How does noise affect classroom learning?

This is the sixth in a series of interviews with researchers in Educational Neuroscience, to showcase current work that aims to bridge the gap between science and the classroom.

Like Comment

Next we have Jessica Massonnié, a PhD student at Birkbeck, University of London.

Hi Jessica! Please start by telling us a bit about your background and what you’re researching.

I am investigating the effect of noise on learning in primary schools.

Classrooms can be quite noisy: the average noise levels in London range from 65dB to 75dB. To give you an idea, 70dB corresponds to the noise of a vacuum cleaner. But every time you increase the level by 3dB, you double the sound energy!

Noise is not one big thing: there are different types of noise, and their effects on performance vary depending on what pupils are doing (a maths test, an English exercise, a creative activity…). I would like to better understand these differences, and to study how and why people vary in their reactions to noise. Let’s say you are writing a blog post. Would you do it better in a coffee shop, with an overall background noise of multiple people talking, or in the office, with the colleague next to you talking over the phone? Will your friends react the same, and why?

What got you interested in researching the effects of noise on learning?

Noise is pervasive, but (except when our neighbours are partying at 4 am), we often forget how it can influence our daily life and well-being. In classrooms, I feel that there is sometimes a tension between a need to promote silence, and the idea to develop group projects, or creative activities. I wondered if silence was always good, or whether there could be an optimal level of noise that would stimulate children, without impeding learning.

What are the potential implications of your work for education?

First, this type of work can help to raise awareness about noise levels: this would be the first step before even thinking about its effects on performance. There are some really easy-to-use Apps, for example, that you can download to check noise levels around you.

Secondly, noise does not seem to be systematically “good” or “bad” for everyone. In my first study, I exposed children from 5 to 11 years-old to 65dB of this type of classroom noise. Children had to propose consequences of imaginary situations, and to give as many unusual uses as they could think of for a pencil or a bottle. On average, for the first test, children tended to give fewer types of consequences, and their ideas were rated as less original under noise, compared to silence. But when you look in more detail, you discover that several pupils with average attentional skills gave more original ideas under noise. Also, those who were good at remembering and manipulating sensory information tended to give more flexible answers in noise (they thought about different types of consequences for the imaginary situation).

Ideally, I would like to have more indications about how we could identify which children benefit from noise, and which children are more impeded by it. What is tricky is that the effect of noise on performance does not necessarily correspond to our subjective feeling! You can feel quite distracted and uncomfortable, but nonetheless perform better in noise, or believe that noise does not affect you when it actually interferes with learning.

What direction will your work take in the future?

I would like to better understand these relationships between subjective well-being and the effect of noise on performance, as assessed by objective tests. Do we have to choose between comfort and efficiency? In which conditions can noise be tolerable, while also promoting performance?

Also, I would like to have more data on the fluctuations of noise levels in the classroom, during the school day. I am really interested in interventions that could modify noise levels, and potentially affect pupils’ thinking and well-being. 

Dr Annie Brookman-Byrne

Science writer and editor, The Psychologist and BOLD

Before becoming a science writer and editor I used behavioural, neuroimaging, and classroom methods to examine the cognitive and neural bases of science and maths reasoning.