Color in the Learning Environment

Researchers have long known that color affects the performance, emotions and the behavior of students within their physical learning environment.  Subjects performed five to 10 percent better on standardized pattern recognition tests when they were administered in color rather black and white. The effect also boosted memory over time (Wichmann, Sharpe, Gegenfurtner).  But the excessive use of color, motion, or pattern can create a stressful learning environment.

Researchers at the University of British Columbia conducted tests with 600 participants to see how cognitive performance varies when people see red or blue. Participants performed tasks in which words or images were displayed against red, blue or neutral backgrounds on computer screens.  Red groups did better on tests of recall and attention to detail, like remembering words or checking spelling and punctuation. Blue groups did better on tests requiring invention and imagination: coming up with creative uses for a brick or creating toys from collections of shapes.

Study after study concludes that there is direct correlation between the physical characteristics of the learning environment and educational outcomes.  The use of color in school design is an element that affects more than the aesthetics of the building.  Kathie Engelbrecht, a noted educational planner, feels that we must be sensitive to each age group's different responses to color in order to create an environment that will enhance their educational experience.  Young children gravitate towards bright, warm colors such as red and yellow, orange, and violet. Middle and high school students tend to view primary colors as immature.  Adolescents prefer cooler colors and more subdued hues.

A West German study on white walls in the work place resulted in findings that termed this environment as being neutral, sterile, empty and without vitality.  Psychologically, white has nothing to offer and is often viewed as the cause of eye strain and fatigue. 

In general…

  • Red is interpreted as warm or hot; can generate feelings of energy, excitement or threat; appears to improve focus and performance.
  • Orange is interpreted as warm or hot; invites friendliness, stimulates critical thinking and memory.
  • Yellow is interpreted as warm or hot; can make us feel happy; inspires creativity.
  • Green is interpreted as cool or cold; appears to be relaxing but if overdone it can lead to feelings of stress.
  • Blue is interpreted as cool or cold; stimulates creativity and can product a state of calm, but in excess, it may encourage feelings of depression

Schools do not give enough consideration to color in the learning environment. "Many cases of nervousness, irritability, lack of interest, and behavioral problems can be attributed directly to incorrect environmental conditions involving poorly planned light and color. Studies have shown that a functionally and thoughtfully planned school interior facilitates learning new subject matter and improves scholastic performance" (Mahnke).