Visual Environment, Attention Allocation, and Learning

Elementary-school teachers might think twice before plastering their walls with paintings, posters, and pin-ups. This small-scale experiment found that Kindergarten students in a decorated classroom were more likely to be “off-task” and less likely to demonstrate learning. To conduct the study, researchers had twenty-four children participate in six science lessons: three of them were held in a decorated classroom and three in a largely undecorated (“sparse”) one. The decorated room had an assortment of posters, student artwork, and maps on the walls; meanwhile, the walls of the sparse room contained only materials directly related to the lesson. The study utilized video recordings to document on- and off-task behavior and pre- and post-tests, to measure learning. When it came to time on task, the children were off task 39 percent of the time while in the decorated classroom, versus 28 percent off task while in the undecorated one. (Students looking in the direction of the teacher or at the learning materials were deemed on task.) Meantime, children showed greater learning gains in the undecorated room. The average gain in tests scores—the difference between the pre- and post-test—was 33 percent in the sparse room, compared to 18 percent in the decorated one. The bottom line: students can become easily distracted. And this study, while small and for only one age group, suggests that teachers could at least clamp down on one source of distraction—classroom decor—to the benefit of student learning.

Source: Anna V. Fisher, Karrie E. Godwin, and Howard Seltman, “Visual Environment, Attention Allocation, and Learning,” Psychological Science 25 (2014): 1362–1370.

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