DSC_4631 (2)This is the first in a three-part series by Lucy Erickson looking at the impact of classroom design and environmental noise on learning. Lucy originally began this discussion at learningscientists.org. Click to read that blog.  

Few would dispute that the physical environment can play an important role in learning. After all, why else would students prefer to study for an important exam in the library rather than in the cafeteria? Over the years, research has shed light on the kinds of factors that help people learn. In some cases, this knowledge has been successfully applied to practice to enhance learning. For example, the finding that studying is more effective when spaced in time rather than crammed into a single session is sufficiently well-known that many teachers incorporate this principle into lesson plans and timing of review sessions (e.g., [1]). But in other cases, findings from cognitive science haven’t made that transition to practice—or worse yet, one type of evidence is taken to justify an educational change without consideration of other factors. One such example has to do with open classrooms and work spaces, and the issues surrounding noise.

Given how central learning is to early childhood development, and how much of knowledge transmission occurs through speech, the fact that infants and children are less equipped to understand and learn from speech in the presence of background noise is perhaps particularly concerning.

The idea behind open classrooms and work spaces was that removing walls would increase collaboration. Although increasing collaboration may be a worthy goal, an unintended consequence of removing walls is that it results in very noisy work spaces. The negative effects of noise are numerous, and include effects such as increased stress, frustration, and even physiological effects on blood pressure [2]. In addition to effects on health, the effects that noise has on cognition and learning may be especially relevant to the classroom context. There is a lot of evidence from studies with adults that noise can disrupt cognitive processes, and the experience of struggling to concentrate in noisy environments is one that is universally familiar. But, however damaging noise may be to adult performance, there is good reason to believe that the negative impact of noise is even stronger with infants and children [3]. Given how central learning is to early childhood development, and how much of knowledge transmission occurs through speech, the fact that infants and children are less equipped to understand and learn from speech in the presence of background noise is perhaps particularly concerning. Consequently, limiting background noise in children’s environments should be a critical priority if the goal is to create optimal learning environments.

Unfortunately, research shows that even non-open, walled daycares and classrooms are often quite noisy—louder than the recommendations established by the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association [4], (e.g., [5]). These environments also have more reverberation than is ideal, which is a kind of smearing or prolonging of sound that happens when sound bounces off walls and other surfaces and makes speech harder to understand. Both of these are problematic, and especially in combination, but noise volumes in particularly have been shown to be extremely detrimental to learning [6]. Even more concerning is that the estimates of the noise levels in these environments are largely taken when the classrooms are empty, measuring things like noises from heating and cooling and other constant types of machine-generated sounds. When the classrooms are filled with children, they are even louder. On top of this, the talking, shrieking, laughing, and other sounds made by children and teachers can be highly distracting and have been demonstrated to make listening harder than other noises such as the hum of an air conditioner (e.g., [7]).

There are many possible solutions to these problems. For example, the use of soft materials such as curtains, pillows, and wall-hangings in classrooms can help absorb the soundwaves that bounce around the room and cause reverberation. Smaller classrooms and class sizes might allow children to be closer to the teacher and allow the teacher’s voice to be louder in relation to some of the other background noises. As new buildings are designed, increasing knowledge of the dangers of noise might be taken into account to design better floor plans and use sound insulating materials for construction. Lawn mowing and other noisy maintenance activities could be timed to coincide with lunch or other less critical teaching moments. Although one approach might be to ask teachers to speak more loudly and more clearly, this has its own difficulties as it has been associated with teacher vocal strain [8]. These solutions represent an important start, but understanding the nature of the difficulties that noise presents is critical to designing the best possible solutions.

Because basic auditory skills mature quite early, some researchers suspect that poor attention skills may be the culprit

Why, then, do young children find it so challenging to understand and learn from speech with background noise? Because basic auditory skills mature quite early, some researchers suspect that poor attention skills may be the culprit (e.g., [9]; [10]; [11]). Unlike basic auditory skills, the ability to selectively direct attention is something that develops slowly in children, and is of vital importance to learning (e.g., [12]; [13]). If difficulties with attention are responsible for problems listening and learning with background noise, this has implications for how we think about the environments that will result in the best learning outcomes for children. In addition to being noisy, classrooms and daycares can be chaotic and visually disorganized, and research is just starting to suggest that this kind of chaos may have a big impact [14]; [15]. Next up, I’ll talk about the visual environment, and how visual “noise” may affect children in similar ways to auditory noise.
References & Further Reading:

  1. Cepeda, N. J., Pashler, H., Vul, E., Wixted, J. T., & Rohrer, D. (2006). Distributed practice in verbal recall tasks: A review and quantitative synthesis.Psychological Bulletin132(3), 354.
  2. Ising, H., & Kruppa, B. (2004). Health effects caused by noise: evidence in the literature from the past 25 years.Noise and Health6(22), 5.
  3. Leibold, L. J., Yarnell, B. A., & Buss, E. (2016). Masked speech perception thresholds in infants, children, and adults. Ear and Hearing, 37(3), 345–353
  4. American Speech-Language Hearing Association. (1995). Guidelines for acoustics in educational environments. ASHA, 37 (Supplemental 14), 15–19
  5. Crandell, C., & Smaldino, J. (1995). An update of classroom acoustics for children with hearing impairment. Volta Review, 1, 4–12
  6. Bradley, J. S., Reich, R. D., & Norcross, S. G. (1999). On the combined effects of signal-to-noise ratio and room acoustics on speech intelligibility.The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America106(4), 1820–1828
  7. Newman, R. S., Morini, G., Ahsan, F., & Kidd Jr, G. (2015). Linguistically-based informational masking in preschool children.The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America138(1), EL93–EL98
  8. Crandell, C., Smaldino, J., & Flexer, C. (1999). An overview of sound-field FM amplification. The Hearing Review, 6(6), 40–42.
  9. Erickson, L.C., & Newman, R.S. (in press). Current Directions in Psychological Science.
  10. Newman, R. S. (2009). Infants’ listening in multitalker environments: Effect of the number of background talkers.Attention, Perception, & Psychophysics71(4), 822–
  11. Werner, L. A. (2007). Issues in human auditory development. Journal of Communication Disorders, 40(4), 275–283.
  12. Erickson, L. C., Thiessen, E. D., Godwin, K. E., Dickerson, J. P., & Fisher, A. V. (2015). Endogenously and exogenously driven selective sustained attention: contributions to learning in kindergarten children.Journal of Experimental Child Psychology138, 126–134
  13. Oakes, L. M., Kannass, K. N., & Shaddy, D. J. (2002). Developmental changes in endogenous control of attention: The role of target familiarity on infants’ distraction latency.Child Development73(6), 1644–1655
  14. Tomalski, P., Marczuk, K., Pisula, E., Malinowska, A., Kawa, R., & Niedźwiecka, A. (2017). Chaotic home environment is associated with reduced infant processing speed under high task demands.Infant Behavior and Development.
  15. Pereira, A. F., Smith, L. B., & Yu, C. (2014). A bottom-up view of toddler word learning. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review21(1), 178–185

    Lucy EricksonLucy Erickson is a AAAS Fellow based at the National Science Foundation and a former postdoctoral Research Associate in at the University of Maryland.  She is a research psychologist at the intersection of developmental psychology, cognitive psychology, and psycholinguistics.  Her research focuses on the factors (e.g., parental language input; infant cognitive abilities) that interact to support successful infant language development.