Studies of Active Learning Classrooms (e.g. SCALE UP and Team-based Learning), and active learning more generally, identify noise and the ambient conditions of the classroom as being a distinguishing feature (Worthing, 2018). That active learning is noisy, is a truism, but we need to look more closely at noise and its adverse impact on cognition and classroom management to understand whether and how to manage it.
Prolonged exposure to noise is tiring. My interest in this topic stems from my personal realisation that I am tired after leading active sessions. There are many reasons for this: the intensity of focus on leading interactions in a student-centred situation (‘having your wits about you’); responding constructively with confidence and agility to clarify key ideas and in response to any number of individuals and groups as they work through an activity (‘being on your toes’j; standing up and moving through the room from group to group continually (‘being on your feet’); concentrating on what people are trying to tell you or others over the din of the room (‘being bombarded’).
It is this last factor that is worth reflecting on. As a facilitator, what do we do about ‘the din’?
But first, let’s just note, in more traditional classrooms, noise is still a factor, although the meaning of ‘noise’ may be different when attention is lost due to uni-directional broadcasting and monotonous voices that can characterise some teaching.
Establishing a conducive learning environment
In the following paragraphs, I refer to research conducted by Hopkins (1997) and the National Academy of Sciences (2006). These reports synthesise studies that have looked at the adverse impact of noise on learning in US school rooms. In general, they conclude that the negative effects of noisy classrooms are more acute for younger listeners where their mental skills to discern what is being said are less developed. For adult learners, therefore, it already seems that noise is not going to be such a problem. However, in my university, there is a large proportion of students and teachers who do not have English as a first language. We can assume that anything that affects the clarity of spoken communication will add to the effort it takes to maintain concentration.
Much of the research on noise in the classroom assumes that the teacher has a dominant role, often taking a didactic rather than social constructivist position. Active and problem-based activities can be designed to remove the dependence of the learner on the spoken word and we can assume that peers will be involved in conversation when working at closer quarters in group-based challenges.
Nevertheless, “People’s ability to understand speech is influenced largely by the level of speech sounds relative to the level of ambient or background noise. Reverberant sound causes one word to smear into the next and can decrease the intelligibility of speech.” (National Academy of Sciences, 2006)
In the active classroom, the lecturer should be clear about the purpose of the activity and the source of learning: to what extent is learning dependent on the academic’s voice as opposed to the outcomes of the activity in which the student is engaged?
Teachers who work in noisy classrooms must constantly raise their voices to be heard over various other sounds. Over time, this can lead to vocal fatigue and other voice problems. It may be useful, therefore, to establish ground rules for when the academic is speaking (e.g. to facilitate proceedings) or when peers are decision making or sense-making. Worthington (2018) discusses using a whistle, albeit to little effect, though I have seen a sharp tapping on a whiteboard with a whiteboard marker bring a room into focus remarkably well. It seems that having and agreeing on a signal is an effective strategy.
The Hopkins article notes how noise can be harmful to one’s health, being a cause of stress and leading, it is thought, to cardiovascular disease. This is obviously an area of concern for both students and teachers, although I have not yet found any research that corroborates this in the literature on higher education active learning classrooms.
The source of noise in these studies is not always the students themselves. Indeed, many of the studies looked at the proximity of classrooms to road noise and flight paths, and it is this persistent interruption that is identified as being harmful. The same research also looks at how such noises affect students at home, when they are studying or when they are trying to get some rest.
It is not only classrooms where students are expected to concentrate. In an active learning paradigm, we expect our students to find spaces that are conducive to study. In my own work on learning spaces, I have often begun workshops with academics and students by asking them where they learn best (my point is to demonstrate how we each find and prefer different types of space for learning). The responses are always diverse, but noise, when it is background noise, is often identified as a factor that helps learner immersion and concentration. This is true for me – I have no doubt that reading in a noisy train carriage is my ideal learning space. It’s where I read and write best. Indeed, cognitive and neuroscience research continues to show how white noise can stimulate learning (Rausch, 2014). More recently, research into game-based learning (Yang & Chen, 2019) has considered the effect of background music on learning in educational games and found that it has some effect for some people, although more work is needed here.
In the active classroom, while students are busy working, they are still required to concentrate of course. Whether working individually or collectively through processes or through solving problems, students still need to pay attention. Concentration is needed, but threatened, “When students are engaged in tasks that demand higher mental processes, such as learning new concepts or when teachers are verbally presenting new or complex information (Hartman, 1946). See also Anderson (2004) for a review of the effects of noise on children and classroom acoustics issues.
Excessive noise can also interfere with learning by affecting memory (Hygge, 2003) and can act as a distraction that impairs a student’s ability to pay attention. It can be thought of as discomforting, like excessive heat, light, or odor (SCHOMS/AUDE/UCISA, 2016).
Student chatter will increase as the general level of ambient noise increases. I have used mobile whiteboards as visual and aural baffles, but whiteboards are hard reflective surfaces and while they may cut down visual distraction, they will not absorb sound and may even exasperate the situation. Active learning classroom design, therefore, needs to incorporate baffling designed to cut down reflections. This is often evident in ceiling and light fitting design in new or refurbished spaces.
If we are asking whether noise adversely affects learning in the active classroom, one way of answering it is to decide whether the noise is acting as a distraction. In some cases, such as where white noise or the background chatter of learning conversations is present, or even where the hub-bub of the train journey contributes to a sense of immersion in my case, the noise is not experienced as an interruption that demands divided attention. However, it seems noise becomes problematic when it interrupts us and requires us to multitask (when more than one task splits our attention). What we determine to be an interruption or a distraction is subjective, however: if our hearing is not as sharp as others or if our first language is not English, then attentiveness is going to be harder than it would be for those others. So as facilitators of active learning, we need to understand that multitasking kicks in at different thresholds for our students and, when it does kick in, multitasking reduces the efficiency, accuracy, and quality of what we do.
For the moment, I conclude that as a facilitator, a pre-arranged interruption device (a tap on the whiteboard or a quick flash of the room lights, for example) is a good strategy to have in place because our intent in those situations is to interrupt. But it seems that when groups are busily talking through ideas and problems, noise is only likely to be perceived as a problem when its overall level demands that students have to shout at each other to make themselves heard. At this point, things are getting out of control and noise becomes cacophonous and waring.
, D. (2015) Scale-up! classroom design and use can facilitate learning. The Law Teacher,49:2, 189-205,
Hopkins, G. (1997). Have you heard? Noise can affect learning. Education World. Online at: https://www.educationworld.com/a_curr/curr011.shtml
National Academy of Sciences (2006). ‘Noise, acoustics, student learning, and teacher health’ In: Committee to Review and Assess the Health and Productivity Benefits of Green Schools: Review and Assessment of the Health and Productivity Benefits of Green Schools: An Interim Report. Washington, D.C. : The National Academic Press.
Rausch, V., Bauch, E., & Bunzeck, N. (2014). White noise improves learning by modulating activity in dopaminergic midbrain regions and right superior temporal sulcus. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 26(7), 1469–1480. https://doi.org/10.1162/jocn_a_00537
SCHOMS, AUDE & UCISA (2016). The UK Higher Education Learning Space Toolkit: a SCHOMS, AUDE and UCISA collaboration. Universities and Colleges Information Systems Association. Online at: http://www.ucisa.ac.uk/learningspace.
Worthington, T. (2018, 8 March). ‘Whistle Pedagogy for the Large Flat Floor Classroom’. Higher Education Whisperer [blog post] Online at: https://blog.highereducationwhisperer.com/2018/03/whistle-pedagogy-for-large-flat-floor.html
Yang, T., & Chen, S. (2019). The effects of background music on game-based learning: a cognitive style approach. The Asia – Pacific Education Researcher, 1–14. https://doi.org/10.1007/s40299-019-00450-8