Commercial HVAC Equipment

How do you improve student learning? Reduce noise in your classrooms

Tuesday, February 27 2018 2:34 PM
By Jon Goering

 Experts believe students miss up to 33 percent of what teachers communicate in class because they can’t understand what is being said.

Everywhere we go, sound surrounds us like a blanket.

We embrace pleasant sounds, but the unpleasant ones we call noise.

Like a heating and cooling system clamoring to the point that students struggle to hear clearly and teachers labor to project.

Sound familiar?

The scenario plays out every day in K-12 classrooms across the U.S.  

The impact noise has in classrooms is easy to overlook, yet experts believe students miss up to 33 percent of what teachers communicate in class because they can’t understand what is being said. Studies show that poor acoustics have a negative influence on learning, test scores, and student behavior.

Considering the average age of U.S. schools is greater than 40 years – many utilizing aging heating and cooling systems – it’s little wonder that students, teachers, and staff struggle to learn and perform in these imperfect environments.

As a school leader, how do you know if your heating and cooling system has been diminishing your students’ ability to learn? And if so, what can you do to address the problem?

In this post, we’ll discuss the rules regarding building acoustics, what causes noise pollution, and measures you can implement to remedy the problem.

The decibels of common sounds

Unlike adults, noise is an issue for children because they haven’t developed the ability to interpret meaning from words they can’t hear clearly or misunderstood. Addressing noise issues in classrooms can be challenging because it often varies from classroom to classroom.

In an effort to address noise issues in schools, the American National Standards Institute in 2002 published a set of standards (ANSI S12.60) to be used by designers, school planners, and schools that dictates maximum noise and reverberation levels in classrooms. Updates were made in 2010.  

(You can find ANSI S12.60 Part 1 here and Part 2 here).

However, schools do not have to comply with the ANSI standard unless it’s referenced by a code or regulation, although many have adopted it for new construction or renovation projects.

 According to the ANSI standard, noise levels in classrooms should not exceed 35 decibels, yet researchers have discovered that average noise levels in classrooms can reach 66 to 94 decibels.

In one study, researchers found average classroom noise levels reached 72 decibels – the sound of a busy intersection. By comparison, an electric toothbrush emits 60 decibels and an ambulance siren reaches 120 decibels.

Excess noise adds an enormous burden on teachers and students. Experts say that the signal-to-noise ratio for an average student should be +15 decibels, meaning a teacher must speak 15 decibels above all background noise for a student to comprehend.

Therefore, if noise levels reached 90 decibels in a classroom, a teacher would have to speak at 105 decibels to be heard – not far off from the noise made by an ambulance siren!

What causes noise pollution in classrooms?

One of the chief reasons heating and cooling systems play a big part in excessive classroom noise amounts to money.

In an effort to save dollars, schools often place heating and cooling equipment in each classroom rather than choosing a centralized system (think window units vs rooftop units with ductwork).

While less expensive initially, individual units are historically noisier. As a consequence, a school’s only option to reduce the noise is to replace the equipment – hence, increased overall costs.

Another reason is tied to building codes (or lack thereof). Lighting, ventilation, and indoor air quality for U.S. classrooms is regulated by building codes.

Acoustics are not.

Other than the ANSI standard – which is voluntary – schools have no mandate to guide them through the new construction or remodeling processes. For this reason, materials and equipment get installed in schools that help raise sound levels.

The following factors influence sound levels in classrooms:

  • Building location
  • Size and shape
  • Other spaces around it
  • Sound absorption of surfaces
  • Ceiling, wall, and floor construction
  • Location of sound sources
  • Reverberation – noise bouncing off of objects

How to reduce noise pollution in classrooms

Many solutions exist for reducing noise in classrooms with varying degrees of cost and difficulty. Here are a few to consider:

  • Add curtains to windows
  • Hang tapestries or mount cork boards on or to walls
  • Keep doors and windows closed
  • Arrange classroom furniture away from noise sources
  • Attached rubber stripping to classroom doors
  • Replace ceiling tiles with models that reduce noise
  • Lower ceiling height by adding acoustical panels (9-12 feet is optimal)
  • Install carpet over a pad (IAQ issues may be a risk)
  • Open grilles and diffusers wider
  • Rebalance the heating and cooling system to reduce the amount of air provided to a space
  • Make changes to ductwork, such as relocating or lengthening or installing sound liners
  • Replace individual classroom units with a central system


Research has shown a correlation exists between noise pollution and learning in classrooms. As a school leader, you want to provide the best environment for students to learn and teachers to teach.

Consider reaching out to a building professional who can test your school to determine if your classrooms have noise issues. If so, think about implementing any number of the steps above or other proven ideas to reduce noise pollution in your classrooms.

Is noise pollution an issue in your school district? Would you like to look for ways to improve the classroom environment for your students and teachers? Please contact Jonathon Goering by email or call 316-265-9655.

Knipp Services works with commercial and industrial building owners to lower operational expenses and increase building comfort.

We provide services that enable owners to have high-performance buildings. “Making Buildings Better” sums up the mission statement of Knipp Services.

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Quiet Classrooms

Achieving acoustical standards in the classroom - Trane

American Speech Language Hearing Association

Acoustics in the Classroom - Trane


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