Wednesday, July 3, 2024

High ceilings give low exam results

I suggest Bower, Broadbent, Coussens and Enticott receive an Ig Nobel Prize for their paper "Elevated ceiling heights reduce the cognitive performance of higher-education students during exams". The researchers found the higher the ceiling, the worse students do in exams. This is based on analysis of 15,400  exam results at three Australian campuses over eight years. At first I thought this an April fools day joke, but it seems to be real serious research. The work is deserving of an Ig Noble, recognizing research which has humor, but provokes thought. The key point of the research for me is not that high ceilings disadvantage some students, but that exams do. This can be corrected, I suggest, not by lowering ceilings, but by replacing exams with better assessment techniques.

The research comes at the time when exams should be on their way out. This is  like inventing a more efficient steam engine in the 21st century: an obsolete dangerous technology which no amount of technical improvement can save. Exams cause students stress (I have spent decades avoiding any course which had an exam). That a high ceiling might increase stress is interesting, but I doubt it could be lowered enough to make me comfortable with an exam. I stopped setting exams around the time I stopped giving lectures (2018).

The obvious factor which would cause the effect is the size of the room (bigger rooms having higher ceilings). However, the authors appear to have considered room size as a factor, and controlled for many other possible causes. One not mentioned might be that large rooms may have students from different classes taking tests at the same time, which could make students feel less comfortable.

If this is a real effect it could be easily corrected for by lowering the perceived height of the exam room ceiling. This could be done with lighting.


Bower, I. S., Broadbent, J., Coussens, S., & Enticott, P. G. (2024). Elevated ceiling heights reduce the cognitive performance of higher-education students during exams. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 102367.

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