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Year : 2013  |  Volume : 15  |  Issue : 65  |  Page : 269-280
Adolescents' perceptions of their school's acoustic environment: The development of an evidence based questionnaire

1 Department of Psychology, Faculty of Business, Sport & Enterprise, Southampton Solent University, Southampton, SO14 7NN, United Kingdom
2 Department of Psychology and Human Development, Institute of Education, University of London, 20 Bedford Way, London, WC1H 0AL, United Kingdom
3 Department of Urban Engineering, Faculty of Engineering, Science and Built Environment, London South Bank University, London SE1 0AA, United Kingdom
4 Department of Acoustics, Audio and Video Engineering, Newton Building, University of Salford, Greater Manchester, M5 4WT, United Kingdom

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Date of Web Publication15-Jun-2013
 
  Abstract 

A poor acoustic environment in a school is known to negatively affect pupils' learning and achievement. This paper presents the design and findings of an online questionnaire survey of 11-16 year olds' impressions of their school's acoustic environment. A total of 2588 English secondary school pupils responded to the questionnaire. Factor analysis was used to identify variables which best characterized pupils' impressions of their school's acoustic environment. Four factors, corresponding to ease of hearing in school spaces, sensitivity to noise, the consequences of noise in the classroom, and annoyance to intermittent noise, accounted for 43% of the total variance in pupils' responses to the questionnaire. Analysis of the responses on these factors showed that pupils who reported additional learning needs such as hearing impairment, speaking English as an additional language or receiving learning support reported being significantly more affected by poor school acoustics than pupils reporting no additional learning needs. Older pupils were significantly more sensitive to noise annoyance and to the consequences of poor acoustical conditions on their learning and behaviour than younger pupils. Pupils attending suburban schools featuring cellular classrooms that were not exposed to a nearby noise sources were more positive about their school acoustics than pupils at schools with open plan classroom designs or attending schools that were exposed to external noise sources. The study demonstrates that adolescents are reliable judges of their school's acoustic environment, and have insight into the disruption to teaching and learning caused by poor listening conditions. Furthermore, pupils with additional learning needs are more at risk from the negative effects of poor school acoustics.

Keywords: Acoustical quality questionnaire, adolescents, annoyance, learning, noise, school

How to cite this article:
Connolly DM, Dockrell JE, Shield BM, Conetta R, Cox TJ. Adolescents' perceptions of their school's acoustic environment: The development of an evidence based questionnaire. Noise Health 2013;15:269-80

How to cite this URL:
Connolly DM, Dockrell JE, Shield BM, Conetta R, Cox TJ. Adolescents' perceptions of their school's acoustic environment: The development of an evidence based questionnaire. Noise Health [serial online] 2013 [cited 2022 Aug 12];15:269-80. Available from: https://www.noiseandhealth.org/text.asp?2013/15/65/269/113525

  Introduction Top


There is widespread concern about the effects of noise on health, well-being, and learning, [1],[2] and evidence that children are sensitive to the negative effects of noise and classroom acoustics is now well-established. [3],[4],[5],[6],[7],[8] However, much of the existing research on the effects of school acoustics on learning focuses on the learner's perceptions of individual classrooms. Adolescents typically find themselves in large, diverse learning environments and their impressions of the variety of acoustical conditions around their school are largely unexplored. Studying during adolescence often involves room changes, subject changes, engagement in a variety of learning activities and the use of technology, making it more challenging to profile the listening conditions. This paper describes the design, administration and results of an online questionnaire, which aimed to capture those aspects of the school acoustic environment that were most important in determining the views of 11-16-year-old pupils and thereby to understand the acoustical challenges which these pupils face.

The importance of a classroom's acoustics in determining its suitability as a teaching and learning space is reflected in the adoption in the US and UK of acoustical standards for new school buildings. [9],[10] For various types and sizes of school spaces, these specify maximum values for unoccupied background noise level and reverberation times. The standards do not, however, capture the complexities of learners' subjective experience of their acoustic environment;

experiences which may vary by age and location within the school [11] and additional learning needs. [12],[13] These experiences are best captured by questionnaire surveys of learners' perceptions. The identification of factors that can interact with acoustical conditions to determine the quality of the learning experience can then be used to inform pedagogical approaches and school design.

Previous research with questionnaires has shown that learners are sensitive judges of the factors that combine to create good listening and learning conditions, including the learning activity, the interactions between learners and the nature of the sound sources to which they are exposed. [14],[15] In a study of London primary schools, [11] children as young as six were able to discriminate between good and poor listening environments based on the activities of the teacher and of other pupils, and were able to reliably identify the sounds that annoy them. Noise made by other children outside the classroom was rated as the situation that created most listening difficulties. A study of secondary school pupils' views on the environmental quality of their classrooms, [16] found that pupils taught in acoustically treated classrooms gave lower ratings of the disturbance caused by noise in neighbouring classrooms than pupils taught in untreated classrooms, indicating that the problems created by pupil generated noise are made worse by poor classroom acoustics. Moreover, a decrease in concentration was identified as the main consequence of poor listening conditions for secondary school pupils; a finding parallel to the effects of aircraft noise on children's attentional abilities. [17] A similar profile of factors affecting acoustical quality was found in a study of university students' perceptions of classroom acoustics. [13] Additional factors were also found to be important for older students' perception of a classroom's acoustical quality, independent of the classroom's physical characteristics. These included studying material with a scientific or mathematical content and difficulties in communicating during discussions. Both resulted in a lowering of a classroom's "perceived listening ease" score. [13]

In addition to identifying the important subjective dimensions that contribute to learners' perceptions of optimal classroom acoustics, studies focusing on perceptions of individual classrooms have the advantage of being able to validate learners' subjective impressions by comparing them to objective measures. External noise measures such as the equivalent continuous A-weighted sound pressure level (L Aeq) and the A-weighted sound pressure level exceeded for 90% of the time (L A90) have been found to correlate with children's subjective assessments of their ability to hear their teacher. [11],[16] Similarly, the maximum A-weighted sound pressure level reached during a measurement period (LAmax ) has been found to correlate with pupils' ratings of annoyance [11] and disturbance. [16] In university classrooms, higher speech transmission index values and small classroom volume were found to predict improved ratings of acoustical satisfaction. [13] Previous questionnaire studies have thus identified a number of important subjective and objective dimensions that contribute to perceptions of the acoustical quality of individual classrooms. However, they were not designed to capture the range of learning environments experienced in a secondary school. Consequently, they fail to capture the overall impact of a school's acoustic environment and the differential impact of acoustic factors in different learning spaces.

The design and quality of school buildings differ within and between each school, and these variations influence the types and intensity of noise that learners are exposed to; thus, they present challenges in terms of characterizing a school's noise and acoustic profile. For example, in traditional cellular classrooms acoustic environments often differ across subjects. Academic subjects tend to be based in small classrooms that can create good conditions for speech transmission; however, the cognitive demands of the material being studied may produce the perception of effortful listening. In contrast, classrooms where creative subjects such as art and design technology are studied tend to be large and reverberant. [18] Despite the poorer acoustics of these settings pupils may perceive the context more favorably because of the subject studied. The problems of large, open learning spaces were highlighted in a recent review of schools featuring open plan classroom designs, [19] in which noise generated by children in one class base disrupting learning and teaching in nearby class bases was cited as a major problem.

As well as the issues related to school design, learners' individual needs add another dimension to characterizing pupils' experience of their acoustic environment. Pupils whose hearing and learning is compromised because of poor acoustics include those with a hearing impairment (HI), [12],[20] those for whom English is a second language, [20] and those who receive learning support (LS) for a variety of reasons, including dyslexia, specific language impairment or unspecified learning difficulties. [21] Furthermore, little is known about how pupils of different ages experience the acoustics of their school. For example, the impact of the interactions between increased cognitive maturity, increased subject complexity, and the narrowing of the school curriculum in the UK on pupils' perceptions of their acoustic environments is currently unknown.

To address these issues, a questionnaire was created to examine secondary school pupils' perceptions of their schools' sound environments and to identify the key acoustical parameters which pupils view as impacting on their learning and performance. Exploratory factor analysis was used to confirm the validity of the questionnaire subscales and to identify the variables which best characterize pupils' experience of school acoustics. Differential patterns of responses across the pupils grouped in terms of learning needs, age, and school were examined. In order to obtain as representative a sample as possible of English secondary schools, a range of high, average and low performing schools, and a range of school designs were targeted for inclusion in the survey. The questionnaire was administered to a sample of over 2000 children between the ages of 11 and 16 in six secondary (high) schools.


  Methods Top


Development of the questionnaire

Semi-structured interviews were held with teachers, teaching assistants, special educational needs coordinators, and teachers of the deaf at four secondary schools in South-East England to capture their views on the problems of secondary school acoustics. Based on these exploratory interviews and a comprehensive review of the literature, and informed by previous research with student acoustical questionnaires, a pen and paper questionnaire was designed and piloted in two secondary schools, using a mixed sample of hearing-impaired pupils, pupils with special educational needs and pupils with no diagnosed sensory or developmental disorders. The final version of the questionnaire consisted of three sections (copies of the questionnaire are available from the first author), containing 93 items in total. Section 1 contained questions on pupils' characteristics, including factors that compromise the ability to hear well in the classroom: Whether or not the individual had a HI, whether or not they spoke English as an additional language (EAL), and whether or not they received LS at school. Section 2 consisted of six subscales, each rated on a five point ordinal scale, in the following categories: (i) Ease of hearing in various school spaces common to secondary schools; (ii) sounds and annoyance in the classroom, probing the frequency with which common unwanted sound sources and events were perceived to occur during lessons and the levels of annoyance in response to these sounds (sounds were grouped into three categories: Sounds coming from within the classroom, sounds coming from outside the classroom and intermittent sounds made by machines/technology); (iii) sensitivity to annoyance by noise during learning activities; (iv) situations that made it hard to hear the teacher during lessons; (v) impact of noise on concentration, fatigue and learning; (vi) consequences of noise and poor listening conditions on pupil and teacher behaviour in the classroom. The questionnaire also contained a list of subjects studied and asked pupils to identify which ones were the hardest and the easiest to hear in. Pupils also identified the rooms or school spaces in which it was the hardest and easiest to hear by entering the number or name of the room in an open response field. Having identified individual rooms, pupils selected from a list of room factors (e.g., noise from outside the room) and user factors (teacher/pupil characteristics and behavior) to describe why hearing was hard or easy in that particular room. Lastly, pupils were presented with an open question about any additional positive or negative feelings regarding their school's acoustic environment.

Procedure

The questionnaire was adapted into an online format using SurveyMonkey.com. An electronic link to the questionnaire was then provided to the coordinating teacher and pupils who completed the questions as part of their normal Information and Communication Technology (computing) lessons.

Participants

Schools

We identified schools to potentially participate on two criteria: School building and pupil performance. We aimed to identify schools built before and after the current acoustical guidelines for British schools, known as Building Bulleting 93, were issued in 2003, [10] and schools built after this date. In addition, we aimed to recruit one school in each of the pre- and post-Building Bulletin 93 categories that featured an open-plan classroom design, and one that featured a cellular classroom design. Within in each school category we aimed to target schools that represented low, average or high performing schools as determined by (General Certificate of Secondary Education examination) performance.

Schools that matched the criteria for one of the desired categories for inclusion were identified from a variety of sources: (i) By researchers based on the proximity to the research centres involved in the study (i.e., London, South-East and North-West England); (ii) response to advertisements on electronic teacher fora for schools to participate in other research as part of the Identifying a Sound Environment for Secondary Schools project; (ii) teachers expressing an interest in participating in the research after hearing about the project from colleagues in other schools; (iii) schools that had previously taken part in research carried out by project team-members; (iv) schools that were promoted by the Department for Education, Family and Skills (known since 2010 as the Department for Education) as an example of contemporary school design.

Following an initial telephone enquiry and forwarding of further information to 28 schools, fourteen agreed to participate in the survey and each was sent an electronic link to the questionnaire. Of these, two schools, one in the medium and one in the high-performance categories, returned less than 10 completed questionnaires each, and hence were not included in the final analysis. Six schools returned completed questionnaires from a large enough sample (N > 50) of pupils to be included in the final analysis. The characteristics of the six schools, including the number of pupils from each that completed the questionnaire and each school's exposure to external noise sources, are presented in [Table 1]. Five of the six schools that returned the questionnaire were in the high-performance category. Three schools were of a cellular classroom design; three schools featured a mix of open-plan and cellular classroom designs. The schools were co-educational with the exception of school 4, which was a girls' school.
Table 1: Characteristics of participating schools and number of pupils completing the questionnaire (N)

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Pupils

The questionnaire was returned online by 2588 pupils and the gender and number of pupils in each year group are presented in [Table 2]. The numbers of pupils who reported factors that might compromise hearing and learning in the classroom were: 333 pupils (12.9%) reported receiving LS; 146 pupils (5.6%) reported speaking EAL; 137 pupils (5.3%) reported having a HI. Of these pupils, 96 (3.7%) reported a combination of two or more factors that might compromise hearing and learning in the classroom; 253 (9.8%) reported receiving LS only; 77 (3%) reported EAL only and 67 (2.6%) reported a HI only. Two-thousand and ninety five pupils (81%) reported no factors that might compromise hearing and learning in the classroom.
Table 2: Summary of participants' characteristics

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  Results Top


Performance on questionnaire subscales

[Table 3],[Table 4],[Table 5],[Table 6] and [Table 7] summarize the responses to the questionnaire subscales. Mean responses to the subscale "ease of hearing in school spaces" are displayed in [Table 3] and are ordered in terms of decreasing reported difficulty of hearing, where a high rating indicated that hearing was difficult in the named space. A within subjects, repeated measures ANOVA with school space as the dependent variable revealed that ease of hearing differed statistically significantly across school spaces, F (11, 2332) = 584.12, P < 0.001, 2 = 0.22. Bonferroni corrected post hoc tests confirmed the following statistically significant differences from hardest to easiest to hear: Dining area/canteen > the corridors > the sports hall > the assembly hall > design and technology rooms > the music room/s > the language classrooms (all Ps < 0.001). There were no significant differences in ease of hearing ratings between Information and Communications Technology (ICT) rooms, drama studio, art rooms, tutor/form rooms, science rooms or language classrooms.
Table 3: Mean ratings on the ease of hearing in school spaces subscale (ranked according to mean rating)

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Table 4: Mean ratings on the "Sounds" and "Annoyance" subscales

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Table 5: Mean ratings on the "Sensitivity to Annoyance by Noise during Learning Activities" subscale

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Table 6: Mean ratings on the subscales "Situations in which it is Hard to Hear the Teacher" and "Impact of Noise on Concentration, Fatigue and Learning"

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Table 7: Mean ratings on the "Consequences of Adverse Listening Conditions for Learning and Behavior in the Classroom" subscale

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Responses to the subscale "sounds and annoyance in the classroom" are shown in [Table 4]. The sounds rated as being heard most frequently were those generated by pupils and teachers within the classroom. A repeated measures ANOVA with mean frequency ratings for each type of sound as the dependent variable revealed a statistically significant main effect of type of sound F (2, 4792) = 2718.65, P < 0.001, 2 = 0.53. Bonferroni corrected post hoc tests confirmed statistically significant differences between the frequencies with which the 3 sound types were rated from most heard to least heard: Sound generated in the classroom > sound generated outside the classroom > mechanical sounds (all Ps < 0.001).

Pupils' ratings of annoyance to the sounds heard during lessons did not reflect the frequency with which the sounds were reported to be heard: Sounds from outside the classroom elicited higher ratings of annoyance compared to sounds coming from inside the classroom and mechanical sounds. A repeated measures ANOVA with type of sound as the dependent variable revealed a small but statistically significant effect of type of reported sound annoyance ratings, F (2, 4688) = 95.61, P < 0.001, 2 = 0.04. Bonferroni corrected post-hoc procedures confirmed statistically significant differences between annoyance ratings to types of sound from most annoying to least annoying: Annoyance to sounds from outside the classroom > annoyance to mechanical sounds > annoyance to sounds from inside the classroom (all Ps < 0.001). In summary, sounds coming from within the classroom were rated as occurring most frequently but elicited the lowest annoyance ratings; sounds coming from outside the classroom and mechanical sounds, both of which are intermittent and unpredictable, were rated as occurring with the least frequency and elicited the highest annoyance ratings.

[Table 5] summarizes responses to the "sensitivity to annoyance by noise during learning activities" subscale. There was a statistically significant main effect of type of activity, F (8, 18576) = 398.51, P < 0.001, 2 = 0.17. Bonferroni post-hoc comparisons revealed statistically significant differences between the following activities from most sensitive to noise interference to least sensitive to noise interference: "doing a test or exam" > "reading" > "trying to hear what the teacher is saying" > "trying to hear what another student in my class is saying;" "writing" > "saying something to other students in my classroom" > "painting, drawing or making something" (all Ps < 0.001). Overall, pupils' ratings indicated that noise was experienced as most annoying during those activities requiring intensive processing of verbal information.

Mean responses to the subscale "situations that make it hard to hear the teacher during lessons" are displayed in [Table 6]. There was a statistically significant effect of situation on ratings of how hard it was to hear the teacher, F (5, 11480) = 13.06, P < 0.001, 2 = 0.05. The situations which most interfered with hearing were when "other students are talking in the classroom" and when "other students are making a noise in a nearby classroom." Bonferroni post-hoc tests revealed statistically significant differences between all situations (all Ps < 0.001) except between "my teacher has their back to me" and "other students are making a noise in nearby classroom." Overall, noise made by other pupils - including pupils in other classrooms - was rated as the situation most likely to interfere with being able to hear the teacher.

[Table 6] also displays the responses to the "impact of noise on concentration, fatigue, and learning" subscale, in which pupils rated their agreement with statements describing the subjective effects of adverse listening conditions in a lesson. There was a small but statistically significant effect of type of impact, F (4, 6084) = 174.70, P < 0.001, 2 = 0.05. The highest agreement was given for statements concerning the disruptive effect of noise on concentration and learning. Bonferroni post-hoc procedures confirmed statistically significant differences between agreement ratings for all the effects (all Ps < 0.001) except "I have to work extra hard to do my work" and "I don't learn as much as in a quiet lesson."

Mean ratings for all items on the "consequences of adverse listening conditions on learning and behavior in the classroom" subscale are displayed in [Table 7]. The effect of type of behavior was significant, F (12, 26052) = 616.90, P < 0.001, 2 = 0.22. Bonferroni post-hoc comparisons revealed statistically significant differences in reported frequency from most frequent to least frequent "The teacher tells us that we are making too much noise" > "As soon as one or more students start making a noise, everyone else joins in and it gets noisy very quickly" > "My teacher has to raise their voice" > "I ask another student what the teacher has just said because I didn't hear the first time" > "My teachers have some good ways of getting students to be quiet" > "I ask another student what the teacher has just said because I didn't understand" > "I ask the teacher to repeat what they have just said because I didn't understand the first time" (all Ps < 0.01). All consequences were rated as occurring more frequently than "I find it hard to tell what direction sound is coming from" (all Ps < 0.01). All other differences were non-significant. Overall, the consequences rated as occurring most frequently reflect the interaction between the level of noise created by pupils and the teacher's reaction to the noise. In addition, pupils rated not being able to hear the teacher as occurring frequently during lessons.

Analyses of patterns of responding to the questionnaire subscales have revealed clear differences in the types of sounds that pupils reporting hearing during their lessons and of the situations that disrupt communication, concentration, and learning in the classroom. However, the mean responses to the rating scales did not reveal differential patterns of responding between groups of learners whose needs may make them susceptible to the negative effects of noise and poor school acoustics.

Exploratory factor analysis

In order to examine the validity of the five questionnaire subscales and to identify elements of the questionnaire that accounted for most of the variance in the pupils' responses and thereby compare across groups of pupils and schools, a factor analysis was conducted. Items from all subscales were subjected to a log transformation to correct for skewness and satisfy assumptions of normality, and entered into an exploratory factor analysis with orthogonal (varimax) rotation using IBM SPSS Statistics 20 software.

The factor analysis revealed 13 factors with eigenvalues greater than 1, which in combination explained 61.9% of the variance. The scree plot showed an inflexion point that justified retaining the first four factors, which together accounted for 43.3% of the total variance. A value for factor loadings of 0.40 was used as the cut-off in order to identify items which loaded onto each factor. [22] Thirty seven items loaded onto the first four factors, leaving 39 items that loaded onto factors that were not retained. [Table 8] shows the rotated factor loadings for each item, the amount of variance explained and Cronbach's α for the four retained factors. Values of Cronbach's α for the untransformed subscales were computed separately, indicating high reliability for all four retained factors (all values ≥ 0.90).
Table 8: Factor loadings for exploratory factor analysis with varimax rotation of schools' acoustic
questionnaire scales


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Factor 1 corresponds to "ease of hearing in school spaces" (ease of hearing); Factor 2 corresponds to "sensitivity to annoyance by noise during learning activities" (sensitivity); Factor 3 corresponds to "consequences of noise and poor listening conditions on hearing and understanding during lessons" (consequences); and Factor 4 corresponds to "annoyance to intermittent sounds" (annoyance).

Performance on factors across groups of pupils and schools

Effects of pupils' additional learning needs

The effect of pupils' additional learning needs was examined across the 4 retained factors. Factor ratings were entered as the dependent variable into separate univariate ANOVAs with type of learning need reported by pupils as the between participant factor. All ANOVAs were followed-up with planned contrasts (all reported Ps are 1 tailed).

[Figure 1] shows the ratings of the five groups of pupils grouped according to their reported learning needs: The no additional needs group (NAN), consisting of pupils who did not report any factors that might compromise hearing and learning in the classroom (n = 2095); EAL only group (EAL, n = 77); the LS only group (LS, n = 253); the HI only group (HI, n = 67) and the Multiple Learning Needs group (MLN), consisting of children who reported a combination of two or more additional learning needs (n = 96).
Figure 1: Mean factor ratings according to pupils' learning needs (NAN = No reported additional learning needs; EAL = Pupils reporting speaking English as an additional language; LS = Pupils receiving learning support only; HI = Pupils reporting a hearing impairment; MLN = Pupils reporting multiple learning needs. Error bars represent standard deviations)

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There were significant effects of group across all factors. The effect of group on the ease of hearing ratings was statistically significant, F (4, 2476) = 39.57, P < 001, 2 = 0.06. Planned contrasts revealed that ratings by pupils reporting factors that compromise hearing and learning were significantly higher than those of NAN pupils, t (2476) = 8.45, P < 0.001, d = 0.43, and that the mean ratings of the MLN group were significantly higher than the combined means of the EAL, LS and HI groups, t (2476) = 9.01, P < 0.001, d =0.72 (all Ps one-tailed). The effect of group on sensitivity was small but statistically significant, F (4, 2318) = 6.40, P < 0.001, 2 = 0.01. Planned contrasts revealed significantly higher sensitivity ratings by pupils in the EAL, LS, HI, and MLN groups compared to the NAN group, t (2318) = 3.42, P < 0.001, d = 0.20, and that the ratings of the MLN group were significantly higher than the combined ratings of the EAL, LS and HI groups, t (2318) = 2.9, P < 0.001, d = 0.31. The effect of group on consequences was also significant, F (4, 2252) = 44.34, P < 0.001, 2 = 0.07. Planned contrasts revealed significantly higher consequences ratings in the ESL, LS, HI, and MLN groups compared to the NAN group, t (2252) = 10.24, P < 0.001, d = 0.56, and that ratings in the MLN group were significantly higher than the combined ESL, LS, HI groups, t (2252) = 8.68, P < 0.001, d = 0.79. There was also a small but significant effect of group on annoyance, F (4, 2340) = 16.51, P < 0.001, 2 = 0.03. Again, planned contrasts showed that groups reporting a challenge to hearing gave significantly higher annoyance ratings than the NAN group, t (2340) = 6.3, P < 0.001, d = 0.35, and that the MLN group's ratings were significantly higher than the combined EAL, LS and HI ratings, t (2340) = 6.3, P < 0.001, d = 0.51.

To summarize, there was a significant effect of group on the ease of hearing, sensitivity, consequences, and annoyance ratings. The ratings of pupils who reported no challenges to hearing and learning indicated that they were less affected by the negative effects of noise and poor listening conditions than pupils who reported that they spoke EAL, received LS, were hearing impaired or who reported a combination of these challenges. Across all factors, the ratings of the MLN group were higher than the combined means of the ESL, LS, and HI groups.

Effects of age

Mean factor scores for each school year group are summarized in [Figure 2]. Separate univariate ANOVAs were followed-up with planned contrasts comparing the ratings of pupils in year 7, 8 and 9 (11-13 year olds) with those of pupils in year 9 and 10 (14-16 year olds). There was a statistically significant main effect of school year on two of the factors. The effect of school year on sensitivity was significant, F (4, 2318) = 3.18, P = 0.013, 2 = 0.01. The planned contrast revealed that the ratings of pupils in the older age group were significantly higher than pupils in the younger age group, t (2252) = 3.12, P = 0.002 (two-tailed), d = 0.15. There was also a statistically significant effect of school year on consequences, F (4, 2252) = 3.372, MSE = 40.335, P = 0.009, 2 = 0.01, with the planned contrast revealing that older pupils ratings were significantly higher than younger pupils, t (2252) = 2.32, P = 0.002 (two-tailed), d = 0.11. There were no significant effects of school year on ease of hearing, F (4, 2476) = 0.88, ns, or on annoyance, F (4, 2340) = 0.214, ns. In sum, older pupils were more sensitive to annoyance by noise and felt the consequences of noisy and difficult listening environments more than younger pupils.
Figure 2: Mean factor ratings according to school year (error bars represent standard deviations)

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Effect of school

Mean factor ratings produced by each school are displayed in [Figure 3]. As well as examining the effect of school across the 4 factors, planned contrasts were used to compare responses from pupils in schools that possessed features known to compromise the acoustical conditions within classrooms to those from pupils in schools that did not possess such features. The acoustically compromised schools included those exposed to noise from a main road or railway line and those that featured large or open-plan classroom design (schools 3-6); non-compromised schools were not exposed to any of these potential noise sources (schools 1 and 2).
Figure 3: Mean factor ratings according to school (error bars represent standard deviations)

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There was a statistically significant effect of school on ease of hearing, F (5, 2475) =11.32, P < 0.001, 2 = 0.02. A planned contrast revealed that ease of hearing ratings were significantly lower, that is pupils reported hearing better, in the non-compromised schools compared to the compromised schools, t (2475) =5.39, P < 0.001, d = 0.27. There was also a statistically significant effect of school on sensitivity, F (5, 2317) = 9.50, P < 001, 2 = 0.02, and a planned contrast revealed that ratings were significantly lower in the non-compromised schools compared to the compromised schools, t (2317) = 5.24, P < 0.001, d = 0.28. Similarly, the effect of school on consequences was significant, F (5, 2251) = 14.27, P < 0.001, 2 = 0.31; a planned contrast revealed that ratings were significantly lower in the non-compromised schools compared to the compromised schools, t (2251) = 4.73, P < 0.001, d = 0.26. The effect of school on annoyance ratings was also statistically significant, F (5, 2339) = 11.682, P < 0.001, 2 = 0.02, and again a planned contrast confirmed that ratings were significantly lower in the non-compromised schools compared to the compromised schools, t (2339) = 5.3, P < 0.001, d = 0.27.

In summary, schools that were exposed to additional noise from outside sources such as main roads and railways or internal intrusive noise typical of open-plan school designs (schools 3-6), produced significantly higher ratings on all of the 4 factors compared to schools that were not exposed to these factors (schools 1 and 2).


  General discussion Top


The aim of this study was to investigate adolescents' perceptions of the acoustical quality of their schools. Informed by previous research and by interviews with specialist teachers, a questionnaire was designed to measure secondary school pupils' perceptions of how easy it is to hear in various spaces around their school, the type of sounds they commonly hear during lessons, the incidence with which these sounds occur, and pupils' responses to these sounds in terms of the annoyance and disruption to learning they cause. The questionnaire was completed by a sample of 2588 pupils in six English secondary schools. Factor analysis was used to establish validity and reliability of the questionnaire subscales and to identify performance on the factors ease of hearing, sensitivity, consequences, and annoyance as the most important in characterizing pupils' responses to their acoustic environment. Furthermore, these factors were shown to be useful in differentiating between groups of pupils in terms of their reported challenges to hearing and learning, ages and school build.

In rating the ease of hearing in the various spaces common to secondary schools, no significant differences emerged to suggest that pupils differentiate between the hearing conditions in their regular classrooms: Ratings for art rooms, science classrooms and language classrooms were very similar. The music and design and technology classrooms, both of which feature sound and noise as a part of teaching and learning in that subject, were rated as being significantly harder to hear in than other classrooms. Assembly halls and sports halls, both large spaces in which the speaker is often far away from the listener, were rated as significantly harder to hear in than any of the classrooms. Pupils rated the corridors and the dining area/canteen as being significantly harder to hear in than all other school spaces.

Ratings of the frequency with which sounds were heard during lessons created a valuable profile of pupils' acoustic environment during lessons. Consistent with previous surveys of learners' impressions of the acoustics of their learning environment [11],[13],[16] most pupils rated the sounds coming from inside the classroom, such as pupils talking and moving around, as the most frequently occurring sound heard during lessons. However, pupils' annoyance ratings did not reflect ratings of the frequencies with which sounds occurred. Intrusive sound, such as that coming from outside the classroom and sound made by machines, elicited the highest annoyance ratings despite being rated as occurring less frequently than sounds from inside the classroom. This pattern of responding is consistent with previous research suggesting that the degree of annoyance elicited by a sound is determined more by its unpredictability and intrusiveness than by its level or proximity. [23],[24] Moreover, this finding indicates that disruption of learning by avoidable noise is a common experience in classrooms.

Responses to the subscale "Sensitivity to noise during learning activities" indicated that noise was experienced as most annoying during intensely focused activities requiring a high degree of verbal processing (for example, doing a test or exam, reading or listening to the teacher or another pupil). Interestingly, pupils' responses indicated that they were significantly more sensitive to annoyance while reading than working with numbers. As working with numbers is a feature of a limited number of lessons (mathematics and science), and reading is an activity common to all subjects across the curriculum, the difference in sensitivity rating may reflect the relative incidence of these activities in the classroom. Pupils rated noise made by other pupils "talking in the classroom" and "making a noise in a nearby classroom" as the situations which most interfered with their ability to hear the teacher. This is a cause for concern as responses to the "Sounds and annoyance" subscale indicated that these sounds occur frequently during lessons; a phenomenon reflected in the high mean rating given to the item "My teacher tells us we are making too much noise" on the "Consequences of adverse listening conditions for learning and behaviour in the classroom" subscale. The items that elicited the highest agreement ratings on the "Impact of noise and adverse listening conditions on concentration, fatigue and learning" subscale were "My concentration is easily broken" and "I don't learn as much as in a quiet lesson," a pattern that further emphasised the disruption to teaching and learning occurring as a result of poor acoustical conditions in classrooms. Overall, it appears that the pupils in this sample of secondary schools were well aware of the sounds that characterized their acoustic environment and of the effect that noise and acoustics had on their learning.

The validity of the questionnaire was further established by factor analysis, which proved to be an effective means of identifying the dimensions that best characterize pupils' impressions of their school's acoustics. The main factor identified in the analysis, ease of hearing, has good face validity as a primary indicator of acoustical quality. The second factor, sensitivity, reflects previous research indicating that individual attitudes and the activity engaged in are major determinants of the subjective reaction to noise. [24],[25] The third factor, consequences, reflects pupils' everyday experience of acoustical conditions that disrupt communication and learning during lessons. The validity of the fourth factor, annoyance, consisting of annoyance ratings to items that are intermittent and mechanical in nature, is further enhanced by its consistency with previous research indicating that intermittent sounds are experienced as more annoying [24] and distracting [26],[27] than continuous sounds.

Comparison of performance on the four main factors across different groups of pupils confirmed that pupils receiving LS, pupils with a HI and pupils for whom English is an additional language were differentially more sensitive to the negative effects of poor school acoustics. Particularly striking is the degree to which pupils reporting MLN were significantly more likely to experience the negative effects of noise and poor acoustics than any other group. Moderate effect sizes were evident for both the consequences and the sensitivity factors.

The findings of the present study also indicated that negative effects of noise and poor acoustics were felt more by older pupils than by younger pupils. In the English secondary school system, the national curriculum is organized into blocks of years called "key stages" (KS). The period between the ages of 11 and 14 (years 7, 8 and 9) is referred to as KS3, during which assessment is carried out by teachers. KS4 refers to the period between the ages of 14 and 16 (year 9 and 10) and culminates in national qualifications. Compared to KS3 pupils, KS4 pupils responded that they were more sensitive to annoyance by noise during learning activities such as reading and doing a test or exam, and more likely to experience to the negative consequences of noise in the classroom (such as asking the teacher to repeat what they have just said). In comparison, there were no differences between KS3 and KS4 pupils on the ease of hearing or annoyance factors, suggesting that older pupils' responses were driven by an increase in focused learning activity rather than differences in the acoustical quality of the environments they experienced. This pattern of responding adds further emphasis to the findings of previous studies with questionnaires [13] indicating that learners' motivation and the difficulty of the material being studied were important determinants of their perception of their acoustical environment.

The small number of schools that were included in our final analysis means that only tentative conclusions can be drawn with regard to differences between schools. Nevertheless, responses on the main factors were consistent with the expectation that exposure to features known to compromise acoustical quality impacted on teaching and learning. Pupils in schools that were located near main roads or railway lines (schools 4, 5, and 6) or that had open-plan classrooms (schools 3, 4, and 5), rated their schools as being harder to hear in than those in schools with a cellular classroom design and in locations that were not exposed to external noise sources (schools 1 and 2). Furthermore, pupils in acoustically compromised schools were also more sensitive to the disruptive effects of noise, felt the consequences of noise more in the classroom and were more annoyed by intermittent sound sources than pupils in the quieter schools. Overall, the differences in response patterns between schools indicated that pupils' judgements were reliable indicators of their school's acoustical environment.

A further limitation with the current study relates to the low response rate amongst schools that had initially expressed an interest in taking part in the survey. The final questionnaire was lengthy: Over 90 questions, requiring a significant time commitment from pupils and their teachers. Five out of the six schools that returned adequate numbers of the questionnaire were in the high performance category, raising the possibility of a bias in the characteristics of the pupils who returned completed questionnaires. Nevertheless, the reliability of responding on four main factors was consistent across all pupils who did complete the questionnaire. The consistency of pupils' responses suggests that a shortened form of the questionnaire consisting of these four subscales offers a less time consuming but equally valid means of characterizing pupils' impressions of their school's acoustical environment. Indeed, a shortened form of the questionnaire may prove to be an effective means of broadening participation in the survey amongst schools in the low and medium performance categories.


  Conclusions Top


The questionnaire outlined in this paper has been shown to be a reliable instrument for capturing pupils' perceptions of their acoustic environments and the sound sources that compromise listening and learning. Factor analysis of pupils' responses identified 4 factors that characterize learners' perceptions of their school's acoustic environment: ease of hearing, sensitivity, consequences, and annoyance. These factors differentiated learners of different ages and learning needs, and showed promise as a means of differentiating between schools of contrasting acoustical quality. This finding suggests that a shortened form of the questionnaire, focusing on these 4 factors, would be an effective tool for characterizing pupils' perceptions of their whole school acoustic environment. Extending the research to a larger sample of schools would enable a more detailed analysis of the types of acoustical conditions that impede teaching and learning, and the types of design solutions that are effective in dealing with these problems. As such, a reduced questionnaire promises to provide educational professionals with an effective means of profiling their school's acoustic learning environments and matching them to their learners' needs.


  Acknowledgments Top


This research was carried out as part of the "Identifying a Sound Environment for Secondary Schools" project, funded by the UK Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council. The authors would like to thank all of the schools, teachers, and pupils who participated in this research. Ethical approval for the research was obtained from the Research Ethics Committee, Department of Psychology and Human Development, Institute of Education, University of London.

 
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Correspondence Address:
Daniel M Connolly
Department of Psychology, Faculty of Business, Sport and Enterprise, Southampton Solent University, Southampton, SO14 7NN
United Kingdom
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DOI: 10.4103/1463-1741.113525

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