What research says about the effects of noise on learning

The world is a noisy place, and so are many classrooms. Even during lesson periods, the classroom buzzes with the hum of lights, squeaks of chairs, creaks of desks, and echoes from the hallway. A neuroscience study has found that all that background noise may be preventing children’s brains from actually learning.

The findings come from new research published in the Journal of Neuroscience. The study tracked the abilities of adults and children (from age 6 to 9), to focus on a speaker in a noisy environment — a phenomenon known as the “cocktail-party effect.”

Dancing brain.
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The neuroscience study

Researchers measured participants’ brain activity as they listened to recordings of a storyteller telling four short stories mixed with background conversations. Using magnetoencephalography, a non-invasive test that maps brain activity, researchers analyzed how well the subjects were able to understand speech in the noisy “multitalker” environment.

In both the children and adults, researchers were able to record activity in the auditory cortex, the part of the brain that tracks speech. But compared to the adults, researchers found that children were far more sensitive, and their brains struggle to separate a speaker’s voice from background noise. The louder the noise in the background, the harder it was for children to follow.

The results also showed that children had trouble following the syllable rate despite increasing levels of background noise. From a neurological standpoint, this means it’s harder for kids to follow a leading voice — such as their teacher’s — and learn in an environment with noise, even if it’s not that loud.

According to EdWeek, the results suggest that students may have a more difficult time distinguishing phonemes and following speech or instructions as classroom noise rises. This is important when you consider that phonics is heavily used in the United States to teach students how to read. EdWeek quoted Marc Vander Ghinst, the lead author and a researcher at a developmental neuroscience center at Belgium’s Free University of Brussels, as saying the results highlight the importance of quiet classrooms while children are learning to recognize language.

Students listening attentively in class.
Photo credit: hdornak / Pixabay

How to quiet a noisy classroom

Not all activity in the classroom has to be quiet, especially in elementary school. There’s a time and place for activity, collaboration, and even talking. But core subjects like reading and math tend to improve in a quiet environment, The researchers recommend that teachers take the extra time to pronounce words clearly to overcome the level of noise.

Schools and educators can also work together to take steps to reduce noise levels in the classrooms. Sound-absorbing carpet, curtains, and acoustic elements like cork covering and bulletin boards can help dampen noise. With tech devices, turning the sound down, muting it, or using headphones can minimize tech disruptions.  

Teachers can dial back on the noise with better classroom management techniques and simple strategies, such as scheduling times when students can be noisy and times that call for quiet. Turn quiet time into a game with Classcraft’s Volume Meter for free here, or use one of these monitors.

By making adjustments in the classroom and giving students opportunities to talk freely, they may be more cooperative during the quiet periods.

Photo credit: Freepik

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