Designing an effective learning environment: Part 1

To be honest, in our decade of tutoring, the physical space at Academia has never been the priority. There were a few rules – it had to be safe, clean, well-lit, well-ventilated, and free of distractions. There were a few aesthetic ideals we sought out, such as the Danish concept of Hygge, which refers to a sense of cosiness, comfort, and contentment. But quality teaching and curriculum always has, and always will take the front seat at Academia – and regardless of the environment, we have always managed to deliver impressive educational outcomes.  

Nevertheless, when an opportunity to design a new unit came by, we wanted to build our dream tuition centre. We had two objectives, one practical and one aesthetic. Our practical objective: within the physical and financial constraints presented to us, to build the most effective learning environment possible; our aesthetic objective: to make a tuition centre feel like home. For the second objective, we sought out Jade and Anthony Chai, a husband-and-wife design team with a knack for making spaces feel cosy and familiar.

In this 2-part post, we’ll talk about our Academic adventure in building our new tutoring space – and discuss a bit of what we discovered about creating effective educational environments for students, with a focus on the OECD’s work on Effective Learning Environments.

Defining an Effective Learning Environment

In their 2017 framework on the physical learning environment, the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) defines an Effective Learning Environment as one that achieves educational objectives and maximises outcomes. Apart from standardised testing outcomes, these might also include:

  • Learning – the extent to which students engage in learning, as well as the development of critical thinking, self-managed learning, and various forms of literacy and awareness
  • Social – in terms of the relationship between students and teachers, as well as between students when working in teams and communicating
  • Affective / Emotional – in creating for each student a sense of belonging and self-efficacy
  • Health and Wellbeing – in terms of physical and emotional health and wellbeing
  • Behavioural – in terms of learning persistence, constructive, and prosocial behaviour, as contrasted to disruptive or destructive behaviour

Clearly, these objectives and outcomes would differ according to the purpose of the learning environment. Whilst a public school might require the broadest set of goals and outcomes ranging from sociability to creativity, an individual study room might simply need to provide a persistent sense of focus and concentration.

Elements of the Physical Learning Environment

Under the OECD framework, elements of the physical learning environment are categorised into 3 types of factors – spatial factors, temporal factors, and connective factors. Spatial factors are physical factors such as lighting, temperature, sound, and colour. Temporal factors look at flexibility, and how the classrooms are designed to provide utility to different teaching styles and purposes. Connective factors look at the use of information and communications technology in effective and efficient ways. 

The most immediately intuitive, and broadly generalisable, are probably the spatial factors, which we will focus on for this first post.

For spatial factors, we have a neat list of 9 different factors: Comfort, Safety, Noise, Temperature, Air quality, Lighting, Colour, Aesthetics, and Greenery. The first, comfort, is about the physical comfort of the student. The idea behind this is that comfortable students are more easily able to block out negative thoughts, avoid disruptions, and focus on instruction much more effectively. At Academia, this ties in with our aesthetic ideal, which refers to a sense of cosiness, comfort, and contentment. It is often associated with creating a warm and inviting atmosphere, and with activities that bring people together and promote feelings of well-being. In a way, this links to the second factor, safety. Students who feel safe at a school or a learning environment tend to focus better, and learn in a manner that comes with reduced psychological and emotional stress. 

Though comfort and safety can be a little subjective, the next few spatial elements, noise, temperature, air quality, lighting and colour, are fairly easy to define and measure. Excessive noise can reduce a student’s ability to hear the lesson clearly and affect their ability to learn. The World Health Organisation (WHO) recommends an upper limit of 35 decibels for classroom background noise, while other studies suggest that an ideal background noise level is relative to the teacher’s voice level, ideally at least 25 decibels below the voice level. 

Similarly, temperature has been found to affect students’ memory and cognitive ability. According to a study by Penn State, the optimal temperature of a classroom needs to be somewhere between 17°C to 23°C. That’s pretty cold – between 5°C to 10°C lower than our average Singapore temperature – and the lower end is probably a bit too cold for most of our students. We’ve always set our air conditioning to 23°C, in all of our classrooms. Ventilation is also important for improving the air circulation of a classroom and reducing the risk of lung ailments like asthma. Additionally, it can also lower the frequency or commonality of seasonal cough or fever, which is a prominent reason for school absenteeism.

Lighting and colour in a classroom are fairly interesting, in the roles that they can play in enhancing different aspects of classroom performance. Lighting with a colour temperature at around 5500K, for example, is close to daylight and ideal for individual reading and focus, possibly due to an improvement in visual acuity and wakefulness. But while daylight might be good for reading, slightly warmer light between 3500K and 4000K has been shown to improve collaboration and discussion, which can be ideal in a classroom setting that requires participation and interaction. Meanwhile, the colour of the classroom décor also has an impact on student focus, mood, and performance. These range from calming blue tones to energising red tones, as well as colourful tones that promote exploration of the physical space. At Academia, even before designing our new classrooms, we have always tended to select hues that initiate a sense of calmness, and that fit with a design aesthetic that does not distract from the lesson itself. 

This leads us to the last 2 factors under spatiality – aesthetic and greenery. Aesthetic can be extremely subjective, and internally we focused on our image of a home might look like. We sought out wooden and neutral elements, rounded edges, and organic shapes. We were drawn to greenery, not only because of the extensive physical and psychological benefits that plants provide, but also simply as a calming visual element.  

Designing an effective learning environment: Part 2

In the next part, we will talk about temporal and connective factors, some case studies we looked at such as Montessori-inspired design, and take a sneak peek into our new classroom facilities!

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