5 Ways Classroom Design Can Improve What We Learn And Who Learns It

It’s not only people who can be exclusionary. So can the decor.

5 Ways Classroom Design Can Improve What We Learn And Who Learns It
[Top Photo: Flickr user Shaylor]

Young undergraduates walk into a computer science lab at Stanford University and are handed a career survey about their interest in the field. What researchers learned when they asked students to do this was something fascinating: The design of the survey room itself appeared to influence their answers.


U.S. students spend an average of 11,700 hours of their lives in classrooms from kindergarten to senior year of high school and another 400 hours in classrooms in college. But emerging research shows that many of these spaces are physically inadequate for learning, and others offer subtle but powerful psychological cues that discourage or inhibit particular students.

“There’s a lot of guidelines in education–what the curriculum should be like, or how the teaching should change. But there’s not very much on what the classroom should look like,” says Sapna Cheryan, an assistant professor in psychology at the University of Washington.

Cheryan has spent the last few years trying to fill this gap and recently reviewed the field in the journal Policy Insights from the Behavioral and Brain Sciences.

One of the most interesting tidbits is the Stanford study, which she worked on in 2009. In it, when some students visited the computer science lab, the researchers had decorated it with stereotypical “computer geek” gear, including Star Trek poster and video games strewn about. Other times, they made it more like a neutral office environment, with plants and general interest books. Women who took the survey in the computer geek lab were less likely on average to say they wanted to pursue a career in the field, all other factors held equal. She called this phenomenon an issue of “ambient belonging.”

“When you think about how to change the culture of a field, a lot of times we are focused on ‘how do we change the people.’ But it’s very hard to change people,” says Cheryan. “Design is an accessible, inexpensive intervention that can be done.”


In fact, inspired by her work, the University of Washington’s Engineering Department redecorated its own dingy basement computer science lab, giving it a fresh coat of paint and new artwork and a more sociable seating layout–all for less than $1,000. The effect was well worth it, Cheryan reports. All kinds of students are happier spending time in the space. Below, are a few other design interventions she’s looked at in her review:

The Physical Classroom

While it’s not clear whether high-tech gadgets in the classroom actually improve education, having adequate basic facilities has been shown to be completely crucial. Decent conditions–such as lighting, noise, temperature, and air quality–are often sorely lacking in an unfortunate number of U.S. public schools. Unsurprisingly, bad conditions persist more often in schools with more low-income and minority students.


Natural light in the classroom can improve performance. For example, in one study of 2,000 classrooms in California, Colorado, and Washington, those with more natural daylight performed anywhere from 2% to 26% higher on reading and math tests than those who had less. Unfortunately, many school building designs don’t let in much natural light.

Noise, Temperature, and Air Quality


The National Center for Education Statistics reports that more than half of U.S. public schools said they needed money to bring their buildings up to good condition in 2012 to 2013. Common deficiencies included windows, plumbing, ventilation, and temperature regulation.

These inadequacies in basic conditions can have a huge impact on learning. The best learning apparently occurs between 68 and 74 degrees Fahrenheit, but in 14% of public schools, heating is reported to be unsatisfactory. Studies also show that excess noise can hinder learning, such as airplane noise or road traffic. About 14% of U.S. public schools also report unsatisfactory noise conditions. Even poor air quality–which is especially more common in low-income or minority neighborhoods–is a big concern, since it is associated with decreased student attendance and decreases teachers’ ability to perform well in their own jobs.

The Symbolic Classroom

This term is a researchers’ shorthand for everything that makes up the psychological feel of the classroom, including posters, art, and other decor, as well as other kinds of objects found within. These symbols are far from trivial, and can have a bit influence a student’s aspirations and performance.

Seating Design: The optimal layout of work spaces in office environments is endlessly debated, but the same is oddly not true for classrooms. Like in offices, Cheryan says the layout should fit the task at hand–some collaborative classrooms will function better with desks in clusters, others in more lecture style rows. The research, however, does show there can be gender differences in preferences. One study of more than 900 college students reported women felt more at ease in more social, collaborative arrangements. “The overall message is that the environment has to fit what’s appropriate for that classroom,” says Cheryan.

Objects and Decoration: Busy classrooms walls with a lot of posters can be distracting to kindergarteners and reduce their performance on worksheets, according to one study, but not much is known about the “optimal amounts” of wall adornment or how this plays out at other ages.


The setting of a classroom can also have a huge influence on whether students feels comfortable and included in the learning environment, especially for students of color and women. Female undergraduates, for example, felt more comfortable with a male TA who would be grading them when the TA’s office signaled positive attitudes towards women, according to one study. In another, male and female students giving a speech performed more equally when a poster displayed Hillary Clinton or Angela Merkel on the back wall. When it displayed Bill Clinton or no one, men gave longer speeches that were rated better than the women.

Sometimes, “token” portrayals can hurt, however. In another study, American Indian high school students who saw a stereotypical portrayal–say Chief Wahoo of the Cleveland Indians–were less likely to mention academic achievement when asked where they imagined themselves in the future, compared to those who saw no image or a counter-stereotypical one.

Overall, these studies are too limited to prove anything alone, but to the authors of the research, the evidence adds up that subtle design cues can have an outsized, if unconscious influence in education. The researchers recommend that policy makers start paying attention.

About the author

Jessica Leber is a staff editor and writer for Fast Company's Co.Exist. Previously, she was a business reporter for MIT’s Technology Review and an environmental reporter at ClimateWire