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How do classroom displays impact students' cognitive load?

How do classroom displays impact students’ cognitive load?

4 min read
  • Cognitive Load Theory

Classroom displays are very common in schools, with teachers often putting lots of effort into decorating their students’ learning space. We have previously written about the effects that classroom displays can have on student learning.

At the time, we wrote that they can be a great way to reinforce your classroom culture as long as they’re not excessive, but that they can also be a big distraction. However, recent research has provided more insight into these effects. So, let’s take a look at what the latest research suggests…

What does the research say?

Previous research suggests that classroom displays do affect students’ learning in the short term – and not in a good way. One study found that after 2 weeks, students who were taught in highly decorated classrooms (e.g. with lots of colour, posters, maps and art) spent more time off task than students in minimally decorated classrooms.

But what happens in the long term? Recent research investigated whether students get used to their classroom environments after repeated exposure, or if the effect on learning just gets worse as time goes on.

To investigate this, researchers created two types of classrooms:

  • Highly decorated classrooms – These were very colourful, and included lots of posters, maps and art on the walls.
  • Minimally decorated classrooms – These did not have much decorations on the wall, and contained mainly classroom necessities.

Like in the initial study, researchers found that students spent less time on task when they were learning in highly decorated classrooms compared to minimally decorated classrooms. However, they also found that this effect got weaker and weaker over the course of 15 lessons. At first, students in highly decorated classrooms were 16% more distracted than those in the minimally decorated classroom – this number dipped to only 6% after 15 lessons.

This effect is called habituation, where repeated exposure to a particular stimulus affects our response to it. There are two types of habituation:

  • Partial habituation – This is where repeated exposure to a stimulus decreases our response to it.
  • Complete habituation – This is where repeated exposure to a stimulus completely eliminates our response to it.

In the case of this study, we’re looking at partial habituation. So, while the negative effect of classroom displays on student learning is weaker, it is very much still there.

But do these findings translate into real-life practice? The answer is yes, but only in a very small way.

When the researchers tested their findings in real classrooms, they found that initial distraction levels were lower at 5%, but also that this number stayed the same over 15 lessons.

Why do students get distracted by classroom displays?  

Classroom displays compete for students’ attention with the lesson content. Students only have so much attentional resources available. So, when they use some on classroom displays, they have less to spare for learning material.

This is because students have a very limited working memory. When they try to process too much information at once, they go into cognitive overload. This causes learning to slow down and sometimes even stop completely.

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4 ways to apply these findings in your classroom

Research has established that overly decorated classrooms can distract students and affect their learning. So, here are some tips to ensure that you are enhancing your students’ learning instead of hindering it…

1. Don’t over-decorate your classroom

It may be tempting, but overdoing your classroom displays simply creates more opportunities for students to go off-task. And since findings on student habituation to their classroom environments have not been consistent, it wouldn’t be wise to rely on them.

2. Position your displays cleverly

If you are big on classroom displays (which if done well could be beneficial, i.e., displaying best practice or highlighting key rules), it may be worth considering having them on the back wall behind students. This means they are still on show, but shouldn’t compete for attention when students are facing forward.

3. Limit other distractions

Classroom displays affect student learning because they distract from the lesson’s objectives. But they aren’t the only thing that can steal your students’ attention.

To avoid these distractions, encourage your students to stay off their mobile phones, be careful about your seating plan, and make sure to optimise your lesson material to reduce cognitive load.

4. Define and develop a good classroom culture

Setting rules will encourage good behaviour from your students and encourage them to stay focused in the classroom. Defining and developing good classroom culture may stop your students from getting distracted by classroom displays and encourage them to stay on task to meet your expectations instead.

Final thoughts

Classroom displays can be a great way to create a positive learning environment for your students, but they also have the power to distract them from learning. While research suggests that overtime, they may lose their distracting powers as students get used to them, they still could have a partial impact. Getting rid of displays won’t turn a student who really struggles to focus into one that has great attention, but as the saying goes, “every little helps”.

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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