Comfort in the classroom: how temperature affects learning

When we talk about classroom standards, the mind immediately goes to teaching methods and the content of the lessons within.

Instead, we want to explore the topic of the environment of the classroom itself. And we’re wondering what effect a too hot or too cold learning environment can be shown to have on students.

We’ve done our homework – and we’d like to share our findings with you. Here’s how temperatures affect learning, concentration and productivity in our nurseries, schools and universities.

What is thermal comfort?

The term thermal comfort describes a state of mind, in terms of whether you feel too hot or too cold. Environmental factors (such as humidity and sources of heat) combine with personal factors (such as your clothing) and physical factors (such as activity levels) to influence your thermal comfort.

In its review of thermal comfort, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) is at pains to emphasise the number of factors at play in the experience of thermal comfort.

Yet, temperature is undoubtedly a big hitter here rather than a small part.

And we should look closely at its effects because the HSE goes on to observe that, ‘by managing thermal comfort you can improve morale and productivity. People working in uncomfortably hot and cold environments are more likely to make [poor] decisions and perform tasks [less well]’.

Let’s look at the evidence for this in learning spaces.

The effects of cold and heat on learning

Since the 1950s a number of studies have found that uncomfortable temperatures have a demonstrable negative effect on educational achievements.

(You can review the initial studies of the 1950s and 1960s here – their findings have been correlated by later studies we reference below.)

Time and time again we see different methodologies producing the same results: high and low classroom temperatures can affect students’ abilities to learn and function

Think about it:

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs tells us that when the temperature is too hot or too cold, we won’t be able to meet any higher-level needs (such as self-actualisation and learning).

Instead, our brain will constantly urge our body to do something about our need for thermal comfort. And, as any teacher knows, a constant low-lying level of interruption can have a profound effect on learning outcomes.

Research into temperature and learning or performance

From the Harvard-based National Bureau of Economic Research who compared official PSAT scores of 10 million students between 2001 and 2014. They correlated these to average daily temperatures for each year:

On average, a school year that was hotter by 1°F (0.56°C) correlated to a loss of 1% of a year's learning.

Each additional school day with temperatures above 90°F (32°C) resulted in the loss of one-sixth of 1% of a year's learning, while days over 100°F (38°FC) resulted in the loss of 0.5% of a year’s learning.

In schools with climate control solutions installed, ‘nearly all’ the effects of higher temperatures were offset. In addition, it was calculated that by 2050, rising temperatures due to climate change would have 20 times the negative impact on students learning in schools that weren’t using indoor climate solutions than in schools that did.

Our evidence suggests that heat not only interferes with the physical capabilities of a nation's workforce but also with its cognitive capacities, and most crucially the rate at which valuable skills are accrued over time.’ Associate Professor Joshua Goodman, Harvard Kennedy School

From a recent study by researchers at Cornell where the effects of cold on performance were studied at a large Florida-based insurance company:

When temperatures were low (68°F/20°C) employees made 44% more mistakes than at an optimal room temperature (77°F/25°C).


So, the problem isn’t just that if you are cold you feel uncomfortable. The problem is that when you feel cold you are distracted and will use a substantial amount of your energy to try and keep warm.

This means that a lot less of your energy can be used for concentration, inspiration and focus.

What does this mean for your learning environment?

Although there is no longer a legal minimum or maximum for temperatures in UK schools, the NUT (National Union of Teachers) states that temperatures in school classrooms should be at least 18°C.

Meanwhile, the Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations 1992, which apply to schools as a workplace rather than a learning centre, sets its minimum temperature requirements as 16°C.

There are no legally-prescribed maximum temperatures for school premises (or other workplaces) but the Workplace Regulations do require that steps are taken to achieve a reasonably comfortable temperature.

By and large, then, the law is curiously unforthcoming in regulating temperatures in nurseries, schools and universities. And yet, as we have seen, there is a clear correlation between temperature and educational attainment.

Radiant heating

Radiant heating and cooling offers the most sustainable and cost-effective solution to temperature variance to allow schools to get the best results in the classroom.

Here’s why:

  • Radiant heating ensures an even distribution of heat throughout the classroom.
  • Its heating and cooling effects are immediately noticeable.
  • It operates silently and frees up space in classrooms, thanks to being installed at ceiling height.
  • It does not circulate dust and other pollutants (such as mould, fungi, bacteria and viruses) – something of great benefit to the rising numbers of allergy sufferers in schools.
  • It guarantees thermal comfort thanks to the way it warms the body directly rather than the air – in exactly the same way that sunlight does.
  • It offers cost savings thanks to its energy efficiency
  • Radiant heating systems offer schools a free choice of energy source, including alternative energies, heat pumps, condensing appliance technology or process waste heat.

Radiant ceiling panels do not need to achieve a high indoor air temperature to create a comfortable perceived temperature. This means that there is a lower temperature difference between indoor and outdoor air – and significantly reduced heat loss as a result.

While the heat produced by air heating systems rises, radiant ceiling panels create heat only when the radiant heat comes into contact with people and objects (surfaces). This means you use much less energy to create a comfortable classroom.

In addition, radiant solutions can tackle both the effects of cold and excessive heat – tackling the dual causes of thermal discomfort with one cost-effective solution.

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