Classroom Accoustics & Learning

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Classroom Accoustics & Learning

Poor Classroom Acoustics: The Invisible Reason For Why Johnny Can't Read.
Poor classroom acoustics create a negative learning environment for many students, especially those with hearing or learning difficulties. According to a report by David Lubman ("America's Need for Standards and Guidelines to Ensure Satisfactory Classroom Acoustics"), "acoustical conditions in many classrooms are unsuitable for such tasks as learning to read, to listen or to understand unfamiliar material." Poor classroom acoustics are frustrating for both students and teachers, as indicated in teacher surveys. According to the Acoustical Society of America, in many classrooms in the United States up to 25% of the information can be missed because of excessive noise and reverberation.

Noise Impacts Students
Studies have shown that poor classroom acoustics negatively affect learning. The sources of classroom noise can be interior noise (such as Heating, Ventilating and Air Conditioning - HVAC) and interior equipment such as the fans in overhead projectors and computers. Walls, ceilings and floors not properly insulated can also contribute to noise. Noise sources can also come from exterior sources such as aircraft and highway traffic. Whether the noise source is interior or exterior, student's learning suffers. In a landmark study by Dr.Arline Bronzaft and Dr. Dennis McCarthy (1975), reading scores of children in a school where classes were located adjacent to elevated train tracks were compared with reading scores of students on the quiet side of the school. The researchers found that by sixth grade, the students on the noisy side of the school tested one year behind those on the quiet side of the school. In a follow-up study in 1981, noise abatement had been provided by the Transit Authority and the Board of Education and Dr. Bronzaft found that reading scores between the two groups were equal. In a more recent study by Dr. Gary Evans and Dr. Lorraine Maxwell (1997), it was found that children whose schools were affected by aircraft noise did not learn to read as well as those who were in quiet schools. Deficits in reading and language skills due to poor classroom acoustics are cumulative, therefore, the effects of poor classroom acoustics on the very young student can be devastating.

Noise Impacts Teachers
Poor classroom acoustics also impact teachers (Bronzaft and McCarthy, 1975). According to David Lubman, "teachers are less likely to talk with students or will talk with them for shorter periods when noise levels are high." When teachers have to raise their voices over background noise, their voices can become fatigued. Working in this environment on an ongoing basis can contribute to teacher frustration and even burnout.

How Quiet Should Your Classroom Be?
In Dr. Lubman's report, "America's Need for Standards and Guidelines to Ensure Satisfactory Classroom Acoustics", he indicates that the Swedish standard for an acoustically satisfactory classroom should not exceed 30 dBA when unoccupied and a dining room and gymnasium should not exceed 40 dBA. Many American classrooms have an unoccupied level of 50 dBA and gymnasiums can exceed 60 dBA. Noise levels can be measured with a sound level meter set to the A-weighting scale.
Although many teachers may be aware that the noise is bothersome, they may not realize the impact the noisy classroom has on their own teaching and their student's learning. According to the Federal Register, November 8, 1999, The Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board (the Access Board) will support the development of a standard on classroom acoustical design by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) Committee on Noise (S-12), under the secretariat of the Acoustical Society of America (ASA).

Solutions for a Quieter Classroom
It is critical that teachers, parents and administrators understand the impact that a noisy classroom has on student's learning and work with noise control consultants and architects to create a quiet learning environment. There is no one way to quiet all rooms of a school. The school cafeteria, gymnasium and various classrooms each have different acoustical requirements. Even the teaching style (i.e., lecture, group discussion) has to be taken into account. The Acoustical Society of America recommends surveying classrooms and teachers to identify noisy environments. The use of acoustical tile ceilings, wall coverings, and bookshelves to absorb sound can help. An acoustical consultant can also be helpful to quiet the HVAC, control other noise sources and make recommendations to improve the overall listening and learning environment in the school.

Suggested Resources:
Acoustical Society of America
The Access Board
"America's Need for Standard & Guidelines to Ensure Satisfactory Classroom Acoustics" by Dr. Lubman on
CLASSROOM ACOUSTICS a resource for creating learning environments with desirable listening conditions published by the Acoustical Society of America