Loud & Clear: The Importance of Classroom Acoustics in Academic Performance

July 18, 2007

by Mark Bishop, HSC Deputy Director

When we talk about healthy, high-performing schools, we often focus on energy efficiency and on factors that directly affect student health: indoor air quality, chemical exposures, environmentally sensitive building materials.

But we can’t forget the key mission of a school: to educate. Many aspects of healthy, high-performing schools relate directly to improved educational performance.

This excellent article [pdf] about the importance of acoustics in the classroom shows that designing a classroom with good acoustics can improve test scores and reduce teacher turnover. It’s a slightly dense article and a bit technical, but makes some very noteworthy points about the relationship between education and facilities.

A recent study suggests that classroom noise not only interferes with a student’s ability to hear the teacher, but may also contribute to students feeling helpless in their efforts to learn – thereby putting them at greater risk for academic failure.

While classrooms can be designed from the ground up to create better acoustics (by using more sound absorptive materials, dampening sound sources and providing good sound routes), existing classrooms can also be retrofitted for acoustical improvements.

Orange County Public School District (OCPS) in Orlando, Fla. recognized the need to improve the listening environment in their schools. They participated in a multi-year study examining teacher retention and test scores in classrooms which had acoustical improvements and those that did not. The results?

The results of a multi-year study showed that students in sound enhanced classrooms scored 10 percent higher on average on the Florida Comprehensive Achievement Test (FCAT) than students in classrooms without sound enhancement. Teacher absenteeism was also 25 percent less in the sound enhanced classrooms. . . . 

Today, OCPS requires sound enhancement systems in every new and renovated school. This requirement is an important part of the Orange County Public Schools $2.7 billion school construction program that will extend through 2015.

It’s amazing what a difference physical changes to a building can have on academic and occupational performance.

So while we need to promote sustainable school construction and renovation, we also need to address issues that directly affect student health and academic performance such as access to school health services, recreational spaces, gymnasiums for proper PE, sinks for proper hygiene, cafeterias where staff can prepare healthy foods (not just deep fryers)  and yes, classrooms that have good acoustics.

If you’re interested in learning more about factors that affect student health and performance in school –- including acoustics, daylighting, and more — check out HSC’s published guide for healthy, high performing schools.