University of Salford Manchester

Improved Learning Through Classroom Design

Client: Nightingale Associates

Background

The School of the Built Environment at the University of Salford is recognised internationally as a centre of excellence for both teaching and research.  Within the School, Prof Peter Barrett leads a research team that specialises in understanding how our behaviour is affected by the built environment. 

The Project

Based upon this expertise, Peter and his team were called upon to investigate the links between classroom design and learning within primary schools.  Seven primary schools in Blackpool were selected for a study where an in-depth assessment was made of the environmental factors relating to 34 classrooms across 7 schools.  

Factors such as lighting, noise levels, orientation, temperature and air quality were quantified for each classroom.  In addition, a range of design attributes, such as the flexibility of the space, available storage, and even colour schemes were also studied.

In addition to these physical assessments, a parallel dataset relating to the academic progress of each of the 751 pupils was developed.  The progress and performance in reading, writing and maths over a year for every pupil was collected and analysed.

These two data sets were then brought together to give some surprising results, which gave vital insights into the relationship between the classroom design (and related environmental conditions) and the quality of learning of learning for the children. 

Findings

Overall, almost three quarters of the variation in pupil performance could be attributed to design and environmental factors.  All things being equal, the academic performance of a child in the best environment could be expected to be 25% better than an equivalent child in the “poorest” classroom environment.  

These findings are very significant as many environmental factors are inherent in the initial building design and so are often very difficult (and costly) to change once the school has been built.  For example, the amount of natural daylight and how it varies throughout the day has an important influence on the learning environment, but the daylight characteristics for a classroom are effectively fixed by the architect’s original design and the building’s orientation.

Impact

In order to cut costs and improve construction efficiency there are moves to standardize the designs for new schools, which underlines the importance of this project.  Any future standard designs must incorporate best practice design guidelines to give the best possible learning environments.  

This phase of the project was completed in November 2012 and will be extended to a much larger-scale sample through funding from the EPSRC that will cover an additional 20 schools from across the UK.
 “It has long been known that various aspects of the built environment impact on people in buildings, but this is the first time a holistic assessment has been made that successfully links the overall impact directly to learning rates in schools. The impact identified is in fact greater than we imagined and the Salford team is looking forward to building on these clear results.”

Professor Peter Barrett, School of the Built Environment

Client comment

‘Currently the Government is looking to reduce school building costs significantly. The HEAD study provides evidence that the built environment plays a significant role in the learning progression of children. The initial findings suggest that flexibility within the classroom, empowering teachers to utilise the space for various teaching methods has an impact on learning outcomes.  It is important that the base line designs allow for this flexibility of use within the classroom.’

Caroline Paradise, Nightingale Associates