Engaging Learning Spaces Are Important, Even During a Pandemic


Aug 18, 2020

A teacher preparing classroom for social distancing, photo by izusek/Getty Images

Photo by izusek/Getty Images

Fall is right around the corner and those concerned with K-12 learning—district and school leaders, teachers, and families—are still grappling with how and where they will educate students in the age of COVID-19. Of course, much of the conversation is focused on maintaining appropriate physical distance, especially in schools. Many district and school leaders are focused on how and where students will safely learn, eat lunch, and take part in regular activities such as music, art, and sports. Can the gym be repurposed? Would the auditorium work as a class space?

While considering new uses for and formations of school space, planners might also consider whether these spaces will be conducive to learning. Interdisciplinary research links the physical condition of learning spaces, such as good ventilation and air quality; green, outdoor recreational space; comfortable temperature; pleasant lighting; and an environment with limited ambient noise, to improved student physical health and academic performance (PDF). Another study, conducted by my RAND colleagues in Baltimore city public schools, found that positive student perceptions of school climate, which included building conditions, are correlated with lower incidence of student mental health concerns, which is in turn is correlated with positive student academic outcomes. Further, a large study of 27 schools in the UK identified seven building design features—including color, light, air quality, and temperature—which, holistically, are linked to differences in students' academic achievement.

Of course, school districts may not be in a position to improve many of these elements for a variety of reasons. Two aspects of the learning environment that may be somewhat easier to adjust are the visual complexity of the space and the color of the walls. There is some evidence that younger children, such as those in kindergarten, may have difficulty maintaining their focus in a learning space with lots of decorations and other visual distractions. In addition, room color can have an impact on emotions and mood, which in turn can affect task performance. Recent research supported by Pittsburgh-based PPG, a global paint and coatings manufacturer, found that a freshly painted classroom improved students' perceptions of their learning environment and their reports of engagement in learning. Schools in this study partnered with a PPG color expert to select colors intended to promote concentration and focus.

Parents too, might want to consider where their students' learning spaces are located should their children continue their schoolwork online. Is the learning space too busy or uninspiring? Like school districts, not all families can make big changes to their spaces right away. But it may be worthwhile for everyone to consider the condition of learning spaces—whether in a school building, at home, or both—as an important factor in students' physical and emotional well-being since this can affect student engagement and achievement.

Elizabeth D. Steiner is a policy researcher at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation with expertise in education policy, policy analysis, program evaluation, and qualitative methods and analysis. She is also a member of the Pardee RAND Graduate School faculty.