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School Design Impacts upon Cognitive Learning
Defining “equal educational opportunity” for the new millennium

By: Franklin Hill & Sarah Cohen, Educational Advisor - Tuesday, August 30, 2005
Source: SchoolFacilities.com

Few will argue that the physical environment impacts the people within it.  And, this contention has been put forth strongly in the planning of educational facilities.  Unfortunately, much of the promotion of educational design has centered on providing lots of windows and abundant natural light.  Unfortunately, this politically correct and generalized design contention has not quantified in terms of specific academic achievement, grade-level performance, and cognitive learning. 


In other words, do these design solutions actually help or hurt student performance.


Often times, overly abundant natural lighting combined with poorly dimensioned room design may still feel nice and look futuristic, but when studied more closely, it may actually impede the learning process and be detriment to education.


It is not enough to design pleasing classroom environments that are nice to be in, although this is a good place to start.  Schools of the future must take a much more proactive design strategy that is based on a whole-systems awareness of the cognitive learning process, makes appropriate adjustments for age and learning activity, and even the classroom teaching style.  A whole-systems approach to the learning process and design can truly address the primary goals of schools—equal educational opportunity to learn regardless of your visual, auditory, or kinesthetic modality, visual or auditory handicap, or ethnic origin. 


A student should have an equal educational opportunity to learn regardless of where they sit, who they are, or how they process information.


This article will explore three levels of specific and measurable design impact on cognitive learning, grade point average (GPA) performance within the classroom linked to design, and even how site master planning can influence student performance for traditional achieving students and gifted students. 


The impacts of design upon learning potential may redefine legalities related to equal educational opportunity for years to come.

Elementary Level


Quantifying impacts of elementary classroom design upon early childhood learning is particularly difficult because very young children cannot understand their own learning process much yet evaluate the impact of the physical environment upon it.  To overcome the immaturity factors of elementary students, this level of design research extrapolated analysis in a manner appropriate to first through 3rd grade students. 


In this analysis, students were placed in various seating locations/conditions within a typical general classroom design.  Students were asked to identify basic shapes on the whiteboard or instructional television.  The result was profound.  A significant number of students could not differentiate a square from a rectangle or an oval from a circle simply because of where they were sitting. 

Several issues came to bear in distorting this fundamental cognitive learning activity:  height of instructional television from student, angle of incidence from student to multimedia, and the impact of screen glare from either windows or overhead lights.

One might content that it should be simple for a student to relocate his/her seat in order to properly orient themselves to the learning activity.  It might also be assumed that teachers would recognize this issue and relocate students correctly.  Unfortunately, early childhood education does not typically instruct individual primary youngsters to recognize their own learning restrictions (personal or environmental), empower them to take action to approach the teacher to correct it, and then be successful in the solution, particularly if another student may be already occupying the premier learning.  Additionally, teachers are often in overcrowded classrooms that are not laid out in a fashion that can provide a quality educational experience regardless of where they might place that student. 


At this very basic level, the issue of educational inequity becomes obvious.  If students can’t recognize simple shapes and make informed decisions about basic visual information, this negative design influence has far-reaching impact on educational  fairness generally and facility design standards specifically.


Click here for additional articles on this topic.

Middle/High School Science Lab Design


The impact of design upon cognitive learning potential is even more evident in some middle and high school science laboratories. 


State-mandated square footage areas and the popular provision of six lab stations to serve 24 students are common influences on science facility design.  These general standards have produced a substantial variety of laboratory configurations, including those presented graphically below. 

Unfortunately, up until now, no real analysis has been made of the actual performance of the design on student learning during lab activities, multimedia use, and with different teacher instructional methods.


During the analysis of one particularly popular science laboratory arrangement, it appeared that some students had disproportionately lower grades when their seats were located in those portions of the room where the seating view angle to multimedia is extreme, student distances from instructional television are excessive, and the orientation to the student to the teacher is dysfunctional.

The graphic above summarizes a conceptual design demonstrating the three elements impacting cognitive learning potential in science classrooms.

Angle of Incidence: 
It is not uncommon for students seated in the peripheral portions of the lab to have less than a 15-degree angle of incidence to either projection multimedia or whiteboards.  This severe angle of incidence seriously distorts the ability of students to differentiate common information such as the letter “E” from a “B”, basic shapes, and importantly accurately interpreting data presented in graphs. 

Distance to Instructional Television:  The distance to instructional television can often exceed 35 feet.  Based on acoustical physics, a student seated 35 feet from the TV is hearing the volume at 1/8th the volume of the student sitting within 8 feet.  Visual information is equally obscured.

Extreme distance factors effect every student, but especially special education students with ADD, students negatively influenced by auditory distractions, and students with visual or auditory impairments.  Immigrant students who are already functioning with English as a second language and who are least likely to have the wherewithal to take assertive action to relocate themselves are more seriously compromised educationally.

Teaching Style:  A surprisingly important but often neglected aspect of the classroom design performance is the teaching style of the instructor.  Teachers are often encouraged to move around the room as if a public speaker giving a motivational talk.  However, careful analysis of this issue reveals two important factors:

  •       Teachers may maintain a left side or right side instructional preference putting them at a greater distance from students on the opposite side.
  •       As teachers look left and right for emphasis, the volume of their voice can diminish by as much as 50-80% for those students to whom the teacher’s back is turned.


More design attention must be given to the interior arrangements of specialized instructional spaces engaging multiple instructional activities such as science, art, technology education labs, performance areas, etc.


Click here for additional articles on this topic.



Site Master Planning:  Macro-Level Impacts


Even site master planning can have influences upon student psychology, peer relationships, and student performance.  In master planning an East Coast magnet high school serving both traditional and gifted students, a large ravine subdivided the facility into two campuses.  This situation produced a division in classroom distribution with half the science labs on one side of the site and half on the other.  This split system approach to distributing classrooms also applied to core subjects, foreign language, art, and even physical education.

Significant conversation with staff as part of the facility mater planning process seemed unable to identify the true depth of dysfunction occurring by this split system approach to site operations.  After more in-depth analysis, an emerging relationship between social psychological behavior and student performance surfaced and is represented in the conceptual chart below.

This chart above summarizes schematically several negative educational impacts that may have resulted from the split campus design model.


  • Gifted students created formal and informal cliques to bring social continuity to their favorite subjects, often to the exclusion of the traditional students. 
  • Traditional students not attending the more gifted curricula appeared to be separated from the overall social fabric of a comprehensive high school.
  • The split campus separated core departments and reduced continuity in the academic instructional process.  This was later referred to as the “learning gap” as reflected by the inability of students to reach their maximum learning potential because of physical dysfunctions resulting from the split campus model.


After in-depth discussions among planner, client, and architect, a very unique architectural master plan was created that unified the campus into team teaching neighborhoods, unified PE and other elective subject, while uniquely converting remaining unused classrooms for community use activities, community college leased office space, and administrative offices.

In short, a thorough understanding of high school learning process and culture played a strategic role in better aligning the campus master plan to the factors appearing to influencing grade level achievement and student academic performance.  Interestingly, the final construction solution was 70,000 square feet smaller than the earlier alternatives under consideration This solution was ultimately selected as the most academically successful as well as the most cost-effective solution.


Educationally Appropriate Options for the Future


Several design elements can be employed to mitigate the above dysfunctional learning impacts resulting from poor facility interior designs.  They include, but are not limited to the following:

  • Locate instructional television or other multimedia at a lower level to the student view angle, at a 90-degree angle to outside glare sources, and use directional speakers to enhance auditory understanding closer to the student.
  • Encourage students to be aware of their learning modalities and teach then to take charge of their learning environment and to be proactive in self-mitigating problems in the “world” classroom—in other words, wherever learning may occur in the future.
  • Cluster student seating in a fashion where no student is no more than 20-25 feet away from the teacher, instructional television, whiteboards, and angle to the teacher.

  • Minimize the travel incidence and angle of incidence from the teacher to the student to minimize teaching style irrigularities.


Other factors to consider include:  orientation of overhead lighting fixtures to instructional media, overall room dimensions, sound travel distances, and surface textures related to sound reverberation.




The three levels of analysis above reveal some very important factors correlating educational design and cognitive learning.  These factors include:

·        More in-depth analysis of the direct relationship between student learning and the classroom environment.

·        Instructing students on the factors of design impacting learning so they can better empower themselves to take charge of the learning process.

·        Recognize the impacts of design upon learning as extending far beyond the specific classrooms to even include the entire campus master plan.

·        Finally, and most importantly, when these issues are examined with regard to special needs students, physically impaired students, and English as a second language students, the legal implications for educational equity are substantial.


Educational facility design must continue to expand awareness of specific cognitive learning relationships to the environment.  And, design must focus on maximizing the educational performance of those relationships wherever possible to ensure distributing those educational opportunities equally across the learning environment. 


In other words, regardless of alphabetical order seating, student choice, or placement based on disciplinary action by the teacher, or whether a student  just doesn’t like the subject, there should be “no bad seat in the house.”  No matter where a student sits, they must have equal educational opportunity to learn based on the elements of the physical environment and thus, any shortfalls that may occur in the student’s  learning process and their relationship to the learning environment are purely the result of the individual talents, temperaments, motivations, and convictions of the student.


Too often, architectural design awards are given on the physical appearance of a building and how photogenic it is.  Large rooms, lovely exteriors, and moonlit nights act as factors to validate the building is a “good school”.  This is not enough.  Architectural design awards should also be given to those schools that can be measurably identified as substantially enhancing educational opportunity in an equitable and fair way for all students.  Whereas these learning focused elements of design aren’t as prestigious, they are indeed the factors that truly make a quality school environment.  Those institutions concerned about education and particularly educational facilities should develop standards that can provide measurable comprehensive understanding of the impacts of design upon cognitive learning and create beneficial design guidelines accordingly.


Franklin Hill, Ph.D. 

Franklin Hill & Associates, International

Franklin Hill & Associates provides district master plans, facility master plans, and educational specifications for new and remodeled buildings for school districts, universities, and corporations.  They often work directly with the educational client or as part of an architectural team.  He has been a leader in researching the impacts of design on cognitive learning, and is in the process of writing several other articles on this important topic. 


Please send your comments and ideas directly to Frank@franklinhill.com or visit his website at Franklinhill.com.


Sarah Cohen is an educational advisor to Franklin Hill & Associates.