How does light affect learning?

relationship between light and learning

Click to view. Photo Credit: Phillips

Back in 2013 when an international ranking of OECD countries was released, the findings showed some disturbing trends in our education system. The Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA now suggests math scores have fallen ‘below average’, and the U.S. currently has an overall ranking of 17 among the 34 OECD countries.

Many were surprised at the news given that the U.S. spends more money per student than almost any other country. In the states, each student produces a bill that is roughly $115K per pupil, yet the school systems are significantly outpaced by Asian countries like China, Taiwan, South Korea, and Japan as well as European regions such as Switzerland and Lichtenstein.

As we consider ways to bolster our student’s competitive edge in an increasingly international environment, perhaps we need to think through where and how we’re spending our money. The following experiments suggest an investment in good lighting could be a great start to help students better-perform in their studies.

For example, a few years ago Philips and the University of Mississippi experimented with dynamic lighting to test its potential to improve student productivity by improving their mood.

In the study, 84 students at the Saltillo Elementary School in Saltillo, Mississippi carried out their lessons in four different classrooms, each of which contained either a standard or dynamic lighting system. In the end, students who completed their work in the classrooms with a dynamic light setting showed a 33% increase in their overall performance.

The study was modeled after a year-long experiment in Hamburg, Germany which yielded similar results.

With the Philips SchoolVision system, teachers across the pond had the choice of four distinct light settings which corresponded to various times of day and activities. Marked benefits such as improved attention spans, increased concentration and the less behavioral disruptions were all noted with the use of dynamic lighting conditions. As a function of their improved performance, pupils began reading at speeds more than 35% faster than at the start of the year. Their frequency of errors also fell by nearly 45% as did restlessness which was reduced by an impressive 75%.

So how did the light settings keep the children so focused and alert?

It appears that with the four dynamic settings, teachers were able to mimic the natural daylight patterns human bodies respond to. The most effective options, according to Phillips are:


Which uses a standard brightness and color tone that is most useful during a normal lesson.


Concentration during testing time was increased with the highest light intensity coupled with a cool color tone.


Pairing a slightly less high intensity level with a much cooler color tone helped the children remain alert during mornings and after lunch.


With standard brightness and intensity, along with a warm color tone, teachers were effectively able help calm hyperactive students after recess.

In the end, by replacing outdated lighting systems with dynamic light sources, we have an opportunity to significantly facilitate our student’s natural capabilities. Doing so would also result in energy savings of up to 57%, making that $115K per student go a lot further with substantial return.