Importance of good acoustics for learning and well-being

Research tells us that we need to address classroom acoustics to ensure schools support children’s performance and well-being. Learn how children are impacted by noise and discover 5 tips for improving classroom acoustics.

Background noise and reverberation are important factors when designing a classroom environment. It’s intuitive that good classroom acoustics are conducive to learning, but what does the research say?

Various studies have been done to see how background noise and reverberation in the classroom affect speech intelligibility, memory, and the well-being of students.

Children are more susceptible to noise effects

Speech intelligibility has been found to be affected more by signal-to-noise ratio than by reverberation time.1 Furthermore, how well a student performs in background noise is dependent on their age, with children under 13 more susceptible to noise.1

The maturation of the auditory pathway is not complete in young children, and their phonological processing skills are still developing which means that they have more difficulty processing degraded speech.1

Studies have been done that show the degradation of speech intelligibility as a function of age. Children aged 14-15 performed almost as well as their adult counterparts. However, the younger the child, the worse they fared in noise.1

For example, with a signal-to-noise ratio of 10 dB, adults and children over 14 have shown speech intelligibility scores above 90%, while children aged 6-7 scored just below 80%. At 0 dB SNR, adults and older children, when compared to the 6-7-year-olds, showed speech intelligibility scores of approximately 80% and 60%, respectively.1

This information should be considered when designing classroom layouts or learning activities  – what may work for an eighth-grade class may not necessarily be appropriate for a group of first-grade students.

Group work might be more challenging

Several studies, including a 2002 study by Professor Emily Elliot, looked at the ability to recall a sequence of visually presented verbal items in the presence of noise.2 A significant impairment was found when the children were exposed to “irrelevant sound”, especially when the sound had a changing-state characteristic (e.g., background speech, as opposed to steady-state white noise).2

An example of this in practical terms would be the high levels of noise present when students are involved in group work (irrelevant sound), which could be said to have a greater effect on memory than the background noise of a fan (steady-state sound). Once again, age was associated with poorer results. When visually presented with digits, recall performance dropped by 39% in the presence of noise (relative to quiet) in the second graders, compared to only 11% in adults.2

Noisy classrooms might result in ‘less happy’ children

In 2019, Professor Astolfi and her colleagues wanted to study how noise affected the well-being and perceived disturbance of first graders. Three hundred and twenty-six students were involved in this study across 10 different schools in Italy.3 Room acoustics of the various classrooms were measured, and the socioeconomic status of the children was factored in.3

Questionnaires were given to the students in the last month of school to determine their state of well-being and perceived disturbance. Students were then divided into groups of “happy” and “unhappy” children based on their answers.3 Happy students reported disturbance in classrooms with bad acoustics. However, the complaints from unhappy students in the same acoustic conditions related to feelings about themselves, such as whether they felt they fit in at school.3 Furthermore, it was determined that higher noise and reverberation levels reduced the children’s perception of having fun and being happy with themselves.3

Guidelines for classroom acoustics

Different organizations have recommendations for background noise and reverberation times in classrooms.

The World Health Organization has the following guidelines:4

The American National Standards Institute (ANSI) specifies noise standards for optimal classroom acoustics based on the volume of space in the classroom, rather than the type of room:4

This leads us to the question: what can we do to improve acoustics in the classroom?

5 tips for improving classroom acoustics

  1. Acoustical tiles are one of the best ways to reduce reverberation and noise. Even when wall space is at a premium, the tiles can be installed on the ceiling. The most commonly used are those made of fiberglass, and while they may be more expensive than foam, they are highly effective and fire-safe.5
  2. When the noise originates from outdoors, it is important to check the seal of the windows. An inexpensive foam seal can be added around each window. If the sound is transmitted through the glass, a second panel of glass could be considered.5
  3. Similarly, if sound is passing through a door, for example, from an adjacent classroom, a seal could be added around the door or a drop seal at the bottom.5
  4. Another effortless way to sound treat is to consider the location of noisy equipment, such as a computer fan. It has been observed that many classrooms have the central processing unit located against a wall or under a desk surrounded by hard surfaces. Adding acoustical panels next to the equipment would help absorb some of the noise.5
  5. Finally, the tried-and-true method of placing tennis balls on the bottom of chair legs would reduce the noise produced when children are moving or leaving their seats.

There is much evidence to support that background noise and reverberation affect children in the classroom, with negative impacts on speech intelligibility, memory, and well-being. However, with proper sound treatment of the classroom, we can make meaningful improvements to a child’s school experience.


References

  1. Gheller, F. et al (2020). Classroom Acoustics: Listening Problems in Children. Building Acoustics, 27(1), 3-77. https://doi.org/10.1177/1351010X19886035.
  2. Klatte M, Bergström K, Lachmann T (2003). Does noise affect learning? A short review on noise effects on cognitive performance in children. Front Psychol, 4(578). doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00578. PMID: 24009598; PMCID: PMC3757288.
  3. Astolfi, A. et al (2019). Influence of Classroom Acoustics on Noise Disturbance and Well-Being for First Graders. Frontiers in Psychology, 10(2736). https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2019.02736.
  4. Shield, B. and Dockrell, J. (2003). The Effects of Noise on Children at School: A Review. Building Acoustics, 10(2), 97-106. DOI: 10.1260/135101003768965960.
  5. Nixon, M. (n.d.). A Crash Course in Classroom Acoustics. Acoustical Surfaces Inc, accessed April 2024, https://www.acousticalsurfaces.com/soundproofing_tips/html/crashcourse.htm.

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