Bzzzz! Is Low-Level Classroom Noise Distracting Your Student?

January 22, 2015
Colored pencils next to a stack of books.

We often hear that white noise is good for us. From a personal fan to ocean waves, anything that aids relaxation and holds back distractions has got to be beneficial. Indeed, some of us don’t think we can concentrate—or concentrate on sleeping—without it, though we might not even notice it until it’s turned off (I won’t tell you how many appliances surround me on a daily basis).
How does it work? It turns out that “1,000 people talking together sounds a lot like white noise,” per this How Stuff Works article, going on to give an example of a hotel: Say you can hear voices from the people in the room next to you. What do you do? Well, you can bang on the wall, or you go the peaceable route and turn on a fan. The fan essentially mimics those 1,000 voices, and at that level, the brain tends to stop picking out individual, bothersome voices (or noises). With 1,000 voices droning on, who’s going to notice voices 1,001 and 1,002?
That’s the theory, at any rate. Yet this article from Education Week suggests that “low or barely perceptible sound” in classrooms increases stress in the persons inundated with it, and that stress increases memory and learning issues.
It’s the loud stuff that gets noticed more, of course. Traffic zooming and planes roaring by, shouts and (orderly!) running out in the hall, bells and buzzers ringing; these have an immediate impact on a classroom, and have been proven to cause hearing loss depending on sustained decibels (90 and above) and the length of time the student was exposed to it.
But as a 2013 study in the Journal of Urban Health found, background noise doesn’t have to be loud to be distracting. Muted lectures from the classroom next door, rustlings from classroom animals, HVAC systems, and other day-to-day sounds were found to have a detrimental effect on students taking standardized tests. A similar study found that students could be distracted by sounds from another room, even if they couldn’t identify the source—which can have its own frustrations.
Yet as with most things, there is more than one side to consider. One study asked students to learn texts in either an easy-to-read font or a harder-to-read font, then mixed it up by providing a background of either a silent room or one with low-level noise in the background, specifically a conversation.
Perhaps surprisingly, the students grappling with the more difficult font retained more of the text even when they had low-level background noise. Researchers posited that the students were better able to overcome or “block out” the distractions because they knew they had to concentrate extra hard. Conversely, students with the easier font didn’t remember the content as well when they had to deal with background conversations.
So what can teachers—and schools—do? Gail Whitelaw, director of the Ohio State University Speech-Language-Hearing Clinic in Columbus, says that the most important thing to start with is knowing your environment.
Gary William Evans, professor of human ecology at Cornell University, agrees. Establish a benchmark of the sounds, decibel level included, that are already in or are infiltrating the classroom, and determine how “different noises will affect different types of students.”
“Look at the sounds overall,” Ms. Whitelaw adds. “A lot of things teachers think are good can be problems.”
Find out more about the challenges and suggestions that surround the issues of low-level classroom noise, and help build a positive school culture by downloading the free School Culture Resources Guide.

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