10 tips for better acoustics in the classroom

Good acoustics have a positive impact on how students learn, in the short term as well as the long term. In contrast, poor acoustics cause school results to deteriorate. Still, noise is often forgotten when schools are built and furnished. These 10 simple tips will help improve classroom acoustics.

Did you know that half of all school lessons are conducted in the dark due to faulty lighting in learning facilities? Or that every other page of school literature is missing when it is time for students to acquire new knowledge? Actually, it's not quite that bad. But when it comes to acoustics, the situation can actually be described this drastically.

NOISE CAUSES SCHOOL RESULTS TO DETERIORATE

Though acoustics is a somewhat evasive and abstract area, everyone knows that noise can be disrupting. There is extensive research in the area that indicates that the cognitive ability of students is very negatively impacted by poor acoustics. In brief, this entails that noise reduces their opportunities to take in information and process it into knowledge. In addition, young people are more sensitive than adults and have more trouble blocking out disruptive noises, making the situation in schools particularly serious. 

POOR ACOUSTICS IN HALF OF ALL CLASSROOMS

Some studies indicate that up to half of all classrooms investigated do not live up to the requirements for good acoustics. This development is often worsened by schools not being customised to new educational forms, such as less traditional front-of-the-class teaching and more student-centric activities based on cooperation and active knowledge retrieval in groups.

Not only is it disruptive when a teacher's voice is drowned out by noise as in auditory learning situations directly aimed at hearing, but also in visual activities such as reading or studying tables and diagrams. Noise can sabotage maximum learning. 

LONG- AND SHORT-TERM IMPACT

Poor acoustics cause students' brains to expend so much energy on blocking disruptive noises that there is little cognitive energy left to learn. And with half of all classrooms not living up to what is required for good acoustics, practically half of all teaching is wasted.

Perhaps more worrisome is that this has an immediate and chronic negative impact. It is bad enough that the school results of children and young people are negatively impacted by substandard acoustics, but it can also affect their long-term cognitive development negatively.

LONG- AND SHORT-TERM IMPACT

CREATE FUNCTIONAL ACOUSTICS

That was the bad news. But there is also good news. Firstly, it is not that classrooms need to be silent. A bit of background noise can even be a positive thing. Our hearing is still adapted to life in nature, which is never totally silent. Secondly, functional acoustic environments and places can be created in schools for different activities with relatively simple means.

Naturally, it is best to think through acoustics as schools are built by hiring acoustics experts early on in the process, for example. However, acoustics can also be improved in existing buildings.

Various types of textiles can reduce noise and disruptions. Carpets, curtains and soft furniture have a positive impact on the acoustic environment. Sound-absorbers on tabletops, soft castors on chairs and soft closing drawers and doors are examples of simple measures. Moveable sound-absorbing screens can be used to create temporary quiet oases for individual high-concentration work or for project-based group work. And for a really good effect, wall and ceiling screens can help.

GOOD ACOUSTICS PAY OFF

Won't it be expensive? That depends on what you mean, but the short answer is: no. It is not more expensive to do things right than to do them wrong. On the contrary. Especially if weighed against the learning benefits and seen from a long-term socioeconomic perspective.

Two Swedish experts* have even given a simple calculation based on numbers from the WHO. They looked at the numbers for learning impairment caused by high noise levels. They translated the numbers to lost teaching time multiplied by a teaching salary and came to the conclusion that poor acoustics in Swedish schools cost about SEK 1.4 billion each year.

So, if we go back to the dramatic comparisons we started with, if lighting were to stop working or pages were missing from books, it would only be natural to raise the alarm and do something about it. Shouldn't it be just as natural to react when acoustics in schools are poor?

* Staffan Hygge, Professor Emeritus of Environmental Psychology and Robert Ljung, Assistant Professor at Gävle University College.

"It is often the small things that make a big difference when it comes to improving classroom acoustics. Functional solutions such as soft-close drawers and cabinets or chairs with castors effectively remove much of the disruptive noise that arises in a classroom during the day. We view a good sound level as being a vital part of creating a good working environment for teachers and students alike."

Anders Larsson, Next Education Concept Manager at Kinnarps AB

TEN TIPS FOR BETTER ACOUSTICS IN THE CLASSROOM

1.

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Moveable screens on castors to partition off group work help reduce disruptive noise and create a more flexible learning environment.

2.

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Sound-absorbing wall-mounted screens are effective for generally improving the acoustic environment.

3.

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Tables with sound-absorbing panels cut down on disruptive noise (such as from pens) in classrooms. Sound absorbers mounted under the tabletop capture and absorb noise from the entire room and from sources like scraping chairs.

4.

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Chairs and tables on castors reduce irritating scraping sounds.

5.

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Carpeting on the floor reduces all sound, but primarily from footsteps and furniture.

6.

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Curtains cut down on sound and soften the room, making it more visually pleasing.

7.

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Soft furniture is not only comfortable for sitting but has a general noise-reducing effect.

8.

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Sound-absorbing ceilings do wonders for acoustics.

9.

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Soft-closing doors and drawers reduce slamming in the classroom and have an overall calming effect.

10.

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Separate spaces for individual high-concentration work and group work reduce noise disruptions and increase focus on the task.

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