Wednesday, July 24, 2024

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High Ceilings, Low Scores: How Exam Hall Design Impacts Student Performance

Do you ever wonder why you may have failed in that crucial college examination that was held in an expansive gymnasium or a large hall yet you were so prepared? According to new research from the University of South Australia and Deakin University, the physical environment particularly high ceilings could be responsible.

The Journal of Environmental Psychology recently published a study indicating a strong association between rooms with high ceilings and low exam scores. This research by Dr. Isabella Bower of UniSA and Associate Professor Jaclyn Broadbent from Deakin University looked at exam results for 15,400 undergraduates over eight years in three Australian universities. The findings spoke volumes; students performed consistently worse on tests taken in rooms with raised ceilings even after considering individual variation and previous coursework grades.

Dr. Isabella Bower admits to the difficulty associated with finding out the exact cause of this phenomenon. Whether it is because of the hugeness of the room itself or other factors like overcrowding, frequent temperature shifts as well as poor air quality still needs to be clarified. “Usually intended for purposes such as sports halls, fairs, cultural shows, and concerts,” she says.“

Large rooms with high ceilings do not seem to be friendly to students, and we need to know what brain mechanisms are responsible for it, and if this affects all students uniformly.

In support of these real-world data, previous lab studies by Bower with virtual reality showed that when people were in bigger rooms they could generate the same brain activity necessary for focusing on difficult tasks. Based on this discovery her team wanted to find out if the same was true about underperformance in real exams.

In these VR studies, electroencephalography (EEG) – a method where electrodes are attached to the scalp – measured brain activity. The tests demonstrated that just being present in a bigger room would elevate brain functioning related to attention in difficult tasks. Other measurements of heart rate, breathing, and perspiration indicated that participants might unconsciously pick up environmental changes thereby potentially influencing their performance.

Associate Professor Broadbent emphasizes how vital examinations have been historically in education saying “Examinations have been part of our educational system since 700AD shaping lives and careers of students.” Australia often makes use of large indoor spaces for examination purposes to streamline logistics and reduce costs.

However, this research underscores the need to reconsider such practices to ensure a fair assessment environment.

The findings advocate for a shift away from large exam halls, emphasizing the importance of understanding how the physical environment can impact cognitive performance. As Broadbent puts it, “These findings will allow us to better design the buildings in which we live and work, so we can perform to the best of our ability.”

This research opens up several avenues for further study, such as the impact of room insulation, temperature control, and the psychological effects of room context on performance. It also raises questions about online exams, which introduce new variables into the exam environment, potentially affecting student performance differently.

Overall, this study illuminates the subtle yet significant ways in which building design can affect our ability to perform critical tasks, calling for an informed approach to designing educational spaces that support optimal student outcomes.

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