Why a classroom that’s too warm tires you out, and the best study temperature

Students get the best results when the room temperature is 22 Celsius, research shows. So why do many Hong Kong schools make classrooms either too hot or too cold for optimum learning?

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 22 March, 2016, 4:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 22 March, 2016, 4:00am

During the recent cold weather my Year Six son told me his classroom was so hot it made him sleepy. I understand that pupils need to be warm enough, but overheating classrooms surely can’t be helpful for their education?

Gone are the days when Hong Kong schools didn’t even have air conditioners, let alone reverse-cycle ones and heaters. Your son is highly likely to feel sleepy if his classroom is overheated. Warmer temperatures tend to make children feel tired and lethargic, and therefore they tend to become easily distracted and lose concentration.

Research shows, unsurprisingly, that temperature does have an affect on student attention span. Studies have indicated that lower classroom temperatures and improved air ventilation improve learning ability and student performance by as much as 10 to 20 per cent. Pupils working in classrooms with lower temperatures were shown to be more alert and able to work more quickly while making fewer mistakes.

A recent study in the US placed exam students in different rooms set at varying temperatures and the results confirmed that 22 degrees Celsius was the optimum temperature for gaining the highest results. The lowest results were when rooms were too warm. Other studies have yielded similar findings – vitally important information for secondary schools.

It is an intrinsic part of a school’s job to create the best possible learning environment for their students. We all need to feel comfortable in our work environment in order to be as productive and creative as we possibly can.

This highlights the necessity for schools to have a policy regarding the use of heaters and air conditioners. Therefore raising this question with your son’s school could be productive as it may be an issue they have overlooked, are not aware of or is not monitored. Positive changes can be put in place very easily. The school could do experiments of their own where pupils design fair tests involving temperatures within their classrooms, acquiring the views of their peers and collecting data.

Another important factor to take into account is the seating position of individual children within classrooms giving points for teachers to consider when rearranging furniture and opening safety windows. For example, if hot or cold air is blowing directly onto pupils, this could certainly affect their comfort level and concentration.

A successful education is reliant on many features and the elements are very complex. A positive, productive ethos and a calm, reflective atmosphere are vital, and it is likely that the quality of teaching and the interactions between teachers and students has the greatest impact. However, there are many other environmental factors that affect learning and student performance: space and classroom layout are key, as it can be difficult to learn in a cramped, uncomfortable environment.

Personal factors also matter to individuals. Amount of sleep is important, as well as general well-being and quality/timings of food intake. Lesson timings can particularly affect young children and teenagers. Although youngsters are often fresher in the morning, teenagers need more sleep and have been shown to have better learning potential later in the day.

A student’s mood is swayed by all of the above and this has an effect on their cognitive abilities, memory and general attitude. If we consider our own lives, the weather, temperature and amount of sunlight can also change our moods. A lovely sunny day can help us to feel happy and positive, decreasing feelings of fatigue, irritability and possibly depression.

I have witnessed classrooms both in local and international schools where air conditioners were set so cold that students were visibly shivering or having to wear coats. On the other hand I’ve seen heaters on full blast, making the learning environment stifling. Heating bills for schools must have soared in the recent cold weather, and if classrooms were being overheated, this is money that could be put into learning and equipment.

Usually, people in Hong Kong complain about air conditioners being too cold in offices, taxis, restaurants and shopping malls. Hopefully schools will now take notice of the educational research and take action, not only helping their students learning ability but being more environmentally friendly by using both heating and cooling equipment thoughtfully.

Julie McGuire teaches at a Hong Kong primary school