Attention restoration theory postulates that college students spend most of their time doing rigorous activities during the course of their studies that lead to mental fatigue, and that natural or simulated environmental settings are very important in restoring and refreshing the mental condition. The attention fatigue occurs due to the constant directed attention that learning process demands in colleges, making the students experience mental fatigue.
According to Felsten, “university students spend a great deal of time studying, reading course material, completing problem sets or other homework, working on reports and projects, preparing presentations, taking exams, and engaging in other activities that require sustained directed attention” (2009, p.160). The characteristics of mental fatigue due to constant directed attention are loss of attention, poor academic performance, loss learning interests, and ineffective academic efforts amongst other mental experiences.
The attention restorative potential of the environment is relevant in enhancing academic performance of the students in colleges and it depend upon distance from usual activities, the extent of contents, nature of fascination and compatibility with the interests of the students. Therefore, what is the restorative potential of natural and simulated environments to the college students who are mentally fatigue due to sustained academic process?
Since learning process in colleges demand constant directed attention that leads to the mental fatigue, restorative environment is required to enable students perform optimally on their academics.
There is variability on restorative environmental settings across campuses that give varied restorative potential to the students during the course of their studies. Some campuses have well designed structures and landscape that provide best restorative settings while others have poor restorative settings due to squeezed structures and limited landscape.
Moreover, the restorative potential of the natural environment is seasonal because during summer, the environment is very green with many flowers, thus having high restorative potential, while during winter the environment is very dry, trees shade their leaves and flowers are not there, thus having little restorative potential.
According to Felsten, “…a research study in Sweden found that cold summer temperatures limited access to restorative experiences in nature and were associated with increased indices of depression” (2009, p.162). This proved that restorative capacity of the environment is very critical in refreshing minds of the students.
Comparative studies in varied environmental settings have suggested that natural and simulated environmental settings have restorative effects as compared to unnatural settings. Collective research on the attention restoration theory has “…determined that the natural settings actually are more restorative than built and urban settings, whether the settings are experienced directly, viewed through windows, or viewed in pictures” (Felsten, 2009, p.161).
Therefore, simulation of the natural settings in the environment has restorative effect when applied in the classrooms or in the offices that do not have windows to provide window view of the natural settings. Since natural environment depend upon architectural planning of structures and seasonal weather, simulation of environment using murals placed on the walls are effectively restorative because they are independent of seasonal weather and physical planning of the campuses.
The researched obtained 99 students from suburban campus and 137 students from urban campus adding up to 236 participants. Out of these participants, 172 were women while 64 were men with mean age of 23.2 and standard deviation of 6.6 years. The participants used their perceptions to determine the restorative potential of four kinds of environments under research.
The first environmental settings included a window view with natural green grasses and background structures, the second setting had solid and brick wall with no view of nature. The third and the fourth settings contrasted the natural murals with and without water.
Using the four properties that gauge restorative potential of an environment; being away, extent, fascination and compatibility, the students determined perceived restorative potential of each property basing on 7-point scale that range from ‘not at all’ to ‘very much’.
For example, the participants gave the general perception of the restorative potential of the environment by answering the question that, “overall, how much do you agree that this setting would be excellent for taking a break and restoring your ability to study for an exam or work effectively on a demanding project?,” (Felsten, 2009, p.164).
The students completed such and many other questions online, and the results analyzed to give perception regarding restorative potential of simulated and natural environment.
The analysis of the restorative potential basing on the four properties: being away, extent, fascination and compatibility determined the restorative scores of various environmental settings. The research findings showed that the perceived restorative potential of solid and brick wall had least score, followed by simulated natural murals without water and window view of natural environment that had moderate score.
Natural murals with water scored the highest restorative capacity meaning that water have additional restorative ability. “The primary finding was that students perceived views of real or simulated nature to be important to the restorative potential of indoor campus settings” (Felsten, 2009, p.165). The statistical study basing on univariate and multivariate analysis confirmed that the restorative potential was highest in the natural murals and lowest in unnatural structural settings.
Critique of the Article
Given that college students experienced mental fatigue due to taxing educational demands, the objectives of the study was to find out appropriate environments that have effective restorative potential. The study focused on restorative potential of indoor murals, the architectural planning of structures and provision of natural settings in colleges. Students mostly spend great deal of their time in classes with limited access to natural environment that is restorative.
In addition, there is variability of natural environment from one campus to another or from one season to another. Due to this variability, simulated environment in terms of natural murals on the walls of classrooms or offices have proved to have significant restorative potential. According to Felsten, “natural settings were generally rated higher than built and urban environments and these results have held for both real and simulated environments,” (2009, p. 161).
Critically, this study achieved it objectives because the experiment comparatively tested the restorative potential of unnatural, natural, and simulated natural environment, and came up with robust findings that conclusively proved that natural settings have significant restorative effect to mental fatigue.
The research involved comparative study of the natural or simulated environment versus unnatural environment. The students rated that the unnatural environment, which composed of solid and brick wall had least restorative potential while the natural murals that had water rated to have the highest restorative potential. These findings were consistent with earlier findings that had demonstrated that natural environment is very effective in enhancing restoration of mental fatigue.
“Previous work found that viewing nature through windows was restorative, the present results add to the literature by showing that the content of views through windows influenced the perceived restorativeness of the indoor settings from which those views originated” (Felsten, 2009, p. 166). The study did not only confirm the earlier findings but also did demonstrate that simulation of natural environment in classes and offices can effectively have restorative effect as natural environment.
Due to the robust findings, the study recommends on the importance and need of the natural murals in classes, the provision of window view of natural environment, architectural planning of landscape and supplementation of natural environment by natural murals. The study achieved its objectives as it has clearly demonstrated the problem of mental fatigue and outlined appropriate restorative measures.
Although the study had achieved its pertinent objectives, it has several limitations. The virtue of the study lies in its robust findings that have clearly proved the restorative effect of varied environmental settings on college students who frequently suffer mental fatigue.
“The use of college students and campus settings was ecologically appropriate, as the goal was to identify influences of views of nature and simulated nature on college students’ perceptions of the restorative potential of indoor settings on college campuses” (Felsten, 2009, p.166).
Since the research study focused on mental fatigue, which is a critical problem that affects academic performance of students, presented recommendations of the research are plausible because they are practically applicable to all colleges. The use of perceived restorativeness in the study is more subjective as compared to actual restorativeness, hence becomes a shortcoming for the research, and thus questions the validity of the findings.
To improve the study, I would have incorporated parameters that measure the actual restorativeness to supplement the findings of perceived restorativeness in order to enhance validity of the findings. The actual restorativeness gives accurate restorative potential of varied environmental settings of the study.
Given that the study focused on few settings of study, expansion of the settings to include varied environmental settings would give a bigger picture of restorative capacity or may even unravel new findings. Despites the fact that the study proved that natural murals with water have the highest restorative potential as compared with other settings under experiment, inclusion of more environmental settings may prove otherwise. Thus, for the achievement of conclusive findings, varied environmental settings are essential in research design.
The results of the study can have different interpretation due to the influence of social and cultural values in the perception of restorative potential of environment. Perception is a subjective process that depends on social and cultural values attached to complex environmental settings. “Ratings for settings that had no views of nature were somewhat higher than expected, perhaps because these settings were generally used for relaxation or socializing and may have been perceived as compatible for restoration” (Felsten, 2009, p.165).
This means that manmade recreational facilities have significant restorative potential as compared to natural settings. The study has revealed that perception can effectively rate the restorative potential of varied environmental settings, thus is it an important parameter in research studies. Perception has proved to be an invaluable parameter in research because the findings based on it confirmed to be consistent with earlier research studies.
Restorative potential of the environmental settings depend on the uniqueness and components of natural elements. In the view of the fact that college students experience mental fatigue attributed to strenuous learning process, attention restoration theory has postulated that natural or simulated environmental settings have the highest restorative potential. This study employed 236 participants to determine the restorative potential of natural and simulated environment on the college students and came up with robust findings.
The findings demonstrated that natural environment or natural murals are highly effective in restoring and refreshing the minds of the students. Due to this, the research recommends that indoors settings should have natural murals on the walls, while the outdoor settings should have fascinating landscape and that windows should have a wider view of landscape.
Felsten, G. (2009). Where to Take a Study Break on the College Campus: An Attention Restoration Theory Perspective. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 29, 160-167.