Student Learning Improves with Ergonomics

Improving the performance of students is a constant and evolving goal.  A recent study, Designing learning environments to promote student learning: Ergonomics in all but name by Thomas J. Smith, School of Kinesiology, University of Minnesota, finds that the design of classrooms and buildings is a strong predictor of improved performance in K-12 students.  This follows the ergonomics principle of “fitting the task to the person, not the person to the task”.  Ergonomically, how can we make the environment better to encourage learning?

When we speak about design in the classroom, it can mean a number of different things:

  • Physical design – textbooks, audiovisual materials, desks, chairs, computers, and classrooms
  • Cognitive design – skills, tasks, knowledge, and curriculum
  • Social design – interaction between students and teachers

So how can ergonomics help students learn?  In looking through the literature, it appears that research still needs to be done.  Here are a few ideas based on ergonomic principles that I think warrant further investigation:

  1. Adjustable and/or different sizes of chairs – Students spend many hours in chairs that do not fit their bodies.  Ideally they would be provided with adjustable chairs and shown how to adjust them.  At the very least they should be provided with chairs of different sizes and education on how to sit properly.
  2. Less sitting – Providing standing workstations as an alternative to sitting should be provided in every classroom.  The standing workstations can be single for one person or for group activities.  Changes in posture would reduce discomfort, increase blood flow, and foster creativity.
  3. Adjustable keyboard trays and monitor risers – Now that technology has become a larger part of learning, adjustments must follow.  Keyboard trays need to lower to just above lap height and monitors need to be raised to eye level.
  4. Limits on laptops and tablets – Many schools are providing laptops and tablets to students.  Although helpful for learning, they force the student to conform to awkward postures that can result in injury.  They should be used minimally or with the option to dock so that an external keyboard with tray and monitor can be used.
  5. Textbooks – Textbooks are cumbersome, both physically and mentally.  There is still a place for textbooks in school as an alternative to screen time, but with less emphasis than in the past.
  6. Noise – The noise level in classrooms has been found to deter learning ability, both from students being unable to hear and noise affecting concentration.  Classrooms should be built with more sound absorption qualities in the ceiling tiles and flooring.  Corkboards and fabric on the walls also helps.  Baffles to cordon off part of the classroom should be available.
  7. Air quality – More emphasis should be focused on providing “green” materials in the classroom.  Volatile Organic Compounds (VOC’s) are found in paints, cleaning supplies, furnishings, photocopiers and printers, and art supplies.  Care must be taken to reduce exposure.  HVAC systems must be inspected and cleaned regularly.  Other pollutants associated with moisture and vehicle exhaust must be eliminated.  Green walls would be wonderful additions to schools.
  8. Emerging technology – More research needs to be done in this area to investigate which technologies are helpful and which are harmful.  One area that has been investigated is delayed response feedback problems.  Delay in feedback from the computer has been shown to disrupt performance more than any other design feature (T.J. Smith, 1993; T.J. Smith, Henning, and Smith, 1994).
  9. Curriculum – Hands on learning has found to be more effective than standardized tests so this needs to be incorporated.  Every student learns in different ways so teachers need additional training on how to achieve this when presenting the curriculum.
  10. Social design – Investigation into the student-teacher relationship.  What social qualities promote learning? The Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL) indicates there are five key sets of social emotional learning/emotional intelligence skills; self-awareness, social awareness, self-management and organization, responsible decision making, relationship management.  These need to be taught in the classroom through the learning of rules, how to problem solve, how to show respect, how to be positive in the classroom, how to talk about feeling, and how to resolve conflict.  A socially positive environment will improve learning.

Taking into account these suggestions, the most important part of integrating ergonomic principles into schools is to determine what strategies work.  Those strategies should then be integrated into school policy at the community level, and ideally a national level.  Making learning easier through ergonomics is a task well worth taking on.