Optimal Learning Environments for Schools

by Dr. Ed Williams, Education Consultant
April 1, 2019

Providing a proper learning environment has proven to be fundamental in the overall learning process. Numerous studies show a strong correlation between the learning environment conditions and student performance.


September 2020 UPDATE: We have updated our Best Practices for Indoor Air Quality in School Buildings in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. Please see that resource for the most updated information about healthy school buildings.

Educators today are broadly familiar with past research studies addressing the connection between indoor environmental quality in their schools and student achievement. The factors that contribute to student success are varied and complex. Fortunately, recent and planned research is actively building on previous research studies and is exploring larger, more complex questions to seek definitive answers about how these varied environmental factors influence student performance.

One such global research study was conducted by representatives from The Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and published in 2017. They researched the connection among a variety of factors that impact student health and cognitive performance with one factor being the impact of the built environment, including thermal comfort, indoor air quality (IAQ), lighting, noise, and internal design elements. This 2017 report, “The Impact of School Buildings on Student Health and Performance,” does an excellent job of defining and segmenting the varied aspects that impact student performance.

Various metrics were studied such as respiratory illness, school attendance, sick leave, pro-social or aggressive behavior, blood pressure, heart rate, headache, hearing tests, vocal symptoms, fatigue, physical activity, focus, alertness, error rate, speed and accuracy, concentration, reading speed, boredom, reading comprehension, coping with ADD, test scores, and writing and reading tests. These were then studied in relation to thermal comfort, IAQ, lighting, noise, and internal design elements, providing strong research-based evidence that school buildings impact student health and learning ability.

The Components

Understanding each of the factors contributing to the classroom environment is crucial to the success of any initiative. Each factor is, in itself, a broad set of issues. In total, they contain the formula for a healthy, productive environment. Optimal learning criteria can be defined by the following key categories:

Optimal Learning Environment - Indoor Air Quality  Indoor Air Quality

It’s not hard to observe that humans don’t react well to poor indoor air quality (IAQ). The effects of poor IAQ can be amplified when health issues, such as asthma, are involved. Asthma alone accounts for over 13 million missed school days per year (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention). Asthma can be triggered by environmental factors that negatively impact IAQ such as: Scented candles or air fresheners, classroom pets, excess dust, mold growth, the use of cleaning supplies with harsh chemicals, and the use of plush couches/cushions in classrooms.

As you can see, it can be quite a challenge to control these factors given the variety of rooms in a school building and their various uses. Gyms, cafeterias, classrooms, media centers, science labs, vocational labs, and other spaces all have distinct air quality challenges. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency offers many resources for facility professionals and school leaders to track and maintain good IAQ.

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Optimal Learning Environment - Ventillation  Ventilation

School mechanical equipment can also contribute to poor air quality. Ensuring the ventilation systems are running smoothly can be achieved through these three simple steps:

  • Check for blocked air discharge and return dampers at unit ventilators.
  • Check air filters and damper operations.
  • Ensure the unit is bringing in outdoor air in the correct proportion.

Optimal Learning Environments - Lighting  Lighting

Another vital component is adequate and constant illumination – with no drop in quality across each space. Classrooms with full-spectrum lighting - including ultra-violet – were found to have a significantly positive effect on attendance and academic performance. A new, popular option that is efficient and cost-effective throughout K-12 schools is LED lighting.

Optimal Learning Environment - Thermal Comfort  Thermal Comfort

Walking into a room that is either sweltering or chilly is something everyone notices immediately, especially in a teaching and learning setting. During exposure to extremes of temperature, there is an increase in stress among students, and a sharp decrease in work efficiency, concentration and focus. To manage classroom temperatures effectively, the installation of digital controls allows for more consistent and comfortable temperature control and monitoring.

Optimal Learning Environment - Acoustics  Acoustics (Noise)

A purposeful hum in the classroom is one thing. A constant, intrusive droning of background noise is a different and far less desirable factor. Clear audibility is even more important when  students have a hearing impairment, or if English is not their first language.

While key metrics are discussed in more detail later, it is useful to note that maximum background noise in classrooms should be no higher than 45 decibels. Anything above that volume will limit a student’s processing ability and begin to induce stress.

Optimal Learning Environment - Building Age  Relative Humidity

Humidity is another important factor of indoor air quality. The American National Standards Institute recommends levels at or below 65%, so that the room is comfortable and does not develop mold. Levels should be surveyed during high humidity conditions, and placing humidity sensors throughout the school will assist with gathering and interpreting results.

Warsaw School's STEM lab

Bringing It All Together

Implementing a district-wide program to improve the learning environment is no simple task. When moving forward with any action plan, it’s important to refer to the basic elements of the classroom environment and find a reliable partner with proven success working with schools. Viewing the classroom as a whole environment, having a reliable checklist, and maintaining measurable objectives will undoubtedly set your school on the path to achieving a truly optimized learning environment.

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Meet the Author


Dr. Ed Williams

Dr. Ed Williams joined Performance Services in 2008, bringing with him 43 years of educational experience. During his time as an educator, he served as Superintendent of the Rochester Community Schools and as Assistant Superintendent for MSD of Lawrence Township Schools in Indianapolis. During his career at Lawrence, Dr. Williams led the strategic planning committee and multiple school construction and renovation projects.

Dr. Ed Williams

Senior Educational Consultant

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The Impact of School Buildings on Student Health and Performance

Jim Beckmann discusses the connection between indoor air quality and student achievement.

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