVAC systems circulate air in a school building and help maintain temperature. Without proper cleaning and maintenance, HVAC systems spread germs and allergens when they circulate air. Schools with large HVAC repair backlogs see decreases in student learning and scores. The EPA has done extensive research on what the effects of maintenance backlogs of HVAC systems can do to student learning. 

Students are more invested in learning when they feel they own a piece of the classroom

When researching the topic of classroom design, this study from the University of Salford is cited often. What this study shows is that classrooms that allow students to make a piece of the room theirs (such as a desk or a locker) have children more invested in the classroom and their learning. Teachers do need to ensure student decorating does not go too far, however.

On the other end of the spectrum, too much clutter on the walls can trigger feelings of anxiety in students. It is suggested that classroom decorations such as artwork have a designated area and rotate in and out on a regular basis.

The lead researcher on the study also cautions against letting students take over too much space in a classroom. He reasons that the ownership piece works best when students clearly see and identify the part of the classroom they own. 

Updating outdated aspects of classroom layout

Classrooms have traditionally been thought of as rows of desks with chairs, and all the pupils face the teacher who is stationed at the front of the room. This article from The Irish Times speaks with many professionals who encourage schools to rethink this classic classroom layout. Having students sit for hours at a traditional desk is now seen as a reason for neck and back issues in school-age children. Part of this is that these desks are not custom fit for each child. A solution would be to introduce height adjustable desks that promote better ergonomic sitting and posture in kids.

Chairs are also another issue in the more traditional classroom setup. These chairs are not designed for comfort, which causes a child to fidget due to their discomfort. Also, children vary in size, so a standard chair can be both too big for children and too small for others. Educators and classroom designers are encouraged to think outside of the box and permit children to sit in whatever is comfortable, like a beanbag chair. Designers are also encouraged to discontinue the use of the standard rows of chairs all facing one whiteboard. Better effects are seen in learning if desks are clustered or placed in a U-shape, which all allow for student movement. 


With the amount of research and the number of studies being done on classroom design and layout, educators and administrators have a lot to think about when it comes to this topic. However, the results of these studies show that student learning goes beyond the lessons and the teacher; it can be the learning environment itself that has a significant impact on each student. Making small adjustments to the classroom and ensuring proper access to natural light and quality air can improve not only student health but also their test scores. 

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