The way an instructor arranges a classroom can significantly impact students’ learning. The instructor has the ability to maximize engagement by changing the physical setup of chairs, tables, and presentations in the classroom. Instructional communication theory suggests that seating arrangements can impact how the instructors communicate with students and how students interact with one another, impacting engagement, motivation, and focus (McCorskey and McVetta, 1978). More recent research suggests that students tend to prefer more flexible seating arrangements (Harvey and Kenyon, 2013). In particular, students have expressed a preference for classrooms with mobile vs. fixed chairs, and trapezoidal tables with chairs on casters vs. rectangular tables with immobile chairs.
In general, spaces designed in a student-centered manner, focusing on learner construction of knowledge, can support student learning (Rands and Gansemer-Topf, 2017). In reality, however, many classrooms at colleges and universities have been built using more conventional models for lecture and seminar-type courses. Instructors can consider ways to modify seating arrangements and match arrangements with the demands of classroom activities in order to help maximize student learning.
Figure 1: Six options for classroom seating arrangements
The traditional lecture setup typically consists of rows of fixed seating. Students face the instructor with their backs to one another. This classroom seating arrangement is historically common in colleges and universities, minimizing student-student communication and largely supporting a “sage on the stage” learning environment. The highest communication interactions between professors and students typically occurs with students in the first row or along the middle of the classroom. Students in back rows are more likely to be less engaged.
Many seminar-course room arrangements may consist of instructor and students sitting around a single large table. This seating arrangement can also be formed using individual desks. Students and instructors all face one another in this setup, which can support whole-class as well as pair-wise dialogue.
Horseshoe or Semicircle
The horseshoe or semi-circle offers a modified roundtable setup, where all participants face each other while the instructor can move about the room. The horseshoe encourages discussion between students and with the instructor, although this setup tends to encourage more engagement between the instructor and students directly opposite, with slightly lesser amounts for students immediately adjacent to the instructor. A horseshoe setup can be particularly effective when the instructor wishes to project and discuss course-related material in the front of the class.
This seating arrangement involves an inner and outer horseshoe, and similar to the conventional horseshoe, invites greater discussion than the traditional format. It is more limited by the backs of students within the inner circle facing students in the outer circle. However, students may also more easily interact with those nearest to them or turn around and face students behind them for group work.
Pods (Groups, Pairs)
The pod or pair arrangement can be designed with rectangular, circular or trapezoidal tables, or individual desks. With regards to stations, instructors can place several tables together to form student groups (e.g. 3 - 4 students), or pairs. This arrangement can be especially advantageous when students will work in groups or pairs with their classmates for a large portion of class time. More generally, this arrangement communicates a learning community where students are expected to work with one another.
Book a Classroom
Instructors can consider booking spaces at Yale where the furniture setup most aligns with course goals. Specific features and pictures of Yale classrooms can be found at classrooms.yale.edu.
Align Arrangement with Activity
Instructors can consider matching the classroom seating arrangement to the goals of instruction. For instance, classes involving group work might utilize group pods, while whole class discussion might benefit from a horseshoe. Instructors can also strategically change arrangements during class to suit shifting learning goals.
Bolster Arrangement With Engagement
When dynamic change to seating arrangements proves difficult, instructors can bolster the physical space through intentional engagement. For example, in a typical horseshoe arrangement where students along the sides may experience less attention, an instructor may be more deliberate in their interactions with those particular learners. In a traditional classroom setup where the instructor cannot change the seating arrangements, they can maximize student engagement by implementing Think-Pair-Share or other active learning activities conducive to students working with a neighbor. They can also encourage student groups to work in other spaces of the classroom as needed (e.g. on the steps, front of the room, etc.).
Set Up Early
To the extent possible, an instructor can designate time for setting up the classroom and/or can ask students to help. If there is no class immediately before, this can be done prior to class, or alternatively during the first few minutes. Similar consideration should be given to resetting the room after class ends.
Harvey EJ, Kenyon MC. (2013). Classroom Seating Considerations for 21st Century Students and Faculty. Journal of Learning Spaces, 2(1).
McCorskey JC and McVetta RW. (1978). Classroom Seating Arrangements: Instructional Communication Theory Versus Student Preferences. Communication Education, 27, 99-111.
Rands ML and Gansemer-Topf AN. (2017). The Room Itself is Active: How Classroom Design Impacts Student Engagement. Journal of Learning Spaces, 6(1).