Asumag 592 Color 200908

Color Sense

Aug. 1, 2009
Evaluating color in the classroom and how it affects students.

A recent study on how the condition of a school building can affect academic achievement provides empirical evidence of the effects of building quality on academic outcomes. Other literature concerning classroom environment discusses these main themes: color, size, sound, light, windows and furniture. Studies have shown that classrooms painted with color, lighted with full-spectrum lighting, and devoid of visual noise resulted in students with reduced blood pressure; less off-task behavior, aggressiveness, disruptiveness; and improved academic performance.

The goal of a study by members of the WellU Academic Integration Subcommittee of The College of St. Scholastica's College's Healthy Campus Initiative plan was to determine whether changing color in the classroom could have a measurable effect on students. One simple improvement a school can make in a classroom is adding color; paint is relatively inexpensive, and painting is not extremely labor-intensive.

Two similar classrooms were identified. A test classroom was painted in a manner congruent with suggestions in the literature: three walls were painted beige, a color that reduces tension, and the front wall was painted blue-gray, a complementary or darker hue. The purpose of the front wall's paint color is to reduce student eyestrain during class. A control classroom remained all white.

Through a survey, 100 college students were studied before and after in each classroom using three methods, including on-task behavior, academic performance and sense of well-being.

Is it possible that a colorful classroom can increase student performance?

Study design and results

To assess whether the color of the walls affected the students, the study measured three areas: performance as measured by off-task behavior, self-reports of how the classrooms affected students' learning and emotions, and grades. Two classrooms of college chemistry students were studied. The test group was monitored first in an all-white classroom and then after that room had been painted; the control group was monitored both times in an all-white classroom.

The results:

  • Off-task behavior: Before data on the chemistry classes was collected, a college biology class was observed to assess reliability of the observers' definition of off-task behavior. Off-task behavior involved two observers sweeping the class every five minutes and counting the number of students off task at that time. During each class period, this was done nine times by two observers, resulting in 18 measurements per class period. Although two class periods for each group were examined before and after the painting, for simplicity's sake, only the class periods directly before and after the painting were analyzed.

    There were outliers, which would have skewed averages, so (a) the median number of off-task behaviors across the 18 measurements by the two observers per class period was computed, (b) each median was divided by the number of students in the class, and (c) these “average medians” were converted to percentages by multiplying them by 100. The control group showed little change in off-task behavior from before to after painting (5.56 percent before to 5.66 percent after), but the test group decreased from 4.69 percent before to 3.03 percent after painting.

  • Surveys: After the test classroom had been painted, students in each group were given a survey consisting of seven questions on the degree to which various aspects of the classroom — specifically lighting, ability to hear, color and overall atmosphere — affected their learning, as well as how the classroom affected their ability to focus, anxiety level and sense of well-being. Students rated each aspect on a scale of one to five (one was negative, and five was positive). The ratings for each item were averaged across the students in each class.

    The test and control groups did not differ on perceived impact of lighting, ability to hear or overall atmosphere, but the test group rated the impact of color on its learning more positively. Additionally, although students in the two groups did not differ on their ratings of how the classroom affected their ability to focus, the test group said the classroom positively affected its anxiety level (presumably making the students less anxious) and sense of well-being.

  • Grades: Students' before- and after-painting quiz scores were averaged separately for the control and test group. Scores could range from 0 (low) to 10 (high). Then a 2 (group: control, test) × 2 (time of measurement: before, after) analysis of variance was conducted to determine whether quiz scores changed over time as a function of group.

Results indicated that although the control and test groups had similar quiz scores before painting and both groups declined over the semester, there was greater decline in the control than in the test group.

The same 2 × 2 analysis conducted on exam scores (which could range from 0 as a low to 100 as a high) indicated only that they increased for both groups from before to after painting.

Discussion of color

The results of this study showed that color in a classroom can reduce off-task behavior and anxiety, as well as positively affect perceptions of learning and sense of well-being. When the test group was observed after the classroom had been painted, it was striking to see how much more attentive the students were. The lighting in the classroom was not changed, but once the walls were painted, shadows and glare appeared to decrease, which likely helped students focus. In terms of impact on actual learning, although there was not a large difference in exam grades between the two groups before and after painting, the test group at least did not falter as much with regard to quiz scores.

One limitation of the study was that the control and test groups were taught by different professors. However, the two professors worked collaboratively to cover the same material in the same timeframe, and compared quizzes and exams for equal difficulty. Second, the test classroom had desks, and the control classroom had tables. Both of these conditions are potential confounds, but as descriptive statistics indicated that the two professors' groups had similar “before” ratings, “after” ratings likely were because of the room color change.

This simple change appeared to positively affect students' ability to stay on task, perceptions of learning and emotional well-being. Education institutions may want to consider adding color and making other small environmental changes for classrooms at all levels.

Johnson, M.L.I.S., M.A., is an assistant professor: library first-year/information literacy librarian with The College of St. Scholastica, Duluth, Minn. Maki, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of chemistry at the college. Debra Schroeder, Ph.D., assisted with statistical analysis.

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