I’ve never been a big fan of bulletin boards in my classrooms. Over the years, I think my classrooms could best be described as being “spartan yet functional.” I’d put up a poster here or add a few things there, but decorating my classroom space was never something to which I dedicated a lot of thought, time or energy. Personally, I was always impressed by those colleagues who would change bulletin boards with the seasons or by the content they were teaching. But then there were those colleagues who would completely cover every inch of their classroom walls with cartoons, pictures, or inspirational quotes. I’d walk into their classes and be visually assaulted by their decorations. Over the years, I wondered whether any of it had an impact on student learning. I’m sure those colleagues who changed their bulletin boards regularly would argue that it help to motivate students or engage them in the content. But, were there any real, measurable educational impacts?
Interestingly, I came across a research study recently that addressed this issue experimentally. Researchers in Portugal recruited 64 elementary-aged students and had them perform cognitive tasks in “high load” and “low load” environments. The “high load” involved random images affixed to the walls while the “low load” environments had bare, white walls. Reporting their findings, the researchers write:
“Overall, the results suggested that the high-load visual environment affected children’s cognitive performance given that children performed better in the low-load visual environment. Understanding the impact that a visually rich surrounding environment has on children’s cognitive processes that support more complex ones is important to support recommendations on how the environment should be organized to foster better daily activities.” (Rodriques & Pandeirada, 2018, p. 140)
I found this article interesting for a bunch of reasons. First, it reinforced some of my gut reactions to the visual over-stimulation caused by some classroom spaces. While it may be motivating or engaging to have things on classroom walls, this research shows that it negatively impacts student learning. It almost makes me want to email an old principal I had who chastised me for not changing my bulletin boards more regularly. (Take that, Mr. P!)
In a way, however, this research also echoes work done by Richard Mayer on multimedia principles. It could be argued that “high load” environments violate the Mayer’s Coherence Principle by adding “extraneous images.” Interestingly, Mayer’s principles focus on how instructional material is presented and not on the environment in which it is presented. This research shows that the environment has an impact as well.
This environmental connection gives me some things to consider as I start to get my online classes set up for next semester. I know that I can’t directly transfer this research (in face-to-face environments with elementary Portuguese students) with my classroom environment (online classes with undergraduate and graduate students in America), but it has given me some areas upon which to reflect. Are my online spaces “high load” or are they “low load?” Am I using the space in such a way to support my students’ learning? Or are the images, icons, fonts and such creating a visual distraction that ultimately impedes the cognitive tasks that I’m asking my students to perform?
Ultimately, more research is needed to examine how this work translates to online environments. But as I work to develop my online classes, I will be using a “less is more” approach to help my students focus on the assigned tasks. Call it “spartan” but I’ll focus on “functional.”