UW Today

November 5, 2014

Ditch tokens and increase light for optimal learning

News and Information

Classroom décor may seem relatively unimportant, but it can play a surprisingly big role in influencing student learning and achievement.

That’s among the key findings in a new paper co-authored by University of Washington researchers. Published this week in the inaugural issue of Policy Insights from the Behavioral and Brain Sciences, the paper finds that classroom features such as light, temperature and décor can profoundly influence learning.

Students exposed to more natural light perform better, the analysis found, but research shows that up to 28 percent of schools lack sufficient natural light. And while 68 to 74 degrees is considered the right temperature for learning, heating is considered unsatisfactory in up to 14 percent of U.S. public schools.

Classrooms decorated with items associated with only some students can lead others to feel unwelcome or less confident, researchers wrote. They cited a study in which female undergraduates felt less interested by computer science classrooms with sci-fi decorations than they did in rooms with non-stereotypical objects such as plants and nature photos.

Depictions of diversity were generally considered positive, but “token” symbols representing ethnic groups — for example, posters of American Indian mascots — led to lower self-esteem among students in those groups. Similarly, the researchers mentioned a study in which Buddhist and Sikh students seated in a cubicle with a Christmas tree felt less confident than their Christian peers in the same setting.

The paper’s findings have already been adopted by the UW Computer Science & Engineering Department, which redesigned its computer lab in 2010, repainting walls and hanging nature pictures in an effort to make it feel warm and inclusive. Students preferred the revamped space and “felt it better communicated the people-oriented nature of the department,” the researchers noted.

The paper’s lead author is Sapna Cheryan, a UW psychology professor. Co-authors are Andrew Meltzoff, co-director of the UW Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences; Sianna Ziegler, a UW graduate student in psychology; and Victoria Plaut, a psychologist at University of California, Berkeley, School of Law.