The impact of noise on learning in open & shared spaces: 4 questions to ask

Why do we have smoke alarms? We can see smoke, we can smell smoke. Why isn’t that enough? Hearing is the most reliable sense, because ‘our ears are always on’. We will wake up to the alarm, but not the smell and “it is the only sense that is reliable when we sleep”. (Oseland and Hodsman, p.24).

There is a difference between sound and noise. Sound can be measured and standards are set for speech intelligibility, sound transmission and reverberation time within a space. Noise is subjective, we attach meaning to it and memories and feelings can be evoked.  It all depends on how your brain interprets the sound that creates ‘noise perception’.



“It’s too noisy”

This is probably the most frequent comment I hear from teachers about the idea of working in open and shared learning spaces. The reality is, there is no one-size-fits-all regarding noise in the classroom. One person’s ‘noise’, is another’s ‘buzz’.

There are a two ways that the impact of noise can be mitigated:

  • Acoustic design
  • People-centred approach

The positive by-product of this is that teachers’ voice and hearing are protected by good acoustic standards (Robinson 2014). Another consideration is to ensure there is regular communication among the teachers in the shared spaced so that activities can be coordinated (Greenland & Shield 2011).

How do we relate to noise?

Individuals will react differently to the same acoustic conditions, often as a result of personality factors, circumstances and the types of activities being undertaking. Oseland and Hodsman suggest a people-centred approach to solving acoustic problems, in terms of managing space and guiding behaviour.  

What interrupts engagement, whether we are the the office, the classroom or working in cafe? Other conversations within hearing.

Many of us can’t help but engage in unconscious listening, which can become distracting and counterproductive. This has been referred to as the ‘cocktail party effect’. We become unable to differentiate messages from background noise. It is a considerable risk in the open and shared learning environment if this is not carefully managed.


Oseland and Hodsman found that that degree of distraction caused by background speech is dependent on “the nature and complexity of the task”. Low-level and repetitive tasks can be more effectively completed in a noisey environment (p.29).

What is the impact of noise on learning spaces?

In terms of noise, the success of working together in a shared, open learning environment is dependent on a number of elements, even if the teachers have designed the most engaging learning experiences, these four questions are crucial:

  • Have the acoustics been professionally engineered in the space?
  • Have the teachers in the space developed a common understanding of what is considered a productive noise level?
  • Are the noise conditions of the learning activities coordinated among the teachers so that when students are  engaged in complex tasks they can work without distraction?
  • How has the space been zoned to accommodate different levels of noise and tasks, with agreed behaviours (like a ‘quiet zone’)?


Greenland & Shield (2011) Survey of Acoustic Conditions – Semi-open plan classrooms in United Kingdom
Oseland, N. &  Hodsman, P (2015) Planning for Psychoacoustics: A Psychological Approach to Resolving Office Noise Distraction Prepared for: Saint-Gobain Ecophon
Robinson, Rose Munro (2014) New generation learning environments: creating good acoustic environments

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