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Ask a REL Response

Learning environment design and student outcomes — April 2019


Could you provide research on the relationship between design of the learning environment (e.g., physical classroom or school design) and student outcomes?


Following an established REL West research protocol, we conducted a search for research reports and resources on learning environment design and student outcomes. The sources included ERIC, Google Scholar, and PsychInfo. (For details, please see the methods section at the end of this memo.)

We have not evaluated the quality of references and the resources provided in this response. We offer them only for your reference. Also, we searched for references through the most commonly used sources of research, but the list is not comprehensive and other relevant references and resources may exist. References are listed in alphabetical order, not necessarily in order of relevance.

Research References

Cheryan, S., Ziegler, S. A., Plaut, V. C., & Meltzoff, A. N. (2014). Designing classrooms to maximize student achievement. Policy Insights from the Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 1(1), 4–12. Retrieved from

From the abstract: “Improving student achievement is vital for our nation’s competitiveness. Scientific research shows how the physical classroom environment influences student achievement. Two findings are key: First, the building’s structural facilities profoundly influence learning. Inadequate lighting, noise, low air quality, and deficient heating in the classroom are significantly related to worse student achievement. Over half of U.S. schools have inadequate structural facilities, and students of color and lower income students are more likely to attend schools with inadequate structural facilities. Second, scientific studies reveal the unexpected importance of a classroom’s symbolic features, such as objects and wall décor, in influencing student learning and achievement in that environment. Symbols inform students whether they are valued learners and belong within the classroom, with far-reaching consequences for students’ educational choices and achievement. We outline policy implications of the scientific findings—noting relevant policy audiences—and specify critical features of classroom design that can improve student achievement, especially for the most vulnerable students.”

Gislason, N. (2010). Architectural design and the learning environment: A framework for school design research. Learning Environments Research, 13(2), 127–145. Retrieved from

From the abstract: “This article develops a theoretical framework for studying how instructional space, teaching and learning are related in practice. It is argued that a school’s physical design can contribute to the quality of the learning environment, but several non-architectural factors also determine how well a given facility serves as a setting for teaching and learning. Supporting evidence for this argument is drawn from research on school climate and organisation, as well as from the author’s study of three open-plan high schools. Facilities design, educational practice, school culture, and student learning are found to be interrelated aspects of a school’s total learning environment.”

Smith, T. J. (2007). The ergonomics of learning: Educational design and learning performance. Ergonomics, 50(10), 1530–1546. Retrieved from

From the abstract: “The application of ergonomics/human factors (E/HF) principles and practices, and the implementation of ergonomics programmes, have achieved proven success in improving performance, productivity, competitiveness, and safety and health in most occupational sectors. However, the benefits that the application of E/HF science might bring to promoting student learning have yet to be widely recognized. This paper deals with the fundamental purpose of education–student learning–and with the question of how the ergonomic design of the learning environment influences learning performance. The underlying premise, embodied in the quote below, is that student learning performance to a substantial degree is context specific–influenced and specialized in relation to specific design factors in the learning environment. The basic scientific question confronting learning ergonomics is which design characteristics in the learning environment have the greatest influence on variability in learning performance. Practically, the basic challenge is to apply this scientific understanding to ergonomic interventions directed at design improvements of learning environments to benefit learning. This paper expands upon these themes by addressing the origins and scope of learning ergonomics, differing perspectives on the nature of learning, evidence for context specificity in learning and conclusions and research implications regarding an ergonomics perspective on learning.”

Tanner, C. K. (2008). Explaining relationships among student outcomes and the school’s physical environment. Journal of Advanced Academics, 19(3), 444–471. Retrieved from

From the abstract: “This descriptive study investigated the possible effects of selected school design patterns on third-grade students’ academic achievement. A reduced regression analysis revealed the effects of school design components (patterns) on ITBS achievement data, after including control variables, for a sample of third-grade students drawn from 24 elementary schools. The sample means on the ITBS per school represented approximately 1,916 third-grade students. The independent variable set for developing a possible explanation of student achievement was the school’s physical environment, defined as four sets of design patterns: movement and circulation (e.g., adequate personal space and efficient movement patterns throughout the school), large group meeting places (e.g., social gathering places), day lighting and views (e.g., windows with natural light), and instructional neighborhoods (e.g., large and small group areas that accommodate wet and dry activities). Each of the four full regression models, which included subsets of the design elements, explained between 2% and 7% of additional variance in achievement when compared to the reduced model, which included a measure of school SES. Therefore, each of the four design variables was positively related to student achievement, even after controlling for school SES.”

Tanner, C. K. (2009). Effects of school design on student outcomes. Journal of Educational Administration, 47(3), 381–399. Retrieved from

From the abstract: “Purpose: The purpose of this study is to compare student achievement with three school design classifications: movement and circulation, day lighting, and views. Design/methodology/approach: From a sample of 71 schools, measures of these three school designs, taken with a ten-point Likert scale, are compared to students’ outcomes defined by six parts of the Iowa Test of Basic Skills (ITBS): Reading comprehension, Reading vocabulary, Language arts, Mathematics, Social studies, and Science. Data are tested through reduced regression analysis, where the difference between R2 of the reduced regression is compared to the R2 of the full regression. This result, in each case, is defined as the effect of the school’s physical environment on students’ outcomes represented by achievement scores on the ITBS. Findings: Significant effects are found for Reading vocabulary, Reading comprehension, Language arts, Mathematics, and Science. Practical implications: The study’s findings regarding movement and circulation patterns, natural light, and classrooms with views have implications for designing new schools or modifying existing structures. They are especially important to school leaders, educational planners, and architects who engage in programming for educational facilities. Originality/value: This study is part of original research efforts at the University of Georgia, USA. Since 1997, the focus of research in the University of Georgia’s School Design and Planning Laboratory (SDPL) has been the measurement of the impact of the school’s physical environment on aspects of affective, behavioral, and cognitive learning. All SDPL research has been quantitative in nature, where measures of the physical environment were compared to measures of student outcomes. There are two immediate values to these studies: educational leaders may use the findings to assess their existing school facilities and determine where improvements will have the greatest impact, or planners may use the findings to guide architects in the design and construction of new educational facilities.”

Waters, J. K. (2007). A movable feast. T.H.E. Journal, 34(12), 41–44. Retrieved from

From the abstract: “Mobility and flexibility are the touchstones of 21st-century K–12 architecture, which sets aside conventional classroom design to create an environment that best integrates technology with learning. This article talks about San Jose State University’s state-of-the-art, 10,000-square-foot Academic Success Center in California. At the heart of the project is an incubator classroom that combines movable furniture with an array of audiovisual technologies designed to enable collaborative classroom interaction. The SJSU incubator classroom features three projection screens: a large one in front and two on the sides. Menko Johnson, an instructional technologist at San Jose State University, believes that the lessons learned at SJSU can help K–12 districts design more effective, tech-enabled classrooms. Though the focus of Johnson’s work is the impact of technology on instruction and student learning, he insists that a successful synchronizing of technology and classroom puts the teaching before the gadgetry.”

Additional Organization to Consult

National Clearinghouse for Educational Facilities, National Institute of Building Sciences –

From the website: With more than 23,000 resources in its collection, the National Clearinghouse for Educational Facilities (NCEF) website is the largest source of school facilities information in the world. Its purpose is to offer timely and comprehensive information for all stakeholders involved in designing, building, and maintaining safe, healthy, high-performing schools.

REL West note: One article from NCEF is relevant to the request:

Stevenson, K. R. (2006). Educational trends shaping school planning and design: 2007. Washington, DC: National Clearinghouse for Educational Facilities, National Institute of Building Sciences. Retrieved from


Keywords and Search Strings

The following keywords and search strings were used to search the reference databases and other sources:

[“Learning environment” AND “classroom design” AND (“student learning” OR “student outcomes”)]; [“classroom design” AND (“student learning” OR “student outcomes”)]; [“school design” AND (“student learning” OR “student outcomes”)]

Databases and Resources

We searched ERIC for relevant resources. ERIC is a free online library of over 1.7 million citations of education research sponsored by the Institute of Education Sciences. Additionally, we searched Google Scholar and PsychInfo.   

Reference Search and Selection Criteria

When searching and selecting resources to include, we consider the criteria listed below.

  • Date of the Publication: References and resources published within the last 15 years, from 2004 to present, were included in the search and review.
  • Search Priorities of Reference Sources: Search priority is given to study reports, briefs, and other documents that are published and/or reviewed by IES and other federal or federally funded organizations and academic databases. Priority is also given to sources that provide free access to the full article.
  • Methodology: Priority is given to the most rigorous study designs, such as randomized controlled trials and quasi-experimental designs, and we may also include descriptive data analyses, survey results, mixed-methods studies, literature reviews, or meta-analyses. Other considerations include the target population and sample, including their relevance to the question, generalizability, and general quality. Priority is given to publications that are peer-reviewed journal articles or reports reviewed by IES and other federal or federally funded organizations. If there are many research reports available, we select those with the strongest methodology, or the most recent of similar reports. When there are fewer resources available, we may include a broader range of information. References are listed in alphabetical order, not necessarily in order of relevance.

This memorandum is one in a series of quick-turnaround responses to specific questions posed by educational stakeholders in the West Region (Arizona, California, Nevada, Utah), which is served by the Regional Educational Laboratory West at WestEd. This memorandum was prepared by REL West under a contract with the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences (IES), Contract ED-IES-17-C-0012, administered by WestEd. Its content does not necessarily reflect the views or policies of IES or the U.S. Department of Education nor does mention of trade names, commercial products, or organizations imply endorsement by the U.S. Government.