The Classroom Environment: The effects of lighting, noise, and air quality

Updated: Aug 8

When assessing what can be done to improve the quality of education, looking at the physical environment has always been an attractive option. Although classroom design should never come at the expense of other important strategies like professional development and the implementation of evidence-based practices, there are real effects of the environment on student health and learning.


This brief summary outlines three major contributors to the classroom environment–lighting, noise, and air quality–and describes how they are measured, how they affect students, and how they can be managed to create an optimal learning environment.


The Effect of Lighting


Lighting is an important factor affecting performance in the classroom. Sources of light can either be natural or electric, and electric lighting is further classified by type of bulb.


Two factors inform light’s effects on humans. The intensity of an illumination is measured in lux (lx), and correlated color temperature (CCT) is measured in degrees Kelvin (K). There is evidence that light affects physical growth, cognitive functions, dopamine and melatonin levels, blood pressure, sleep quality, visual and dental health, productivity, accuracy, alertness, and social behavior.


There is a minimum level of illuminance required to complete basic tasks, but different contexts (e.g. classrooms, public spaces, surgical operating rooms) can be optimized at different levels of lighting. There is some evidence that blue light (lower CCT) is conducive to concentration, and warm light (higher CCT) can be relaxing and promote social behaviors. Natural daylight is thought to be particularly essential, and indoor spaces should have dynamic lighting systems where levels of illuminance can be controlled.


The Effect of Noise


Noise is defined as unwanted sound, often generated by industrial machines, transportation systems, building activities, domestic appliances, and music. Noise is mitigated through sound absorption and insulation, which are dependent on a variety of factors including fiber properties, volume, density, the placement and position of a material, and more.


The loudness of a sound is measured in decibels (dB). The acoustics of a space are measured with the absorption, noise reduction, and sound transmission coefficients. Noise can cause auditory fatigue, hearing loss, decreased productivity, sleep disturbances, annoyance, increased heart rate and blood pressure, cognitive impairments in older adults, and decreased reading ability, speech identification, and executive function in children.


Noise pollution can be controlled at the generation end, during the transmission path, or by using protective devices. From an architectural standpoint, increasing the thickness of a material is effective for reducing noise. There are many light, safe, and sustainable insulating materials such as water, cellulose, expanded clay, cork panels, flax, wood wool, glass wool, and polyurethane.


The Effect of Air Quality


Indoor air quality (IAQ) refers to the chemicals produced by people, materials, and processes that affect our ability to breathe. Most commonly, indoor sources of pollution include loaded particle filters, building materials, computers, smoking, cleaning, and candles. Carpet flooring is especially damaging.


Because IAQ is studied with the application of improving an environment for humans, we measure it using people’s perception of odor instead of the presence of chemicals. Sensory pollution load is measured in olf and perceived IAQ is measured in decipol. The consequences of poor indoor air quality include asthma, allergic symptoms, fatigue, lower cognitive functioning, and lower productivity.


When discussing IAQ, building owners, property and facility managers most commonly cite ventilation issues and outdoor air quality. They report lower IAQ in urban areas and older buildings. Techniques to control air quality include ventilation, source control, air cleaning, personalized ventilation, and cool and dry air. Surveys indicate that people generally know little about air quality. However, interventions are effective in alleviating negative effects and economically worthwhile for improving productivity.


References


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Allen, J. G., MacNaughton, P., Satish, U., Santanam, S., Vallarino, J., & Spengler, J.D. (2015). Associations of cognitive function scores with carbon dioxide, ventilation, and volatile organic compound exposures in office workers: A controlled exposure study of green and conventional office environments. Environ Health Perspect, 124(6), 805-812. https://doi.org/10.1289/ehp.1510037


Ballina, M. (2016). Illuminating education: Composition and use of lighting in public K-12 classrooms. Massachusetts Institute of Technology. http://hdl.handle.net/1721.1/106405


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