How to Reduce Noise Distractions in the Classroom

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Do your students struggle to focus amid constant ambient noise and echoey din bouncing off bare walls and floors? Do you have to shout to be heard in your own classroom?

If so, poor acoustics are likely interfering with verbal communication, comprehension, attention span, and more.

But strategic soundproofing, absorption, layout changes, and equipment upgrades can reclaim your learning space.

Let’s dive in to simple acoustic improvements any teacher can make, plus the broader systemic changes schools must prioritize for optimal student outcomes.

What Are the Impacts of Poor Classroom Acoustics on Student Learning and Performance?

Students covering ears in classroom as teacher tries speaking over loud HVAC noise.

Poor classroom acoustics can severely impact students’ ability to clearly hear, understand, and focus during lessons.

When rooms have excessive reverberation and background noise, speech from teachers becomes less intelligible.

Students must exert significant extra effort to listen and concentrate amidst the acoustic confusion.

This quickly leads to fatigue, frustration, and problematic behavior issues.

1. Poor Acoustics Hinder Comprehension and Achievement

Studies show students in classrooms with poor acoustics receive lower scores on standardized tests, poorer grades, and display more disruptive actions.

The combination of reverberation and noise makes verbal communication challenging.

Reverberation causes a blurring effect, where sounds persist and overlap with new speech.

This makes it difficult to discern words clearly.

2. Excess Noise Is Mentally Draining

Background noise from sources like traffic, playgrounds, hallways, HVAC systems, and shuffling papers adds to the acoustic confusion.

Students constantly perceive muddled and masked speech from their teachers.

Their brains have to work overtime to interpret the words, which is mentally draining.

3. Special Needs Students Are Most Affected

Students with hearing loss, auditory processing disorders, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), and other special needs particularly suffer in rooms with poor acoustics.

But all students’ comprehension, concentration, and academic performance are negatively impacted.

Reading skills can also be affected, as improper acoustics interfere with students’ ability to phonetically process verbal instructions.

Studies show that interventions to improve classroom acoustics lead to significant gains in reading test scores.

Excessive ambient noise and reverberation also foster an environment where students lack discipline and frequently misbehave.

The need to shout over classroom din leads to improper voice levels and irritation.

4. Noise Causes Tuning Out and Misbehavior

Students exposed to continual noise often tune out and become inattentive.

In acoustic surveys, a majority of students report noise as the most significant obstacle to learning.

Teachers confirm that poor listening conditions lead to increased restlessness and disciplinary issues.

5. Vocal Strain and Burnout Among Teachers

Teachers likewise face challenges from strained voices, fatigue, and frustration.

Raising their voice level to overcome noise and echo is physically demanding.

Studies document higher rates of vocal health problems among teachers versus other professions.

Trying to maintain student engagement and discipline amidst poor acoustics is mentally draining.

Surveys show noise tops the list of environmental factors causing teacher burnout.

Students also display less respect for instructors they perceive as having difficulty controlling the classroom environment.

Overall, poor classroom acoustics create a stressful and non-optimal learning environment for students and teachers.

Minimizing background noise and reverberation through proper acoustic design and treatments is crucial.

When classrooms support effective verbal communication, students can devote their effort to comprehending the material, rather than just hearing it.

Their attention span, engagement, and academic achievement improve markedly.

How to Measure Classroom Acoustics for Optimal Listening Conditions?

Student sitting quietly reading book in classroom with great acoustics including carpets, panels, and plants absorbing sound.

There are several key measurements used by acousticians and school facilities teams to evaluate the listening conditions in classrooms:

Reverberation Time

Reverberation Time: Also called RT60, this indicates the time it takes for sound to decay by 60 dB once the source stops.

In an unoccupied classroom, this should be 0.6 seconds or less.

Higher reverberation times cause speech and other signals to be blurred and obscured.

Sound persists too long, overlapping and muddling subsequent verbal content.

Excessive reverberation is usually addressed by adding sound absorbing materials.

Background Noise Levels

Background Noise Levels: Ambient noise from sources like HVAC systems, outside traffic, hallways, shuffling papers, etc.

should not exceed 35 dBA in unoccupied classrooms.

For classrooms with students engaged in quiet work like reading or testing, the background noise level should be even lower at 30 dBA or less.

Too much background noise masks and distracts from teacher’s verbal instructions.

Improvements like building insulation, equipment upgrades, and layout changes help reduce ambient noise.

Speech Transmission Index

Speech Transmission Index (STI): This metric combines the factors of reverberation time, background noise, signal-to-noise ratio, and more into one number representing speech intelligibility.

Values below 0.6 are unacceptable and indicate poor verbal transmission.

Classrooms should target an STI of 0.75 or higher.

Student/Teacher Feedback

Student/Teacher Surveys: Along with taking scientific measurements in classrooms, it is also important to collect subjective feedback from students and teachers.

Anonymous surveys allow them to describe acoustic struggles in their own words like “difficulty hearing over the humming vents” or “too much hallway and cafeteria noise.”

This qualitative data provides additional context to complement quantitative metrics.

Regularly monitoring these metrics can diagnose acoustic deficiencies and quickly highlight classrooms needing intervention.

For optimal learning conditions, classrooms must provide clear, intelligible verbal communication.

How to Improve Classroom Acoustics for Better Listening and Learning

Students focused on teacher in classroom with acoustic panels and plants in background improving listening conditions.

Proper classroom acoustics are vital for effective teaching and learning.

Noisy, reverberant rooms make it difficult for students to clearly hear the teacher, leading to distraction and poor comprehension.

Fortunately, there are several evidence-based acoustic treatments that can be implemented to optimize any classroom for speech intelligibility.

1. Install Sound-Blocking Materials

In addition to controlling reverberation within learning spaces, preventing unwanted noises from intruding into classrooms is also imperative.

Sounds originating from adjacent hallways, nearby playgrounds, music rooms, and running machinery can all easily disrupt student concentration.

Unfortunately noise transmits quite efficiently through hollow interior partitions common in school buildings.

Luckily there are architectural sound proofing products designed specifically to contain noise.

Upgraded constructions like noise-rated doors, acoustical seals, weather stripping, heavy plywood layers, and insulation all effectively block audible frequencies from passing through walls and ceilings.

When installed correctly, masses loaded with these specialized materials can decrease exfiltration by over fifty percent.

Doors in particular require careful detailing as the weakest points for noise intrusion.

Solid wood cores provide much more mass than hollow cardboard honeycombs typical of interior doors.

Well-fitted perimeter seals fill the slight gap that exists around most classroom doorframes.

Commercial grade acoustical seals adhere easily to stops and jambs on both sides with no need for adjustments.

The seals compress when doors close to form an airtight barrier across the entire transition.

For even better isolation, automatic door bottoms can also be added.

These drop down when the door is closed to seal off the gap at floor level.

In some cases entire walls may need layers of drywall or plywood added to increase sound transmission ratings.

Staggering wall studs, using double or triple assemblies, inserting insulation, and sealing decisively at borders all augment containment ability.

Any penetration by ducts, conduits, pipes, or windows must likewise be addressed around the perimeter edges.

If containment is still insufficient, entire facades can be detached, reconfigured offsite to improve sound proofing, and then reinstalled.

With effective blocking materials installed correctly, external noise complaints will be notably reduced.

Students benefit from classroom environments optimized for learning rather than continual distraction.

Expect measurable gains in attentiveness, engagement, and academic achievement.

2. Add Sound-Absorbing Materials

Strategically placing acoustic panels and other porous sound absorbers around the classroom is one of the most effective ways to improve speech transmission.

Materials like mineral wool, fiberglass, foam, and fabric over an air gap all function to decrease reverberation times.

This is key because excessive reflections that persist cause blurring of speech sounds.

Students perceive this as muffled or unintelligible talking.

Careful placement of sound absorbent materials prevents overlapping echoes so that original source signals remain clear.

Teachers should look to add sound absorbers to approximately thirty five percent of existing wall space as a starting goal.

Full wall coverage behind and to the sides of instructor teaching positions is ideal.

Absorbers can also be mounted on ceilings to further scatter reflections.

Any absorptive materials will help, but professional acoustic panels designed to reject sound at key human speech frequencies work best.

Strategic use of common furnishings like corkboards, cloth posters, and rolled carpeting also assists with absorption objectives.

The more surface area that sound waves can penetrate into rather than bounce off of, the less problematic reflections.

In addition to walls, floors can also be upgraded to improve absorption.

Plush rolled carpeting laid over thick padding helps dissipate noise energy.

Care should be taken to ensure any absorbent mounts are fire-resistant.

Building codes require flame rated materials.

Professional installers can provide classroom appropriate flooring options.

With this technique, the objective is to lower reverberation times so echoes do not persist to obscure subsequent speech utterances.

Students will immediately notice improvement in intelligibility soon after installation of acoustical wall panels or other absorptive materials.

3. Reconfigure Room Layout

How instructors orient seating and learning activity areas also factors into classroom acoustics.

Sound waves interact with boundary surfaces like walls and corners through a phenomena called geometrical acoustics.

Basically this means that concave areas focus while convex zones disperse audible energy.

The goal then is to scatter rather than concentrate speech reflections so they do not return to student ears with confusing echos.

Start by ensuring desks and chairs maintain adequate spacing from each other as well as room peripheries.

Anything closer than three feet risks additional unintended reflections.

Angling desk arrangements off of walls or aiming groups across corners helps minimize focusing effects.

Relaxing overly stringent row formats also assists greatly.

Breaking up strict lines scatters energy for enriched diffusion.

Instructors should teach from the front and center of spaces rather than off to one side.

This allows clear direct propagation radially outwards to reach all students simultaneously.

Avoid placing lecterns or demonstration tables directly against walls.

Projecting eighteen inches out improves directional dispersion.

Additionally consider convex room shaping elements like curved or slanted walls and fan shaped floor plans.

These shapes induce scattering as compared to purely rectangular forms with their parallel surfaces.

For overly troublesome facilities, renovations to completely rework room geometry may be prudent.

However room layout tweaks are relatively simple adjustments that generate noticeable improvements.

Students hear lecturers more intelligibly and the environment promotes better quality learning.

4. Consider Architectural Redesign

If problematic background noise, inadequate speech reproduction, or excessive reverberation plagues learning venues, more invasive architectural changes should be entertained.

Rooms suffering from poor acoustics ambiently typically require major renovations to fully correct issues.

Modern classroom buildings utilize modular construction with large shared corridors offering little sound isolation.

Coupled with insufficient absorption, these small learning spaces become noisy reverberant environments unsuitable for concentration.

Constructing dedicated classrooms enclosed as small separate zones creates superior conditions in all aspects.

Self contained learning studios with buffering hallways and transitional anterooms prevent noise transfer much better.

Judicious material choices help limit sound transmission vertically floor to floor as well as horizontally between adjacent spaces.

Well insulated partition assemblies provide necessary blocking while wood sheathing assures privacy.

Once properly isolated, individual rooms can also be optimized internally forOccupants.

Hard surfaces like masonry, stone, glass, and concrete so commonly featured today reflect excessive noise waves.

These materials should be limited in favor of vibration damping panels mounted with resilient channels.

Islands of sound absorption interspersed strategically help lower reverberation as well.

Bringing levels down to recommended metrics ensures speech reproduced cleanly.

When it comes to a buildings central heating, ventilation and air conditioning infrastructure, equipment selection and layout rank as crucial specifications.

Fan coils, air handlers, chillers, ductwork, and terminal devices should be chosen for low velocity operation and lined thoroughly with acoustical insulation.

Equipment rooms, piping runs and vertical shafts must likewise isolate vibration transmission scrupulously.

Duct acoustics also demand careful detailing to prevent rumbling cross talk inside conditioned spaces.

With knowledgeable architectural design assistance, school facilities can be adapted purposefully to support rather than hinder the learning process.

Necessitated renovations certainly require a larger budget but demonstrate a commitment to providing enriched student focused environments.

Administrators find improved testing scores and happier occupants ample return on investment for projects addressing baseline acoustic needs.

5. Upgrade Equipment

Even after implementing absorbing materials, blockingexcess sound, and configuring spaces suitably, distracting noises may yet intrude from aging environmental systems.

Most classroom buildings rely heavily upon large rooftop ventilation units connected to ceiling diffusers through sheet metal ducts and vents.

These components degrade over time eventually emitting disruptive rumbling.

Additionally, other accessory devices contribute unwanted noise.

Modernizing outmoded equipment improves space functionality.

Many existing classroom ventilation fans utilize outdated shaded pole and split capacitor motors.

These affordable options feature brushes and commutators which wear, eventually producing objectionable hum.

Newer electronically commutated motors offer brushless construction with computer controlled operation.

Various speeds can be selected for minimal perceptible noise.

Fan blade angles and duct shaping further help smooth turbulent airflow.

Fluorescent luminaires also contribute significantly to background noise in many older schools.

Magnetic ballasts used previously emit audible buzzing inadequate for clear communication.

Newer high frequency solid state fluorescent lighting utilizes integrated LEDs for cooler, quieter operation.

Alternating current is also converted internally to benign direct current.

Choose bulbs carefully as intensity affects performance.

Cool white or warm color temperatures work best.

Antiquated bell and public address systems doom many schools acoustically with their sudden bursts of feedback and distortion.

Speakers mounted inside classrooms often exacerbate confusion.

Updated computing controlled configurations allow centralized ambient noise monitoring and automatic level adjustment.

This prevents abrupt announce bursts overpowering instruction.

Speakers positioned judiciously ensure room wide coverage without hotspots or dead zones.

Finally consider adding active noise control if mechanical systems drone persistently.

These clever electronic systems sample low frequency sounds with interior microphones.

Circuitry then generates inverted waveforms to cause destructive interference neutralizing the unwanted mechanical sounds.

This technology provides up to ten decibels of abatement attenuation for improved comfort.

With all of these potential upgrades combined, classrooms can be transformed into peaceful havens, perfect for focused scholarship without disruption.

The collective benefit to overall student development is immense.


In conclusion, poor classroom acoustics severely impact learning.

But with thoughtful acoustic planning, evidence-based treatments, architectural changes, equipment upgrades, and ongoing noise monitoring, schools can optimize spaces for speech intelligibility.

This allows students to focus on comprehending material rather than straining to hear.

Prioritizing proper acoustics fosters happier, healthier, more productive learning environments where both students and teachers can thrive.


Dominic is the chief editor of the Burton Acoustix blog which writes about acoustics and soundproofing to help readers with their queries and questions they might have with regard to improving any sound or noise issues that they faced in their life.