Understanding the Components of an Optimal Learning Environment
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.
Through my 43 years of experience in the education field, I have seen almost every school environment scenario imaginable. While serving as an Assistant Superintendent, at the Metropolitan School District of Lawrence in Indianapolis, I was faced with the great challenges of fluctuating temperatures, varying levels of humidity, poor air distribution, and noisy mechanical equipment in the classroom.
In 2003, we decided to shift our focus to a comprehensive view of the classroom environment components. We wanted to examine what each offered in the journey towards a facility’s total and sustainable optimization. I asked myself the question, “What steps do I need to take to create an optimal learning environment?” It became very clear that we had to establish standards for the broad categories of classroom environmental components. Then we had to control the whole environment consistently, according to those standards, while tracking and measuring the results.
The results of this holistic approach, when applied to each building project, were unanimously positive. Through viewing our classrooms as a whole environment, Lawrence Township Schools was able to qualify several buildings as ENERGY STAR® approved. This is a considerable achievement, as only an estimated 10% of all U.S. schools are ENERGY STAR® certified. Through this endeavor, we created a roadmap for older buildings to find optimal environment solutions. As a fundamental part of our own practical learning, we discovered that it’s important to understand each individual factor affecting the classroom before carrying out a complete renovation.
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. They can be defined by the following key categories:
Indoor Air Quality
It’s not hard to observe that humans don’t react well to poor air quality. This air quality 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).
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.
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.
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 lights.
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.
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 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.
Building Age and Condition
The age of a school building is a strong predictor of building condition. Older buildings are less likely to have features such as controlled temperatures, acceptable lighting, and good acoustics. However, the age of the school building itself should not be used as a measure of its quality. Buildings more than 50 years old still provide quality environments while newer buildings may not. This is why defined learning environment criteria and standards matter.
Bringing It All Together
Implementing a district-wide program is no simple task. When moving forward with an action plan, it’s important to refer to the basic elements of the classroom environment. 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.
Meet the Author
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.
Senior Educational Consultant