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Are classroom displays a distraction for students?

Are classroom displays a distraction for students?

4 min read
  • Cognitive Load Theory

Teachers spend hours each term cutting, trimming and sticking, filling their classroom walls with content intended to help their students learn – be it French verbs, great sentence starters or inspirational quotes.

But is the vast amount of time spent putting up these classroom displays time well spent? We took a look at the research about their impact on students

What does the research say?

Recent research sought to investigate the impact of classroom displays on student learning. 24 primary school children were taught half their lessons in a highly decorated classroom (i.e. furnished with science posters, maps, the children’s own artwork, etc.), whilst the other classroom had minimal decorations (i.e all materials irrelevant to the lesson were removed).

After two weeks, the researchers assessed the pupils on their knowledge of the material they had been taught. The researchers found that children in the highly decorated classroom spent more time off task than those in the minimally decorated classroom, which in turn led to a reduction in learning.

Classroom implications

Whilst the research demonstrates that classroom displays can be a source of distraction for students, this does not mean that we are advocating for schools to have blank, empty walls.

It is worth noting that this was quite a short experiment, as well as an experiment on primary school children, which means that these results may or may not apply to secondary students.

However, when it comes to classroom displays, it is interesting to compare the distraction they present with the benefits students get from it. So, if we disregard the impact on learning or attention, it might be that classroom displays:

  • Reinforce classroom rules or culture
  • Be a source of pride for students who see a strong piece of their work on display
  • Provide a way of reinforcing key strategies and techniques to use
  • Etc…

If in doubt, limiting the number of displays and keeping to the most important messages would be a good starting point. Placing classroom displays at the back of the room may also be a good idea, as this can take away a student’s urge to read them and, instead, focus their attention to the teacher at the front – and the material they’re teaching.

Maximise your students’ learning efficiency with Cognitive Load Theory training for your school staff.

Which other distractions can teachers minimise?

Mobile phones

Used during lessons, mobile phones can be huge source of distraction for students. It has been found that the mere presence of a phone, whether it is actively being used or not, can cause a 20% decline in performance.

Therefore, it may be that schools in England should be looking to ban mobile phones, a policy which has been a huge success in France. Recent research carried out in UK schools has proven the effectiveness of such a strategy: students who attended a school in which a ban on mobile phones had been enforced saw an average boost of 6.4% to their grades, with this effect being most pronounced amongst struggling students who saw their grades improve by 14% on average.

Seating plans

Considering where they seat students within the classroom is definitely a strategy to consider when looking to reduce student distraction.

Recent research found that work ethic is contagious, such that if the person next to you is working hard, your own work ethic is likely to increase. This impact was found to be consistent regardless of whether the other person’s task was easier, more difficult or similar to yours. Therefore, if teachers sit hard-working students next to those who often lack work ethic, the latter may be encouraged to put in the necessary effort.


Many teachers spend a lot time “jazzing up” their PowerPoint slides by adding sounds, background music, animations, etc. in the hope that they will enhance student concentration.

However, these extras often have the opposite effect – they stop students from concentrating on and taking in the taught material. This is because the brain can only concentrate on a certain number of stimuli at one time. Hence, unnecessary stimulus takes up some of the available space that would have been better used to focus on important information that students will need to recall later.

For more information on the science behind this and guidelines to maximise your use of PowerPoints, have a look at our blog The Problem with PowerPoints.

Final thought

Students nowadays have to deal with many distractions: mobile phones, PowerPoint animations, unhelpful classmates, classroom displays… So, it is no wonder that students sometimes lose their focus on the task at hand.

However, since student attention is so important to their learning and success, it is important that teachers consider these distractions and try to keep them to a minimum. If in doubt, try different configurations within your classroom and work out what works best for you and your students.

About the editor

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch is a Chartered Psychologist and a leading expert on illuminating Cognitive Science research in education. As Director at InnerDrive, his work focuses on translating complex psychological research in a way that is accessible and helpful. He has delivered thousands of workshops for educators and students, helping improve how they think, learn and perform. Bradley is also a prolific writer: he co-authored four books including Teaching & Learning Illuminated and The Science of Learning, as well as regularly featuring in publications such as The Guardian and The Telegraph.

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