You’re out of breath from the hike up Janss Steps as you plop into a seat one minute before the lecture begins.
Backpack in arms, caffeine in hand, you tell yourself that it’s important to pay attention, but the classroom appears despondent. It’s dark, you got no sleep, your classmates are distracted and learning isn’t as easy as turning on a switch in your brain.
Midterms at UCLA can leave students feeling insecure about their study habits and students like myself may find themselves struggling to pay attention in class and actively engage with the content if they make it to class at all.
Students often grapple with paying attention in the classroom because they are not taking care of themselves outside of it. Like most life forms on Earth, college students need sufficient sleep, sunlight and stress-management skills in order to perform their best. The good news is that the environment of the classroom can help academic performance.
Students routinely sacrifice their sleep to complete assignments. A Clinical Nutrition study found that over 79% of college students use caffeine to feel more awake, and 31% use it to improve concentration.
Caffeine is not a substitute for sleep, but students habitually use the substance to mask sleep deprivation rather than address the problem of underlying academic stress. According to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, chronic sleep deprivation can contribute to increased attention deficits, distractibility and restlessness. Students who do show up to class may arrive further stressed and distracted.
What can universities do to maximize productivity and facilitate learning for students who are struggling?
At UCLA, undergraduate students are expected to spend anywhere from 50 minutes to a few hours in classrooms on a regular basis. Recent research from the National Alliance on Mental Illness on classroom environments suggests that how students perceive instructor support impacts the way they learn, their motivation levels, their satisfaction and academic achievement.
Fourth-year communication student Kristen Ventura said although she doesn’t expect much from her instructors at a large research institution like UCLA, their support can help boost morale.
“The professor’s attitude sets the whole tone for the class, for the lecture and for the whole quarter,” Ventura said. “So if they’re not enthusiastic about it or if they are just not very engaging lecturers, it makes it even harder to absorb the material.”
Moreover, the physical layout of the lecture hall, including windows for natural light and open space in overcrowded classes allows students to see the instructor and board clearly.
One would hope that universities aim to provide students with learning spaces that are conducive to gaining knowledge, but some of UCLA’s lecture halls are infamously stuffy, overcrowded and distracting. When students are uncomfortable, they might resort to distracting others as well.
First-year molecular biology student Maryeli Garay said her biggest grievance with large classrooms is how people constantly talk over the instructor.
Psychologically, learning environments that can elicit a positive emotional reaction in the student’s mind lead to better learning and comprehension. An EDUCAUSE article found students sense environmental information actively while in class and their ability to process stimuli is limited. Therefore, they must hone in on what occupies their attention.
Lecture halls, such as 4000A in the Mathematical Sciences Building, that have dim lighting, no windows and large class sizes can inhibit maximum learning because students have infinite distractions.
“When there’s light coming in or even if the windows are open and there’s a breeze, I feel like I’m more awake than if I’m in a dark classroom I could fall asleep in easily,” Garay said.
Garay said she likes Haines Hall because its classrooms have spacious seating. Haines A2 is an example of a lecture hall that has a better chance of engaging students because of its large capacity, tall windows and clear view of the instructor. Despite being built in 1929, Haines, Royce and Kaplan Hall have many classrooms that maximize sunlight and comfortably house large class sizes.
If your lecture hall has no hope or windows, consider taking a walk in peak sunlight hours or cutting down on caffeine – the days are getting longer so let’s hope our capacity to learn will grow too.