Acoustics in Innovative Learning Environments

Case Study

Classroom acoustics are a vital component of learning. The ability to clearly hear and understand a teacher verbally communicating his or her lesson is crucial for students to process the information presented. Excessive levels of background noise and/or noise reverberation create auditory disturbances which detract from the lesson at hand – thus resulting in poor classroom acoustics. 

According to the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (n.d.) poor classroom acoustics can affect students’ speech understanding, attention, concentration, reading and spelling ability, behaviour in the classroom and academic achievement. Students that are learning in a second language or are afflicted by hearing impairments and/or learning disabilities are further disadvantaged by these acoustic barriers.

Teachers are also affected by poor classroom acoustics. Vocal strain – commonly resulting from speaking for long periods of time at elevated levels – is recognised as a serious occupational hazard for teachers. It is estimated that teachers verbally communicate approximately 60% of their workday. A survey on New Zealand teachers revealed that 71% found noise from within the classroom to be a problem and more than a third said they need to speak at a level that strains their voices (Oticon Foundation in New Zealand, 2002). These figures indicate that poor classroom acoustics are prominent in New Zealand and can cause additional harm for teachers that can be fairly detrimental to their performance and job satisfaction. A study conducted on workplace injuries indicate that “teachers are 32 times more likely to have voice problems compared to similar occupations” (American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, n.d.).

The importance of speech intelligibility is further supported by Flavell’s educational research studies (as cited in Sutherland and Lubmanwhich, 2001) which indicate that “learning is dependent on the ability to communicate with spoken language and that perception of spoken language is the foundation for the ability to read and write”. The architectural design of a space is an important starting point in achieving clear classroom acoustics which are conducive to a better learning environment. Size, shape and surface finish all impact acoustic behaviour and therefore impact speech clarity. For example, large rooms with no acoustic treatment are proned to acoustic reflections which increase reverberation times – this temporarily disrupts the desired signal and can also increase background noise levels (American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, n.d.).

National and international trends are seeing many educational institutions moving towards future-orientated education and Innovative Learning Environments (ILEs) - also known as Modern Learning Environment / Flexible Learning Environment. These modern spaces typically incorporate large open-plan rooms with hard surface finishes; for this reason, acoustics need thorough and careful consideration when designing new or retrofit ILEs. In order to provide better learning environments for our students – the New Zealand Ministry of Education has been moving towards implementing ILEs throughout the country. There has been a lot of positive feedback from students, parents, teachers and principals; one school even claimed that their year seven student retention rate had increased from 48% to a significant 98%. There has however been some negative responses about acoustic performance of these spaces which reinforces the need to consider acoustics as part of the design process, rather than retrospectivel.



A good example of a well-designed and successful ILE is that of the Kaipara Westmount Campus. Created by global design firm Unispace, the new learning centre includes a large open collaborative area, banquette seating and glazed brainstorm and project rooms. Acoustic performance was considered right from the start of the project and was designed for aesthetic as well as functional properties. Unispace worked with acoustic professionals to create a unique acoustic ceiling fin system that was simple to install and provided exceptional acoustic absorption. The new learning centre has been well received by both students and staff and promotes a calm yet collaborative learning environment. Upon the success of this project, a new learning centre has recently been completed in the Westmount Christchurch campus and there are similar projects in the pipelines for Nelson and Hastings Westmount campuses.

Effective acoustics are essential in all classrooms, whether they are traditional or ILEs. Classrooms are vital communication channels’ where essential social, cultural and academic skills are taught. Creating learning environments that foster clear acoustics are essential for speech clarity and should be the goal of all educational institutes. If you believe your classroom environment suffers from poor acoustics, contact an experienced acoustic professional or consult the Ministry of Education.


American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. (n.d.). Classroom Acoustics. Retrieved from

Oticon Foundation in New Zealand. (2002). Classroom Acoustics: A New Zealand Perspective. Retrieved from

Sutherland, L.C, & Lubman, B. (2001). The Impact of Classroom Acoustics on Scholastic Achievement. Retrieved from