Exam halls with high ceilings linked to worse academic outcomes

Effect persists even after controlling for numerous variables, leaving researchers to puzzle over how brain and body are affected by large rooms

July 3, 2024
Empty exam room for adults exam at State Railway of Thailand
Source: iStock/PongMoji

Typical examination spaces with high ceilings, such as gymnasiums and event halls, may be negatively impacting students’ academic performance, a paper claims.

The research, published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology, which analysed the exam results of 15,400 students at Australian universities, examines the relationship between building design and students’ abilities to perform cognitive tasks.

It found that students performed worse in rooms with high ceilings, and that the impact on exam marks persisted even after accounting for numerous variables, including coursework score, year, age and gender, supporting previous research that suggests large rooms may negatively affect concentration.

However, Isabella Bower, co-author of the report and postdoctoral research fellow at the University of South Australia, cautioned that it was difficult to identify precisely whether this was because of the scale of the room itself or because of other things such as student density or room temperature and air quality – factors that can affect the brain and body, she said.

“These spaces are often designed for purposes other than examinations, such as gymnasiums, exhibitions, events and performances,” Dr Bower said. “The key point is that large rooms with high ceilings seem to disadvantage students, and we need to understand what brain mechanisms are at play, and whether this affects all students to the same degree.”

The paper looked at test results between 2011 and 2019 in a bid to examine data from before Covid-19 and the pandemic’s impact on education, which included a shift to at-home exams.

The report further notes that smaller exam rooms “may allow students more opportunities to cheat”.

“While the proctor-to-student ratio is far higher, the student-to-student ratio is lower, reducing peer surveillance and monitoring, which may influence if a student cheats by smuggling in notes,” it says.

Jaclyn Broadbent, co-author and deputy head of the School of Psychology at Deakin University, said exams were a “key part of our education system” and helped to shape students’ career paths and lives.

“These findings will allow us to better design the buildings in which we live and work, so we can perform to the best of our ability,” she said.

The paper calls on universities to move away from holding exams in such inauspicious environments to “ensure we are not unwittingly adding disadvantage into performative evaluations”.


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Reader's comments (2)

Perhaps it is more an effect of the unnatural environment of the traditional examination hall rather than merely the height of its ceiling. We don't generally study in serried ranks at small wobbly tables all facing in the same direction, not even if we like to study in a library, so why should we be expected to demonstrate the results of our studies thus?
How much worse?