Lighting’s Role in the Classroom

Written By: Emma Seiwell

Our environments impact our feelings and moods, which in turn shape the experience we have in a given space. It’s critical to understand that the spaces we occupy in our day-to-day lives are never neutral. Classrooms- a central space in everyone’s young lives, should be thoughtfully designed to maximize comfort and functionality. School design, which once took a one size fits all approach, with an emphasis on affordability, has come a long way. Slowly, school design has evolved in accent with changes in learning techniques and the integration of technology. Studies have proven a clear link between school design and student performance. Lighting is perhaps the most critical element to consider for effective classroom design.

The quality and color of lighting can impair or enhance a student’s visual skills and consequently their academic performance. Aside from the obvious function of illumination for vision, light regulates a number of our bodily processes including circadian rhythm, sleep, cognition, mood, rest-activity patterns, and the production of important hormones such as melatonin and cortisol. Different kinds of lighting have varying effects on these processes. Successful classroom lighting design will harness these processes strategically to successfully achieve varying learning objectives.

In the past, fluorescent lights were the standard and most cost-effective choice for schools. It’s since been determined that fluorescents cause discomfort and impair visual performance due to their nearly imperceptible flicker and the glare they create when combined with daylight. This inadequate lighting can cause anxiety, bodily stress, and even hyperactivity in students.
Windows in a classroom have always been assumed as a means to distract students. This logic doesn’t truly add up. Science proves that windows offer the most ideal lighting source for a classroom. Sunlight exposure to our eyes or skin initiates the production of serotonin. This increase in serotonin boosts mood and helps a person stay focused and calm. Sunlight also resets our circadian rhythms or our internal clocks. This reset causes students to experience an increase in alertness and an overall improvement in academic performance.

A study published in 1999 found that incorporation of natural light in classrooms significantly improved student scores on standardized tests. The study observed 21,000 elementary-school students in three states: California, Colorado, and Washington. Over the course of a year, students with the most natural light in their classroom progressed 20 percent faster in math and 26 percent faster in reading than students with the least amount of light in the Capistrano school district in California.

Aside from their beneficial effects on students and teachers, natural light is a cost-effective way to light classrooms too. Utilities account for a significant portion of a school’s budget. On average, 26% of a school’s electricity usage is for lighting. (pg. 178) With the installation of more windows, schools can take advantage of sunlight to reduce electricity usage. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reported that schools can save approximately 30 percent on energy costs by installing more windows or full-spectrum lighting. Furthermore, daylighting classrooms serves as an eco-friendlier option since electricity generation can produce an abundance of greenhouse gases, depending on the source.

Where windows can’t be easily incorporated into a classroom’s design, light-emitting diode (LED) lights are the next best alternative. LEDs can produce a distinct blue light that imitates sunlight nearly identically and therefore has the same beneficial effects. Recently, there have been advances in LED-based “Human Centric Lighting.” This type of lighting system offers adjustable intensity and temperature of light to incrementally imitate the changing characteristics of daylight throughout the day. By simulating the sun, these man-made lights follow the patterns of light that we have become evolutionarily accustomed to. This careful manipulation of light can have a biologically optimal effect on students and teachers alike. The alignment between our environment and this internal biological process improves our quality of sleep, alertness, metabolism and overall, well-being. The wrong lighting can misalign this internal clock and lead to poor sleep and a subsequent negative effect on cognitive functioning and academic performance.


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Heschong Mahone Group. Daylighting In Schools: An Investigation Into The Relationship Between Daylighting And Human Performance. Fair Oaks, CA 95628, 1999,

Mott, Michael S., et al. “Illuminating the Effects of Dynamic Lighting on Student Learning.” SAGE Open, Apr. 2012, doi:10.1177/2158244012445585.

Uncapher, Melina. “The Science Of Effective Learning Spaces”. Edutopia, 2016,

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