Shining a Light on Success in the Classroom: What Role Does Lighting Design Play in Student Outcomes?

How students are taught continues to evolve at the same pace as our understanding of how students learn. As we have observed more clearly that children exhibit a wide range of learning styles, we have more boldly recognized that these differences are “a biologically and developmentally imposed set of personal characteristics that make the same teaching method effective for some and ineffective for others. Every person has a learning style – it’s as individual as a signature.” In turn, teachers have responded to this reality by offering content in various formats, even embracing their students’ use of mobile devices. They are some of the most ardent champions of research that identifies and leverages each student’s personal preferences to create better learning outcomes.

Within this range of “learning style variations”, one dimension that we as architects can directly influence is “Environmental Design,” which includes sound, light, temperature, and seating design. Knowing the importance of these parameters, we should all be changing the way we look at the physical arrangements in which our teachers teach; no longer is a one-size-fits-all approach deemed successful for most students. Rather, flexible learning spaces must be intentionally designed to respond to the gamut of human needs our children experience daily; only then can we elevate the level of education they receive, and ultimately the level of success they achieve.  

Accommodating a Range of Early Developmental Milestones

The range of ages that must all be accommodated inside of a single elementary school building spans from highly-active, emotionally-developing kindergarteners to fourth and fifth graders whose bodies are beginning to change rapidly, often leaving them uncertain of themselves and overly anxious about peer scrutiny. Additionally, a variety of learner-centered classroom elements are needed to respond to the “29 percent of all students who are visual learners, 34 percent who learn through auditory means, and 37 percent who learn through kinesthetic/tactile modes.” (4)  Relying on the significant body of research on learning styles as a point of reference for design equips teachers to respond directly to each child’s needs.

Daylighting and Elementary School Students

Physical, cognitive, language, and social and emotional developmental milestones give us clues as to how specific teaching and learning environments can be designed to best accommodate children at each academic level.  In 1999, the Heschong Mahone Group conducted a groundbreaking study on daylighting in elementary schools.  They found that the classrooms with the most daylight are “associated with a 20 percent to 26 percent faster learning rate, as evidenced by increased student test scores over one school year, compared to classrooms with the least amount of daylighting.”  Because students in the most daylit classrooms advance more quickly, they can gain enough further understanding of material over the course of a school year to save up to one month of instruction time in reading and math curriculum that could be used for other areas of learning.

Maturity and Learning among Middle School Students

This We Believe: Successful Schools for Young Adolescents, A Position Paper of the National Middle School Association, sounds the call for inviting, supportive, and safe environments where students and teachers engage in active learning.  As we know, middle school students are often more physically mature than emotionally mature due to a difference between body and brain growth and development.  The significant differences in meeting developmental milestones, as well as maturity and confidence levels, result in middle school students continuing to be especially susceptible to peer pressure and bullying. Policies and practices that directly promote kindness, well-being, and healthfulness are essential to proactively supporting adolescents. 

Motivation and Learning among High School Students

By the time students reach the ninth or tenth grade most have moved toward being self-motivated and begin to prefer working alone or in small groups much of the time.  Organizing learning spaces to accommodate these preferences requires a different spatial model.  Students who feel connected to their teachers and peers and who have personally identify with a small learning community (SLC) “attain higher test scores and have a significantly greater graduation rate.  Research demonstrates that ‘small’ is defined as 150 students or less.  A study by Albuquerque Public Schools demonstrates conclusively that the positive effects of 120 student academies are completely lost when the academies grow to 180.” 

Lighting for Individualized Learning

Within each grade level, however, we must bear in mind that each student is very different from the next.  “Knowing students’ learning styles, we can organize classrooms to respond to their individual needs for quiet or sound, bright or soft illumination, warm or cool room temperatures, seating arrangements, mobility, or grouping preferences.” 

We must also provide a range of visual focal points.  Unconsciously, people frequently look up from a task and focus on something else in their field of vision.  This gives them a chance to rest their eyes “by changing the focal length – a form of stretching.  Interior and exterior vistas of 50 feet or more allow us to change our focal length, important to eye health and comfort.  Instinctively, we tend to move towards light and color.”  Thus, elements such as a view to the woods or the placement of a brightly colored wall are essential to our health and well-being.  “Price (1980) reported that the older students become, the less they appear to be able to adapt to a conventional setting.”  Therefore, a variety of design elements and layouts may be far more essential to high school students’ ability to concentrate and absorb new information than to elementary school children, who may be better able to adjust to a less sophisticated school environment. 

Lighting the Way to a Better Educational Environment

What is clear is that no two students approach their schoolwork in the same manner. They each respond to their teachers and learning environments in a unique and specific way, dictated by their age, confidence and personalities, learning styles, and personal preferences.  In turn, teachers must deploy a variety of techniques and strategies, which when used appropriately at each grade level offer each student their best chance to excel.

Among the many environmental factors that support the educational curriculum and set the stage for learning success at any grade level, lighting plays perhaps the most important role of all. The compelling statistics on the impact of properly planned lighting quality, availability, and flexibility have been researched and documented for over forty years, conclusively pointing to the relevance and permanent benefits of properly designing this critical element. Given that these factors are both easy and practical to plan and implement with today’s technological capabilities, technical expertise, and deeper understanding, we believe that proper lighting design should now be considered a standard practice for student success in any 21st century learning environment.


Parameters for Successful Lighting Design

“Well-integrated daylighting design has a greater positive impact on a school than any other sustainable design strategy.  Daylighting done well can help improve student performance, create a healthier indoor environment, and increase attendance.” Classrooms with significant levels of daylight record math scores improved by 20 percent and verbal scores by 22 percent.  These results can be maximized by following several basic parameters:

  • Task Lighting:

    Evenly distributed 55 footcandle illumination across the entire room is no longer the desired solution.  Lighting should be designed specific to the tasks that will be performed in each learning space. 
  • Orientation:

    North and south sunlight provide a full spectrum of light wavelengths and colors, best optimized through the preferred east-west axis building orientation. 
  • Daylit Hours:

    Providing superior daylighting for two-thirds of daylit hours throughout the year can be strategically achieved by accommodating the winter sun’s greater penetration into the room versus the summer sun. Light shelves and deciduous trees assist in bouncing light deeper into the space during the winter and help filter the more intense summer sun.
  • Control:

    A glow redirected from dimmable LED uplights/downlights and pendants on multiple circuits will modulate the ambient light in the room, while directional downlighting washes the teaching wall.  Additional downlighting can be used to highlight student work and pinpoint specific task areas.

When it isn’t possible to bring in optimal levels of daylight, the broad spectrum of light and color that most closely matches daylight is appropriate.  A color rendition index (CRI) as close as possible to daylight, which has a CRI of 100, will have the most positive effects on attention paid to educational programs, absorptive learning, and overall health.  Electrical lighting in the room can be reduced by as much as 25 percent by also taking into account the designed light reflective value (LRV) of the ceiling and walls.