New research has found a link between the height of ceilings in exam halls and the performance of students, which might sound a bit crazy, but makes more and more sense as you think about it.

While the shape of a room can't compensate for your lack of revision or make you any smarter than you were before, we do know that the environments we're in have an effect on us. That includes our ability to concentrate and work on mental tasks.

The authors of the study, from the University of South Australia and Deakin University in Australia, suggest that big and open rooms, with high ceilings, are making it harder for students to focus on what's in front of them.

A previous study from some of the same researchers, making use of brain mapping technology and virtual reality, had found a relationship between cognitive ability and the perceived size of a person's surroundings. Here, the team wanted to do some real-world testing.

"We were curious to apply our lab findings to a real-world dataset and see if being in a large space like a gymnasium while having to concentrate on an important task would result in a poorer performance," says environmental psychologist Isabella Bower from the University of South Australia.

The study analyzed exam results from 15,400 students over eight years and across three campuses, referencing their scores against what was expected based on the coursework they'd previously submitted.

In exam rooms with elevated ceilings, students tended to underperform compared to those taking exams in rooms with a 'standard' ceiling height, even after accounting for age, gender, time of year, exam subject, and prior exam experience – other factors that could potentially affect the results.

However, what we can't yet be sure about is whether the actual dimensions of the room are having an effect, or whether it's something else related to the environment – like the temperature or humidity inside the space, or even how many other students there are.

"These spaces are often designed for purposes other than examinations, such as gymnasiums, exhibitions, events, and performances," says Bower.

"The key point is that large rooms with high ceilings seem to disadvantage students and we need to understand what brain mechanisms are at play, and whether this affects all students to the same degree."

Those are questions that future research can try to find out. It's clear though that environment matters – and that we might not be giving students the best chance for success by holding exams in rooms that aren't custom-built for the purpose.

"Examinations have been a key part of our education system for over 1,300 years, shaping students' career paths and lives," says educational psychologist Jaclyn Broadbent from Deakin University.

"It's crucial to recognise the potential impact of the physical environment on student performance and make necessary adjustments to ensure all students have an equal opportunity to succeed."

The research has been published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology.