How noise affects learning and what you can do to help

Scientists around the world are working hard to help children learn better in the classroom. Here’s what the latest research has to say about noise and its impact on concentration.
Classroom distractions can make learning difficult | credit: Avishag Shaar-Yashuv

“I just need to find some quiet so I can focus.”

In the modern world, noise is all around us. Whether it’s planes flying overhead, music from next door, or the chatter of conversation, it’s become increasingly difficult to escape external sound.

We all understand that these kinds of distractions make concentrating harder. But for children in the classroom, the challenge is even greater.

In fact, uncontrolled environmental noise can have a significant impact on their ability to understand complex topics. This in turn affects their performance at school.

In this post, we’re going to take a look at the current state of research into the relationship between learning and noise. And we’ll also share some tips for reducing the impact of noise.

What exactly do we define as noise in today’s world?

Noise can refer to a wide range of distractions and disruptions. It might relate to other students talking or moving around, or something outside of the classroom, like traffic noise from the street.

It captures our attention and pulls it away from the task at hand; for example, a student listening to their friend is likely to miss an important piece of information that the teacher is relaying. It doesn’t take long for the child to become distracted, and for their learning to suffer.

Is noise really that damaging to children’s learning?

Nuance Hearing’s chief audiologist, Tami Harel, has spent many years examining the impact of noise on our ability to learn. She explains that “separating the desired speech from the noise calls for cognitive resources that would otherwise be allocated for learning and memory. When a student tries to focus on the teacher in a noisy classroom they struggle and strain to do so.”

This effort reduces the student’s ability to learn: “After cognitive resources have been employed to segregate the noise and the speech and focus on the teacher, they may have less capacity to learn and remember. This makes listening more effortful.”

To make matters worse, the effect isn’t merely limited to difficulties in picking out what a teacher is saying. Noise-induced disruption also affects non-auditory tasks, such as the recall of visual information, or the act of reading. One study found that an “irrelevant sound effect” (such as single-talker speech or non-speech sounds caused by tones or instrumental music) reduced second-graders’ performance by 39% relative to quiet, compared with just an 11% drop in adults.

Similarly, chronic exposure to environmental sounds such as aircraft noise has been associated with lower reading performance – and it’s mainly down to the additional demands such noises place on our cognitive resources.

Are some children more likely to be affected than others?

The short answer is yes. As Mrs. Harel explains, “understanding speech in noise is challenging for everyone, but it affects those with auditory processing difficulties or attention deficits more. These children tend to particularly struggle to segregate the target speaker from the noise.”

So, how has research into the effects of noise evolved over the last few years?

In recent years, there have been plenty of improvements in both the number and quality of studies into the relationship between noise and learning. At the same time, awareness has grown – and technology has evolved with it.

One of the most groundbreaking studies came with The Framework for Understanding Effortful Listening (FUEL) in 2016, which described the effects of noise on the ease of understanding language. Broadly speaking, the researchers found that the effort involved in listening depends not only on hearing difficulties and the demands of the task, but also on the listener’s desire and motivation to invest the energy required to focus.

This kind of research has driven increased awareness within schools, and the rise of assistive devices which can help to mitigate the effects of unwanted noise.

Help your child study by reducing the impact of classroom distractions | credit: Avishag Shaar-Yashuv

How can you reduce the impact of noise on your child’s learning?

As awareness has grown, solutions have emerged. Here are a few of the things you can do to help:

1. Make acoustic modifications
There are a number of ways you can make changes to the environment in order to mitigate noise distraction. Acoustic ceilings reduce the impact of external sounds, as do soft furnishings such as curtains, and wall decorations or bookshelves. These types of items act as sound absorbers and help to lessen the cognitive effort required to block out sounds.

2. Consider appropriate
It might sound simple, but seating a student who struggles with auditory processing near the front of the classroom can immediately make things easier. It improves the “signal-to-noise ratio” (the volume balance between the sound you want to hear and the sound you don’t) and reduces the effort required to separate the teacher’s voice from the background noise.

3.Utilize assistive technology
Technology is advancing at a rapid rate. For focused study sessions, many students (and adults) are turning to noise-canceling headphones to eliminate external sound. In a classroom setting, Voice Selector Study is a powerful tool. Voice Selector Study is a device that filters out distracting background noise and amplifies the teacher’s voice, aiding concentration.

Noise is here to stay, but help is at hand

Noise will always be a part of our world. And as research progresses, the relationship between auditory distraction and learning is only becoming more certain.

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