Learning Environments and Classroom design

Windowless Classrooms - not that successful.
Supposed to reduce distraction, and heating costs.
Some students improve; others show a worse performance.
Reduction in pleasantness of students' moods (Ahrentzen et al., 1982; Karmel, 1965).

Open Classroom

Students have more opportunity to explore the learning environment. Do not have students sitting in rows.

Difficult to assess this design, as the effect of the design is confounded by the teaching style. The teaching style allows more freedom. We can not be sure whether any improvement in student performance is owing to the design of the classroom or the teaching style.

Rivlin and Rothenberg (1976) found that many teachers do not use the open plan classroom as intended. Children are made to work at their desk, engaged in much writing. Areas are blocked off into `traditional classrooms' by strategically placing bookshelves and cupboards around the space. Teachers do not seem to know how to arrange the furniture. there are also co-ordination problems between staff.

Percentage of time that pupils spend working in open-plan classrooms (Rothenberg and Rivlin (1975)


Percentage of time spent on activity



Arts and crafts






working at projects




Gump (1974) children in open-plan classrooms spend less time in directed activity. Groups show greater variability in size. Greater activity in open-plan classrooms.

Partitions that can be adjusted in height are a good idea. Some visual contact can be kept with the rest of the activities going on around, but some degree of privacy is maintained (Evans and Lovell, 1979). Research into partitioning in the nursery school suggests that young children prefer social contexts rather than the privacy of small activity spaces. As they get older it seems they retain this preference but realise that they need more peace and quiet to think!! It is also important to realise that partitioning aids control of the children where their own ability to control themselves may be limited; as with young children or children with learning difficulties.

Urban children do not do well in open-plan classrooms (although Brindishe Community school in Lewisham is an urban open-plan nationally recognised beacon school!), whereas suburban children do not do any worse than they would otherwise do in a traditional school. (Traub and Weiss 1974). This finding is not that encouraging!

Some factors that interact with the success or failure of open classrooms are:

The main problems with open-plan classrooms are:

Level of arousal

Level of arousal can be manipulated by having exciting wall displays and other interesting objects around, to make a complex environment.

Too much information around the classroom will lead to information overload, whereas too little will lead to the students becoming bored and under-aroused. As you will know from elsewhere, the optimum level of arousal is somewhere between being over and under aroused (i.e. a moderate level of arousal). An argument for a complex environment would be that this provides more material for the children to become interested with. An argument for simple surroundings is that there is less opportunity for the child to become distracted. Porteous (1972) found that there was greater learning in a less complex environment. Overload and distraction seem to be important problems in classroom design. Creekmore (1987) suggests that each classroom should contain three different types of walls:

  1. Acquisition wall: placed at the front, holding the blackboard/whiteboard and the class notice board. Only new concepts or ones that the children are struggling with should be placed here.
  2. Maintenance walls are placed at the sides. Material on these walls has already been covered and helps them to fully understand the concepts.
  3. Dynamic wall: placed at the back; containing students' work, temporary notices, Christmas decorations, etc.

If the only measure of success for a particular classroom design is academic success of the children, then a design like the open classroom would probably not be seen in a favourable light. If the measures were concerned with learning how to learn, learning social responsibility and acquisition of cultural values, then perhaps the traditional classroom would not fare so well.


Loud noise impairs intellectual performance on complex tasks, even when you think you have adjusted to it. Children in elementary schools that were beneath the flight path for Los Angeles International Airport (noise level above 95dB) were compared with children in quieter classrooms (Cohen et al, 1986). The two groups were matched in age, ethnicity, race, hearing loss and social class. Children in the noisy schools had higher blood pressure, were more distractible, and had more difficulty with complex puzzles and maths problems than children in quieter schools.

Solvable or unsolvable task was given before the children's performance was assessed. They were also allowed to choose a game. The 'noisy' children were less likely to solve the solvable task. There was no effect of the 'prior to assessment' task (the giving of the solvable or unsolvable task prior to the assessed task). 'Noisy' children gave up more quickly. They were less likely to take advantage of the choice offered. They did not habituate (get used) to the aircraft noise. The longer they were at a 'noisy' school, the more distractible they became. The effect on children who lived in the noisy area was greater than just the effect of attending a 'noisy' school.

Children raised in noisy environments also have trouble learning how to discriminate between irrelevant noise and the relevant task. They either tune out too much in the environment or cannot tune out enough (Cohen, Glass & Phillips, 1979).

Cohen, Glass and Singer (1973)

Large high-rise apartment complex over a noisy highway in New York City. Noise loudest on ground floor and least noisy at the top. They controlled for social class and air pollution. Children on the lower floors had poorer hearing discrimination and poorer reading ability.

Bronzaft and McCarthy (1975)

They studied children taught in classes either side of a school. One side faced a noisy railway track. 11% of teaching time was lost on the noisy side, and reading ability was down.

After the results of this study was known, the authorities installed acoustic ceiling tiles in the classroom and sound-absorbing pads on the railway tracks. There was a recovery in the reading scores (Bronzaft 1985).

Damon (1977) found that children living near noisy roads were more likely to miss school.

Hombrick-Dixon (1986)

Children from noisy day centres compared with children from quiet day centres. In a laboratory they were exposed to noise. Psycho-motor task performance improved for 'noisy day centre' group, but the opposite was found for the 'quiet day centre' group.

Use of positive reinforcement to control noise

Schmidt and Ulrich (1969)

2nd and 4th grade pupils made 52dB of noise. They were told that they could earn extra minutes of gym for each 12 minute period that the noise was less than 42dB. Noise reductions were achieved.

Wilson and Hopkins (1973)

7th and 8th grade home economics pupils were allowed to listen to their favourite radio channel if the noise was less than 70dB.



Noise level

Percentage of time


Greater 70dB



Greater 70dB



Ward and Snedfield (1973)

Highway planned next to school. Tapes were played at traffic noise levels. Learning was disrupted.

Theories of how noise affects performance

  1. Adaptation level theory - Humans try to bring about a moderate level of arousal. This would explain how performance depends upon skill, experience and stimulation for each individual.
  2. Yerkes-Dodson Law - Noise produces arousal. This will help performance, provided the arousal (noise) is not excessive. Too much noise leads to lowering of performance.
  3. Environmental Load Approach - Unpredictable noise requires attention and therefore interferes with the task. A complex task requires more attention so therefore more easily disrupted by noise.
  4. Behaviour Constraint Approach - Lack of control over noise is detrimental to performance. If control is lost, then effort is allocated to restoring it. This is off-task behaviour.

Heat and Performance

Pepler (1972)found that non-air conditioned schools, in the summer, produced a wider distribution of test scores (variance), compared with air-conditioned schools.

Benson and Zieman (1981) found that heat helped some pupils, and hindered others. [A good link here with learning styles ].

Personal Space

Hall's (1963) four communication distances


Appropriate Relationships and activities

Sensory Qualities

Less than 46cm

Intimate contacts. Physical Sports

Touch is the main means of communication. Intense sensory awareness

Personal Distance. 46cm to 1.22m

Close friends or acquaintances

Visual and verbal communication

Social Distance. 1.22m to 3.66m

Impersonal, businesslike contacts

Less detailed visual communication. Normal voice level. Touch not possible.

Public distance. Greater than 3.66m

Formal contacts. eg as in a lecture between student and lecturer.

No detailed visual communication. Exaggerated non-verbal behaviours to replace the subtle NVC of closer distances.

The concepts of personal space and territoriality have also been applied to the learning environments. In a study by miller (1978) students received instruction from their teacher at one of the four personal space zones defined by Hall (see above table). Miller found that when the instruction occurred at a close distance, it produced the greatest learning. In other words, if the teacher is in a one-to-one session with a student, then the effectiveness of the interactions is dependent on the space between them. However, since close personal space is traditionally an expression of trust and personal intimacy, it would seem necessary that the student and teacher should already have a good relationship, since otherwise such an experience could be quite anxiety-producing for the student.

Skeen (1976) found that a subject performed poorly at a serial learning task when the experimenter was at the intimate distance (see above table). Subject performed better at the personal distance.

Kinarthy 1975) found that the students sitting in the middle front sections of a class fared better. Sitting in the centre at the front:

  1. Promotes verbalization except for very low verbalizers.
  2. Facilitates attention (Komeya 1976)
  3. Improves grades (Becker et al 1973).

The brightest students might have opted to sit at the front, so Kinarthy randomly allocated where the students were to sit.

Sommer (1967) found that there was a relationship between where students sat and their participation in class (see table below).

Percentage of participation in class activities, depending upon seating position (Sommer 1967)
















Adams and Biddle (1970) found that verbal interaction followed a similar pattern, and labelled the centre line 'The Action Zone'. In some classes, however, the Action Zone is to one side of the class or focused around a particular learning area (Good 1983).


At home

Saegart (1982) found that children from over-crowded homes were more likely to:

  1. be rated, by their teachers, as having behaviour problems
  2. be hyperactive
  3. have lower reading scores

At school

Baron and Rodin (1978) found that as class size increases, so does learned helplessness (see Seligman 1975). Students in large classes feel they have less control of reinforcement. Less opportunity for the teacher to give personal praise. This leads to learned helplessness.

Early studies in environmental psychology suggested that crowding (or inadequate space) would lead to aggression in children; therefore this should be taken into consideration when planning an appropriate environment. However, Connolly & Smith 1974), did not find that less space meant more aggression in infant school children. They found, not surprisingly that wider space led to a greater quantity of motor activity, such as running, jumping and skipping. When the available space was reduced these same behaviours took a different form (e.g. more use of climbing frames and slides). The quantity of play equipment had a more marked influence. When the amount of equipment was reduced, the children had to do more sharing, but this was of an alternating or parallel form, rather than co-operative sharing and signs of stress such as increased thumb sucking and aggression resulted.

A later study by Connolly and Smith looked at the effect of different types of physical play equipment. They found that play sessions with large objects such as a Wendy house, toy box and lid, stools, climbing frames etc, produced more talking, more physical contact, more gross motor activity and more co-operation than similar sessions with jigsaws, tea sets, blocks, a telephone and other small objects. The fantasy content of the interactions between the children, although less easy to evaluate, also appeared to be higher in the large toy sessions (they lined chairs up as trains and the Wendy house became a pretend theatre).


Haber (1980) found that in traditional lecture classes 75% of students claimed a particular seat, and occupied it more than half of the time. In informally run classes this occured only 30% of the time. 83% chose the same seat as on the last three occasions.

Marking - the placing of books and possessions to defend a territory is found in libraries and cafeterias, etc (Fisher & Byrne, 1975).

Males are more territorial (have larger territories) than females (Mercer and Benjamin, 1980).

Educational Theory and Classroom Design

It is important to realise that any classroom design would be influenced by the educational rationale of the teacher. They could be a traditional, student-directed teacher with rows of desks placed in lines. A humanist teacher might prefer a more open-plan design.

A classroom can be divided into areas that are of one of two types:

  1. Individual territory, in which children are given a work-place at which they perform most of their learning tasks. This arrangement suits whole-class teaching. This works for small groups who work on a variety of activities.
  2. Function. Each work-place has it's own function, and the children move around from work-place to work-place performing a variety of functions.

Many classrooms use a mixture of both types of arrangement.

Having Interest areas can increase work on particular topics. Carol Weinstein (1977) used a science centre within a classroom, to successfully promote an interest in science amongst the girls in the class, and to get all students involved in manipulating a variety of materials. A second study found that a library corner led to more involvement in literature amongst the students (Morrow & Weinstein, 1983).

Musgrave (1975) Two types of classroom arrangements:

  1. Home-Base - suitable for a wide range of lessons
  2. Special Formations - suited to a particular lesson


Horizontal rows (see above) can be used for independent seatwork, presentations and recitations. The students are focussed on the teacher. Students can easily work in pairs. Best for demonstrations because students are close to the teacher. Not suitable for lessons where the students are supposed to interact.

Circles (see above, where a semi-circle is shown but students can encircle the teacher entirely) are good for student interaction. Good for discussions and seatwork. Poor for group presentations and can make class control difficult.

Clusters of Four (see above) are also good for student interaction. Students can talk, help one another, share materials and work on group tasks. Poor for whole-class presentations and class control is made more difficult.

Special Formations

To read more:

The Physical Environment of the College Classroom and its Effects on Students
by Tim Griffin

Barker R.G. (1968) Ecological Psychology: Concepts and Methods for studying the environment of Human Behaviour , Stanford University Press, Stanford.

Bell P.A., Fisher, Baum and Greene (1997, 4th Ed) Environmental Psychology , Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

Woolfolk Anita E. (1990) Educational Psychology, Prentice Hall

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