High ceilings can harm exam scores: Here’s why

Graphical abstract. Credit: Journal of Environmental Psychology (2024).

Ever wondered why you didn’t do as well as you hoped in that final university exam, despite all your hard work?

If you sat in a huge gymnasium or massive hall, you might have a real reason—high ceilings.

Research from the University of South Australia and Deakin University shows a link between rooms with high ceilings and poorer exam results.

The study, led by Dr. Isabella Bower from the University of South Australia and Associate Professor Jaclyn Broadbent from Deakin University, was published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology.

It reveals that the design of a building affects our ability to perform tasks.

Dr. Bower and her team looked at data from 15,400 undergraduate students between 2011 and 2019 at three campuses of an Australian university. They compared students’ exam results with the ceiling heights of the rooms where the exams were held.

After considering differences between individual students and their previous coursework performance, they found that students scored lower than expected when they took exams in rooms with high ceilings.

The researchers also considered factors like the students’ age, sex, the time of year they took the exam, and whether they had previous exam experience in the courses.

Dr. Bower explains that it’s hard to tell if the lower scores are due to the room’s size or other factors like student density or poor insulation, which can affect temperature and air quality. These elements can impact both the brain and body.

“These spaces are often designed for things other than exams, like gymnasiums, exhibitions, events, and performances,” Dr. Bower says.

“The important point is that large rooms with high ceilings seem to put students at a disadvantage. We need to understand what brain mechanisms are involved and whether this affects all students equally.”

Dr. Bower’s findings are supported by experiments she conducted using virtual reality (VR). In these experiments, she measured brain activity of participants exposed to different room sizes, while controlling for factors like temperature, lighting, and noise.

Using a technique called electroencephalography (EEG), where electrodes are attached to the scalp to measure brain cell communication, her team changed the room sizes and recorded the brain’s response. They also measured heart rate, breathing, and perspiration to see if someone could unconsciously detect a change in the environment.

The VR experiments showed that just sitting in a bigger room caused brain activity linked to focusing on a difficult task. This made them wonder if task performance in large spaces is reduced.

“Based on these results, we wanted to see if being in a large space like a gymnasium while focusing on an important task would result in poorer performance,” Dr. Bower says.

“Exams have been a key part of our education system for over 1,300 years, shaping students’ career paths and lives,” says Assoc Prof Jaclyn Broadbent.

“In Australia, many universities and schools use large indoor spaces for exams to save on logistics and costs. It’s crucial to recognize the potential impact of the physical environment on student performance and make necessary adjustments to ensure all students have an equal opportunity to succeed,” she says.

“These findings will help us better design the buildings where we live and work, so we can perform to the best of our ability.”

Dr. Bower has recently returned from Zurich, where she was the first Australian to receive a NOMIS and Science Young Explorer Award for her ongoing research into how building design affects brain function and mental health.