Acoustics Matter: Learning In Classrooms

Not All Ears Are Created Equal

Imagine if you only read every fourth word of this article, or understood every fourth word that was spoken to you. A student’s ability to hear what is being said is key to learning.

Up to 30 percent of our children in classrooms today can’t understand what is being said to them for numerous reasons. The key contributors are the many different sources of noise, coupled with poor classroom acoustics. Poor classroom acoustics arise when the other sources of sound interfere with the student’s ability to hear the teacher. There are several sources of sound, both direct and indirect.

Contributors to poor classroom acoustics:

  • Reverberation is sound that is bouncing off other objects in the classroom, such as desks, chairs, bookshelves. When the sound lingers in the room, it affects the ability to hear speech. It is important to have short reverberation time in classrooms.
  • Background noise is any ancillary noise coming from any number of sources from classroom chatter, to noise in hallways and outside the school make it a distraction, and affects the students academic performance.
  • Poor acoustical design such as thin walls, or hard surfaces that bounce sound and result in echoes and longer reverberation times in the classroom.
  • Language barriers and hearing disabilities. There are other factors, including the significant number of children who are learning in a language not spoken in their homes. It is also estimated that, at any given time up to “25% of young children have ear infections and others may have slight hearing losses due to more permanent conditions" (Bess, 1998; Niskar et al., 2001).(1)

Children under the age of 13 are still developing mature language and “have not yet developed their listening skills to be able to differentiate the spoken word from the background sound.”(2)  There are many factors that go into creating a successful learning environment for our children. Good acoustics is essential to learning.

Small Changes, Big Results

In 2004, the American National Standards Institute (ANSI), the U.S. Access Board, and the Acoustical Society of America created the American National Standard Acoustical Performance Criteria, Design Requirements, and Guidelines for Schools. These guidelines were designed to help improve on background noise and reverberation time, and their effect on speech intelligibility. Free downloads of the ANSI standards are available from the Acoustical Society of America website.

Schools being built today are being built with the new standards in mind, but what about the older schools? Unfortunately, most schools are not free of certain acoustical obstacles. The National Clearinghouse for Educational Facilities have put together information on acoustical standards and methods on how to calculate the quality of existing space. The full assessment and additional resource materials for classroom acoustics can be found here on their website.

There are numerous projects in schools today that are making improvements in classroom acoustics, and offering up creative and cost effective solutions. The following are some of the suggested guidelines from the U.S. Access Board (click here to see the entire list) to reduce reverberation and background noise:

  • Add new suspended acoustical tile ceiling if room height permits
  • Add sound-absorbing panels high on walls at sides and rear of room
  • Replace existing windows with new thermal insulating units (this will improve energy performance, too)
  • Add a custom built sound enclosure around HVAC unit(s)

Ceiling Panels - Murano Acoustics

Absorptive material on the walls can improve intelligibility. Wall panels are a cost effective option and can be made from recyclable materials. Other treatments include ceiling panels. Cut out into shapes, such as clouds, ceiling panels can be integrated in creative ways to further enhance the overall audible & visual experience for children. With the increasing awareness and demand for more sustainable green schools, new eco-friendly products are being installed in classrooms.

The buildings in which we live, work, and play affect our health and environment. Negative impacts can be reduced by proper planning and utilizing resource-efficient materials in the building’s design and construction. Developed by the U.S. Green Building Council, the LEED Green Building Rating System is world's most widely applied standard for developing high-performance, sustainable buildings. Learn more about LEED at the USGBC website.

John Rocco Sales offers innovative and unique architectural products to accent your overall design & project goals. Many of the materials we represent are eco-friendly and can help towards achieving LEED credits. For more information on our sustainable product solutions, please contact us.

References & Additional Resources:

(1) Classroom Acoustics: What Possibly Could Be New?
Peggy B. Nelson, PhD, CCC-A; Susan B. Blaeser
The ASHA Leader, September 2010, Vol. 15, 16-19

(2) Green Schools as High Performance Learning Facilities (PDF format)

The American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA)

The National Clearinghouse for Educational Facilities

The Acoustical Society of America

U.S. Green Building Council

Center for Green Schools