Thoughtful use of classroom technology can help address noise levels and prevent noise-related learning loss.

Classroom noise pollution is adding to student distraction

Thoughtful use of technology can help address noise levels and prevent noise-related learning loss

Key points:

  • Students can’t learn if they’re having trouble listening
  • Tech tools and sound amplification can help combat classroom noise pollution

Learning depends on listening. But classroom noise pollution is making hearing in the classroom harder. Finding simple and effective ways to dial down classroom noise levels can help increase focus and stamina.

The World Health Organization recommends classroom sound levels of no more than 35 decibels. The average volume of a classroom, however, rings in at more than twice that level. At 77 decibels, the average classroom produces the same level of noise as freeway traffic or other “annoyingly loud” sounds.

What’s causing all this noise? Changes in the classroom that brought many advantages, such as interactive technologies, more small group work, and flexible classrooms, have contributed to noise levels. Some schools may also experience environmental noise such as city traffic, construction, or noise from ventilation systems.

The result is classroom noise pollution that causes distraction and discomfort for students and teachers. From learning loss and lower standardized test scores to student distraction and teachers losing their voices, noise has significant impacts in the classroom. Research reveals that 40 percent of students say they can’t understand their teacher due to background noise. Meanwhile, three-quarters of teachers say their jobs make their voices hoarse or strained.

In addition, it is important to keep in mind that students are physically developing and their voices may be changing, cracking, or softer than adult voices. Exacerbating these challenges, students may  also be self-conscious about speaking loud enough to be heard by other students or educators. Studies have found 15 percent of students feel embarrassed or report a lack of confidence because of bad audio in learning situations.

The “right” classroom strategies and setups can help

District and school leaders can help minimize the impact of noise pollution by setting up quieter classrooms. Classrooms are generally built to maximize space, but that’s often done at the cost of adding more noise. There are a number of strategies that can reduce this excessive sound effectively, with or without the use of technology. 

For example, making physical changes to classrooms or remote teaching areas by adding cork boards, rugs, curtains, soft materials on the walls, and thick, temporary partitions can help absorb sound. As a side benefit, these additions can make the classroom feel less institutional and instead, feel more welcoming and comfortable.

Teachers can use strategies such as designating certain times for talking and collaborating, using visual queues for quiet, and structuring class time to start in a quiet manner. They can turn to time-proven practices like call-and-response and clapping response strategies. These practices are often quick and helpful ways to bring attention back to the teacher or adult in the room.

Using effective technology to measure and manage noise levels

Thoughtful use of technology can also be effective in addressing noise levels. For example, students need instruction amplified 15 to 20 decibels over background noise or learning loss can occur. Educators can choose from a variety of paid and free noise meter apps to help measure classroom sound levels and keep them in check. The visuals in the apps range from stoplights and bouncing balls to smiley faces so educators can choose what works for their classroom best.

Headsets or microphones can amplify the right sounds while reducing others. Sound-field studies show that amplifying a teacher’s voice results in exceptional improvement in reading and language test scores for all students at all elementary levels. In fact, amplification reduced special education referral rates by up to 40 percent over five years.

A microphone can help the teacher’s voice cut through classroom noise pollution and give educators confidence that students can clearly understand information and instructions. With an omnidirectional microphone, educators don’t have to be stuck at their desks or in a certain position, either. These mics make it easy for teachers and others to be heard no matter where they are in a room.

Headsets can reduce background noise, making it easier for students to distinguish between superfluous sounds and the educational content they need to hear. But it’s important that they fit students so classroom edtech enhances, not hinders, learning. This is especially critical with headsets designed for extended wear, whether this is to hear instructions from a teacher or educational technology.

Educators will want to look for headsets with soft foam in padded ear pads that create noise isolation and keep students comfortable. Adjustable slider arms and articulating ear cups are useful to get the right fit on students of all sizes and stages of physical development.

Left unaddressed, noise will continue to distract students and create uncomfortable environments to teach and learn. But educators can make a big difference in helping students hear and be heard. Adopting quiet practices and tools can reduce the challenges and power stronger focus and stamina throughout the school day.

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