Classroom layout: what does the research say? - Teacher's magazine (2023)

What effect do different classroom seating arrangements have on student engagement? What does your learning space reveal about your teaching philosophy? Should teachers or students decide who sits where? In today's article, we're going to take a look at what the research says.

Learning spaces come in all shapes and sizes, from rectangular classrooms built for 30 students, where you can close the door on the world but still look out the window, to flexible open-plan environments with folding walls, where dozens of students gather. Exteriors, interiors, specific spaces with specialized equipment and multipurpose rooms for use by the entire school.

As a teacher, you generally don't have the opportunity to choose your classroom. However, the sheer number of fixtures and fixtures means there's only so much you can do to change the layout. Of course, once you've organized student desks, standing workstations, ottomans, and other seating options (some educators even throw in exercise balls), you'll likely pay attention to who sits next.

A classroom to support teaching and learning

So how are you going to teach, what will the learning activity be and what do you want to achieve? Forty years ago, the American environmental psychologist Professor Robert Sommer said this about choosing classroom design. The teacher's educational philosophy will be reflected in the layout of the classroom. The teacher must be able to justify the arrangement of desks and chairs based on certain pedagogical objectives. There is no one-size-fits-all classroom design.' (Sommer, 1977)

He goes on to give a few examples: the traditional row and column style with all seats facing forward lends itself to "sit and listen to teaching"; for group work, where students share tasks and cooperate, "group tables are best"; and if you're using equipment that needs some space, like the Cuisenaire rods in math, you'll need long tables.

Do some seating arrangements encourage participation?

A study involving a class of fourth graders in Germany (Marx, Fuhrer & Hartig, 1999) examined whether different seating arrangements caused students to ask more questions. The researchers observed 53 German and math classes over eight weeks, and in all cases, the teacher was in front, sitting at his desk or standing.

They tested two seating arrangements: traditional rows and columns and a semicircle. "Our results showed that questioning was more frequent when children were seated in the semicircular arrangement than in the row-column arrangement," the researchers report. Interestingly, in both arrangements, even in the rows and columns, they found two “action zones”, one in the shape of a T and the other in the shape of a triangle. Children in these zones (those with more central seats) asked more questions per class.

They say the results of their study suggest that arranging seating in a semicircle in elementary school "can lead to equal opportunities for everyone in the class," but caution that when it comes to student engagement, factors such as student personality teacher and teaching style should not be ruled out.

Fernandes, Huang and Rinaldo (2011) say that research has shown that participation and engagement are beneficial for student learning. “Participation in the classroom is associated with the generation and promotion of higher-order thinking skills, and this cognitive stimulation provides students with a different environment that promotes positive and effective learning experiences…”.

Looking at things from a student's point of view.

During a trip to the movies or a sporting event, there's always the chance that you'll arrive at your seat and discover that you have "restricted views". Or (usually five minutes before kickoff) someone with Jonah Lomu's height and physique will sit down... which is right in front of you.

In a classroom, if your desks are in groups, unless you have a very large space to work, it's hard to find a solution where at least one or two students don't have their backs to the blackboard. But, there are other things to consider.

Sommer argues that, far from being a "single, homogeneous cube of space", a classroom is a set of connected microenvironments. “The lighting is much better in one part of the room than another, it's cold through the windows and perhaps too hot from the heating duct. The whiteboard view differs drastically from one part of the room to another, usually due to the brightness of overhead lights.

This tip dates back to the 1970s, but is still relevant today. With BYOD and one-to-one laptops and electronic smart boards, screen glare from lights and overhead windows can be an issue. And there's more Sommer adds: “Some students may have an outside view, some may not. Someone can teach in a room for years without realizing that students in one quadrant of the room will have difficulty seeing the board or graphics. There may also be a physical barrier between students in the back and parts of the blackboard, such as a tall student at reception.”

When was the last time you saw things from a student's perspective? Did they put themselves in your shoes (or in your shoes, in this case) or even check with everyone that they can see and hear correctly?

Decide who sits where

In primary settings, it is often the teacher who decides where students sit. In high school, where you're not in the classroom most or all of the day, some teachers are happy to let students choose a chair at the beginning of each class.

Fernandes, Huang & Rinaldo (2011) say that it would be good for students if the learning activity dictated the seat. On the subject of giving free choice of seats, they point out that the learning experience for students is different for those at the front than those at the back of the room. And leaving it open for students to decide means that some will have a better choice than others. 'Students entering the classroom first may be in a position to select desirable seats first; therefore, those who can't get there first may be left with seats they don't want...'

As a teacher, if you are deciding who sits where, there can be many reasons for your choices. It could be about a group assignment involving specific students, it could be about skills (e.g., grouping similar skills together or setting up discussion boards to build peer support), or it could be about behavior management (e.g., putting space between certain students). . , or bring some closer to your own table).

A recent study in the Netherlands explored not only different types of seating in primary schools, but also teachers' considerations when deciding who sits where (Gremmen, van den Berg, Segers, & Cillessen, 2016).

“At the beginning of the school year, as part of classroom management, teachers are faced with the question of how and where to seat their students. This is an important decision, as the arrangement of the seats in the classroom influences the classroom environment and the relationships between students...”, they point out.

‘[Teachers] determine who students sit with, who they are exposed to, and who they interact with during the school day. Unfortunately, this aspect of classroom management is rarely addressed in teacher education, despite the fact that the physical design of the classroom has been shown to be important for both the academic and social development of students.

When asked about choosing certain classroom arrangements, the 50 teachers in the study cited between two and 19 reasons: Most of them were academic (31 percent), but 17 percent of the reasons were related to classroom management . Nearly half of the teachers in the study (48%) chose to divide students into small groups, with 40% choosing rows and 12% choosing a different arrangement.

The researchers found: "The most cited reason for small groups was cooperation among students, while teachers who chose the ranks did so to create a calm atmosphere in which students could work well academically." Interestingly, more teachers (70 percent) preferred small groups, but they did not always opt for this arrangement, particularly at the beginning of the year. "Teachers mentioned that they start with rows at the beginning of the school year so that students can focus and try to work with groups later in the year."

Which brings us back to Sommer's suggestion to choose something that works for you and your students, in your context, at that particular time.


Fernandes, A.C., Huang, J. and Rinaldo, V. (2011). Does it really matter where a student sits? The impact of seating arrangements on student learning in the classroom.International Journal of Applied Educational Studies, 10(1), 66-77.

Gremmen MC, van den Berg YH, Segers E, & Cillessen AH. (2016). Considerations of classroom seating arrangements and the role of teacher characteristics and beliefs.Social Psychology of Education, 19(4), 749-774.

Marx, A., Führer, U. and Hartig, T. (1999). Effects of classroom seating arrangements on children's questions.Investigation of learning environments, 2(3), 249-263.

Sommer, R. (1977). Classroom layout.From theory to practice, 16(3), 174-175.

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