When a team of researchers led by University of Salford professor Peter Barrett analyzed the design of 153 classrooms across 27 elementary schools in the United Kingdom, they went all in and kept it real, taking measurements and making observations of seating arrangements, wall decorations, and often-overlooked ambient factors such as lighting, temperature, acoustics, and air quality—all inside real classrooms.
Good classrooms should be “designed to make attending school an interesting and pleasurable experience,” the researchers enthused, balancing visual stimulation with comfort and a sense of ownership. Combined, these classroom design elements accounted for 16 percent of the variation in students’ academic progress.
We tried to take a similar approach, getting beyond the more obvious classroom design factors to survey the science of learning environments more comprehensively. Not everything in this list is within a teacher’s purview—you can’t very well open your walls and let in more sunlight, at least not without a good saw and the district’s permission—but we tried to identify factors that might be addressed within classrooms immediately, or within school or district budgets over a longer term.
“Lighting is one of the most critical physical characteristics in a learning space,” researchers explain in a 2020 review of 130 studies. Poor lighting not only makes it harder to see materials clearly but also can dampen engagement, especially for students with developmental disabilities. Good lighting, on the other hand, has a significant impact across many dimensions of successful learning, including “attention rates, working speed, productivity, and accuracy, among other reported effects.”
If you have outside-facing windows, try to allow as much natural sunlight into your room as possible, researchers suggest in a 2021 study. After analyzing over two dozen variables, from lighting type (artificial, sunlight, or a mix) to window size and window shades in 53 European schools, they concluded that lighting is “a strong enabler of performance, which is crucial for child development.”
There was one notable wrinkle: Too much direct sunlight impaired test scores, the researchers found. You might consider using shades or window decorations to prevent glare from entering the classroom, especially when students are focused on screens or paper for longer periods of time.
VENTILATION AND AIR QUALITY
When three coal-fired power plants closed at about the same time in Chicago, Illinois, the downwind effects in schools were significant. “For the typical elementary school in our sample,” researchers studying the shutdowns reported, there was a 7 percent reduction in student absences, translating “into around 372 fewer absence-days per year.” Students in classrooms with poor air-conditioning saw outsized improvements after the plants closed, indicating that school ventilation and air-purifying systems had been keeping kids healthier and in school more often. Two years later, a study analyzing pollution data from over 10,000 U.S. school districts found a direct link to academic performance, concluding that elevated levels of particulate matter in the air—dust or soot, for instance—lead to reduced test scores.
Installing air-conditioning, better HVAC systems, or new windows is the responsibility of administrators and district leaders, but there are simpler measures teachers can take. Researchers, for example, found that carbon dioxide, a by-product of human breathing, steadily accumulated in classrooms over the course of the day—readings were often six times higher than the level that a 2015 Harvard study linked to substantial declines in higher-order thinking.
“If air quality is OK at the start of the class, it won’t be by the end unless you do something,” according to Barrett, whose team recorded the gas levels, when we interviewed him in 2018. The fix is easy enough: “You have to open a window or a door,” he suggested.
COMPLEXITY AND COLOR
There’s a difference between cluttered walls and visually stimulating ones. In a landmark 2015 study that was largely confirmed by two studies we recently reviewed (here and here), researchers found that students are more frequently off task when visual clutter overwhelms “their still-developing and fragile ability to actively maintain task goals and ignore distractions.”
The good news, as we recently reported, is that the studies tend to point to a commonsensical middle ground, where classrooms are neither too cluttered nor too austere: “Classroom decoration can alter academic trajectories, the research suggests, but the task shouldn’t stress teachers out,” we wrote. “The rules appear to be relatively straightforward: Hang academically relevant work on the walls, and avoid the extremes—working within the broad constraints suggested by common sense and moderation.”
Color palettes make a difference, too, according to a 2022 study. The same principle of moderation applies: Avoid extreme wall colors such as black or neon green, and opt for a pleasant mix of color across your walls, floor, and wall displays. Use a simple scheme, such as a single neutral color that’s accompanied by splashes of brightness, for example.
Some schools believe that data walls motivate students to try harder. The research casts doubt on that conclusion, especially at the margins—where struggling students need the most help.
Students in “the red zone” of public data walls are “often mocked or derided by other students for their poor performance,” researchers who reviewed 30 empirical studies on the topic explain in a 2020 review, dampening enthusiasm and confidence for kids who need it the most. Data walls can trigger “positive emotions such as pride, hopefulness, and joy, as well as negative feelings of stress, anxiety, or disappointment,” depending on where a student ranks in the list, the researchers asserted.
“The idea behind ‘data-driven decision-making’ is a good one,” explains assessment expert Lorrie Shepard. But even data walls that use an “anonymous ID number” are harmful to many students because kids “know what it means if they see themselves as a red or a yellow learner.”
The takeaway: Using data to inform instruction is good practice, but public displays or public ranking are neutral or beneficial for only a subset of higher-performing students.
NATURE, PLANTS, AND GREENERY
A classroom space that is conducive to learning should feel natural and fresh, not cramped and stuffy, researchers explain in a 2021 study. Views of nature and green spaces from windows appear to make a difference: “Students reported less stress and were more focused on a task in classrooms with more natural window views.” If you don’t have open spaces outside your window, you can bring in plants and other natural decorations—“students displayed stronger feelings of friendliness and comfort in the presence of these plants,” the researchers note.
When researchers added potted plants to high school classrooms, the older students also expressed more satisfaction in their surroundings, paid more attention in class, and rated the lessons and their teachers higher, a 2020 study found. “Incorporating indoor nature can thus improve students’ satisfaction with their study environment, which may positively influence retention and students’ beliefs about their academic performance,” the researchers concluded, though you can expect improvements to be modest.
Students can experience representation in classrooms by seeing their own or peers’ artifacts on walls and in shared virtual spaces, or by being exposed to images and references that mirror their interests, passions, and backgrounds.
In a 2015 study, researchers explain that “intimate and personalized spaces are better for absorbing, memorizing and recalling information.” To help students see the classroom as a space they belong in, “you can use your walls to showcase your students’ nonacademic talents and activities,” writes special education math teacher Rachel Fuhrman. “It’s incredibly empowering for students… to see something they did or something they created on display in the space.”
Exposure to resonant cultural imagery on walls and in materials—what researchers often call the “symbolic classroom”—also appears to improve a sense of belonging and has positive effects on engagement and academic outcomes. In a 2014 review and a 2019 study, for example, researchers discovered that making culturally relevant adjustments to lessons—and displaying inspiring, inclusive posters and other visuals that mirrored student interests—helped students feel a greater sense of connection to their classroom learning and could boost final course performance by nearly a full letter grade.
Teachers sometimes chafe at so-called flexible classrooms that look like they were designed by the House of Dior. Beautiful classrooms, the teachers argue persuasively, are not necessarily successful learning environments, and flexibility as a standard of classroom design should be judged by factors like versatility (they support multiple uses) and modifiability (they allow for “active manipulation and appropriation”), according to one review of modern classrooms.
The research on flexible classroom design, meanwhile, is scarce but promising, we reported a few years back, with Peter Barrett’s team concluding that flexible classrooms were about as important as air quality, light, and temperature in boosting academic outcomes. Taken together, flexibility and a student’s “sense of ownership” account for just over a quarter of the academic improvements attributed to classroom design.
In the end, flexible classroom design contributes modestly to daily academic outcomes but has the benefit of durability: It works behind the scenes to improve learning for the entirety of the school year. If you’re interested in trying the approach, consider cheap options like rugs, standing desks, and reading nooks with pillows, and use the full range of seating alternatives to support independent and group learning, as the educational tasks demand.
Learning Differences and Neurodivergence
Out of the 7.3 million students with a disability in the U.S., about one in three has a learning disability or neurodevelopmental condition such as autism. For these students, who often have sensory or executive function issues, colorful, richly decorated environments may be perceived as a cacophony of visual noise, according to a 2021 study.
The study provides several research-based recommendations to guide teachers, which actually align nicely with the best research on general education environments:
- Align wall displays with the current topic so that “if students focus on the visual displays rather than the teacher, they will still be focusing on relevant information.”
- Use the front wall for daily materials such as a calendar and word walls.
- Create distinct activity areas—circle time, reading space, and desk work, for example—to help students transition between tasks.
- Be mindful of excessive brightness and glare. A partially shaded window can still allow natural light to enter the room, and carpets can block the glare from vinyl floors.
Sweltering classrooms can have profound academic effects. In a 2018 study, researchers analyzed 10 million PSAT scores and found that a one-degree Fahrenheit rise in local temperature resulted in a corresponding 1 percent drop in test scores. While air-conditioning helped mitigate the impact, the researchers observed stark differences in the school infrastructure and funding: “We estimate that between three and seven percent of the gap in PSAT scores between White students and Black and Hispanic students can be explained by differences in the temperature environment,” the researchers concluded.
In a popular Reddit thread, teachers share their own ideas for dealing with hot classrooms. While it may seem counterintuitive, you can use fans to direct air into the hallway to regulate the air pressure in your own classroom—pulling cooler air from outside into your room, suggests a physics teacher. If you’re looking for fun art project ideas, you can replace some of your window shades with stained glass art to soften sun glare. Other teachers suggest turning off heat-generating electronic devices, such as computers and projectors.
Five decades ago, progressive schools began experimenting with open classrooms. In an attempt to create “a less authoritarian environment,” the classroom walls came down, ushering in an era that promised “a greater range of learning methodologies and group sizes,” according to a 2023 study. But the results fell far short. Students in the open classrooms read half as fast as their peers in the traditional classrooms, largely because the open layouts were acoustical chaos and probably “require a significantly higher degree of listening effort.”
When deep focus is needed for independent learning, there’s really no substitute for quiet spaces—and conveying information orally only works when kids can discern who is speaking and what they’re saying. “Effective listening is a linchpin of school learning,” researchers assert in a 2013 study.
Should you assign seats or let kids choose? Several recent studies arrived at what appear, superficially, to be conflicting conclusions. One 2021 study found that assigned seating can forge new friendships between students who would otherwise never bond. Another, published in 2013, suggests that intentionally separating close friends can reduce classroom disruptions by as much as 70 percent.
The contradiction is easily reconciled in light of other research that finds that it’s best to think of classroom seating arrangements within the context of learning goals. While there’s some evidence that elementary school children are most attentive when they are arranged in semicircles—as opposed to rows or clusters—the best arrangements should match the learning task. For more collaborative work, small clusters of desks or standing arrangements are best, the researchers suggest, while for independent work the oft-demonized row arrangements work well. Likewise, friends can be seated together or apart, depending on the teacher’s immediate objectives.
Finally, consider the space between desks and configurations carefully, or find other ways to allow for movement during the day. Dozens of studies reveal that brain breaks and movement breaks are underestimated as methods to improve engagement, behavior, and learning outcomes.
In a 2019 study, researchers made the case for creating multiple learning zones in your classroom—a main space for teacher-centered instruction and several smaller areas that can be rotated throughout the school year that involve “students actively working on learning tasks and reflecting on their work, apart from watching, listening, and taking notes.”
Such classrooms often resulted in “improved measurable student learning outcomes, whether those outcomes are traditional quantitative measures such as exams and course grades or measures of ‘21st century skills.’”
Using learning zones can be a low-cost approach to tailoring instruction to meet the needs of students, according to a 2020 study that encompassed 610 elementary and middle school classrooms. The researchers point to a growing body of research suggesting that learning zones have a wide range of benefits, allowing teachers to improve transitions, facilitate differentiated instruction, and motivate and engage students more effectively.
“Don’t let a small classroom be your kryptonite,” writes former teacher and principal Veronica Lopez. “You can set up a learning zone in a bookcase, on a shelf, on one bulletin board, or on a small desk or table.”