If you’ve ever taught in front of a classroom packed with students, you know how easily distractions can happen. Everything from the layout of the space to the degree and timing of natural light can help or hinder learning.

The power of lighting

Neuroscientist Melina Uncapher delves into what environmental factors affect student learning and why. While it’s common wisdom that exposure to sunlight has positive effects for the body and mind, not all light is created equal. Uncapher cites a one-year study of 21,000 elementary school students which concluded that those with more exposure to sunlight had twenty-six percent higher reading outcomes and twenty percent higher math outcomes.

Daytime light wavelengths within the blue color range make people more alert and less sleepy by influencing hormonal secretion to a greater extent than other wavelengths. Even replacing more common artificial light sources with blue-light sources has increased student learning ability.

However, since daytime blue light has a more energizing effect, it’s also a growing concern that excellent blue light sources, like phones and computer screens, contribute to less functional sleep cycles when students look at them before bed.

Classroom layouts

In terms of seating, a well-known research paper showed that elementary school students arranged in a semicircle produced the best academic performance compared to sitting in rows or even small-group clusters. Another study revealed that arrangements should be based on the level of interactivity of the task at hand. While semicircles and clusters work best for collaboration, rows are best for independent study.

Noise has an extreme effect on learning outcomes as well. Younger children are much more susceptible to being distracted by noises because their executive functioning—the cognitive processes that allow us to stay focused on a specific task—aren’t as developed as older students’. It’s best to minimize environmental noise as much as possible. A study on temperature’s effect concluded that the optimal comfort range for student learning is between 68 and 74 degrees Fahrenheit, with about 50 percent humidity.

There are many ways that learning spaces influence learning outcomes in the classroom. Without paying attention to the best ways to help students stay comfortably engaged, even very good teachers might struggle more than they need to.