Fluorescent Lighting, Cell Phones Impair Performance


FluorescentHave you been in a classroom lately? Like many offices, the typical classroom is lit by fluorescent bulbs. Many of us probably know someone at work who prefers the incandescent lamp on their desk to the overhead fluorescents used in most office buildings. In addition, an increasing number of students, especially in high schools, are using cell phones. Recent research by Mark Winterbottom and Arnold Wilkins (published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology) suggests that classroom lighting has a negative effect on school performance. Both incandescent and fluorescent bulbs change in brightness several times per second because of changes in the electrical current that powers them. The change is small for incandescent bulbs, because it takes time for the filament to cool. Fluorescent bulbs vary from 17% to 100% brighness 100 times per second. They found that 80% of the U.K. classrooms they investigated were lit in this way!

Younger people tend to be more sensitive to fluorescent flicker than older people; even when they can't see the flicker, it affects their visual search performance, and it can cause headaches. Some researchers have found that autistic children are particularly sensitive to fluorescent lighting, which has been associated with an increase in repetitive behaviours. Winterbottom and Wilkins surmise that the impact of the flicker on task performance, along with the physical discomfort of headaches, may contribute to negative behaviour in the classroom.

What can be done to reduce the negative effects of the lighting that has been installed in most classrooms? Winterbottom and Wilkins suggest that, if possible, lighting with a lower "colour temperature" should be used. Lower colour temperatures tend to appear more yellow and are sometimes used to promote relaxation. The higher temperature bulbs typically used in classrooms and offices appear more blue. The researchers also suggested the use of control circuits that increase the flicker frequency to make it less perceptible by the students.

Jill Shelton and her colleagues (also in the Journal of Environmental Psychology) investigated the effects of cell phone rings on students. They exposed students to sounds, rings, and songs. All of the sounds were distracting to students, but it took longer to recover from the ringtones and songs. When college students writing a quiz were exposed to ringtones, their accuracy decreased when the sound was played. Obviously, cell phones should not be allowed in the classroom, or they should be set to vibrate!

Add the cell phone factor to the negative impact of poor lighting, and you have classrooms in which students are distracted and have trouble doing well - a good recipe for disruptive behaviour. As we reported last week, U.K. teachers have blamed parents for the increase in negative classroom behaviour, and plan to fine parents who refuse to take parenting courses. Perhaps some consideration should first be given to changing the lighting conditions and reducing other distractions for students.

We'd love to hear your thoughts. Leave a comment!

The British Psychological Society wrote about the lighting article here. You can find the cell phone study here.

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