Hearing in a noisy classroom gets better with training

Feb 12, 2013

New research out of the University of Washington finds hearing-impaired kids can train their ears and brains to hear better in a noisy classroom. Students with limited hearing have an especially tough time making out what someone is saying if, say, kids in the back are whispering, or a classmate has a cough.

A new study tested whether training those kids to listen in a noisy environment could help them get better at it. UW Assistant Professor Jessica Sullivan conducted sessions with 24 kids, using constant white noise, as well as noise interrupted by breaks, which is supposed to replicate aspects of human speech.

“It really sounds very annoying and staticky. They didn’t particularly care for that noise,” Sullivan said.

After seven one-hour sessions, Sullivan and her collaborators tested the kids. They found that with the intermittent noise led to an average 50 percent improvement, and most retained the benefits when they were tested three months later.

“It was better than what I expected, so I ran my stats at least four or five times to make sure that was actually what we found. And it was,” Sullivan said.

She said with most hearing impaired kids now educated alongside their normal-hearing peers, findings like this could help overcome a barrier to learning.

“We kind of forget that, yes, being mainstreamed with normal hearing peers is great, but we also want to make sure that they have the same amount of access,” Sullivan said.

She is at work now trying to see whether this type of training can lead to actual academic gains. The findings are published in the Journal of the Acoustical Society of America.