What the research says: setting up your classroom

​​​What effect do different classroom seating arrangements have on student participation? What does your learning space reveal about your teaching philosophy? Should teachers or students decide who sits where? Teacher magazine editor Jo Earp takes a look at what the research says.

A classroom to suppo​​​​​rt teaching and learning

How are you going to teach, what will the learning activity be and what do you want to achieve? Forty years ago, US environmental psychologist Professor Robert Sommer had this to say: 'The teacher's educational philosophy will be reflected in the layout of the classroom. The teacher should be able to justify the arrangement of desks and chairs on the basis of certain educational goals. There is no ideal classroom layout for all activities.' (Sommer, 1977)

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

Do certain seating arrangements en​​courage participation?

A study involving a class of fourth graders in Germany (Marx, Fuhrer & Hartig, 1999) looked at whether different seating arrangements led to students asking more questions.

'Our results showed that question-asking was more frequent when the children were seated in the semicircular arrangement than in the row-and-column arrangement,' the researchers report. Interestingly, in both arrangements, even the rows and columns, they found two 'action zones' – one shaped like a T and the other like a triangle. Children in these zones (those with a more central seating location) asked more questions per lesson.

They say the results of their study suggest arranging seatin​g in a semicircle in primary school 'could lead to equal opportunities for everyone in the class' but caution that, when it comes to student participation, factors such as teacher personality and their teaching style shouldn't be ruled out.

Looking at things from a student pe​​rspective

Sommer argues that, far from being a 'single homogeneous space cube' a classroom is lots of connected micro-environments. 'The lighting is much better in one part of the room than elsewhere, it is cold over by the windows, and perhaps too warm by the heating vent. The view of the blackboard differs dramatically from one part of the room to another often because of a glare from the ceiling lights.'

This advice is still relevant today. With Bring your own device programs (BYOD) and smartboards, screen glare can be a problem. Sommer adds: 'A few students may have an outside view, others don't. Someone may be teaching in a room for years without realising the students in a quadrant of the room will have difficulty seeing the blackboard or charts. There may also be a physical barrier between students in the rear and portions of the blackboard, such as a tall student in a front desk.'

When was the last time you looked at things from a student perspective? Have you put yourselves in their shoes (or seat, in this case) or even checked with everyone if they can see and hear properly?

Deciding who si​ts where

Fernandes, Huang & Rinaldo (2011) say it would be good for students if the learning activity dictated the seating. On t​he topic of giving a free choice of seats, they point out the learning experience for students is different for those at the front than for those nearer the back of the room. Throwing it open to students to decide means some will get a better pick than others.

As a teacher, if you're deciding who sits where there can be lots of reasons for your choices. It could be about a group task involving specific students, it could be about ability (for example, grouping similar abilities or setting up cluster tables to encourage peer support), or it could be about behaviour management.

A recent study in the Netherlands explored the different types of seating arrangements in elementary schools, and the teachers' considerations for deciding who sits where (Gremmen, van den Berg, Segers, & Cillessen, 2016).

When asked about opting for certain classroom arrangements, the 50 teachers mentioned between two and 19 reasons – most of them were academic (31 per cent) but 17 per cent were related to classroom management. Almost half of the teachers in the study (48 per cent), chose to divide students into small groups, 40 per cent chose rows and 12 per cent chose a different arrangement.

The researchers found: 'The most frequently mentioned reason for small groups was cooperation between students, whereas teachers who chose rows did so to create a quiet atmosphere in which students can work well academically.' Interest​ingly, more teachers (70 per cent) actually preferred small groups but they didn't always opt for that arrangement, particularly at the start of the year. 'Teachers mentioned they start with rows in the beginning of the school year to get students to concentrate 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 point in time.

References and additional reading

  • Fernandes, A. C., Huang, J., & Rinaldo, V. (2011). Does where a student sits really matter? The impact of seating locations on student classroom learning. International Journal of Applied Educational Studies, 10(1), 66-77.
  • Gremmen, M. C., van den Berg, Y. H., Segers, E., & Cillessen, A. H. (2016). Considerations for classroom seating arrangements and the role of teacher characteristics and beliefs. Social Psychology of Education, 19(4), 749-774.
  • Marx, A., Fuhrer, U., & Hartig, T. (1999). Effects of classroom seating arrangements on children's question-asking. Learning Environments Research, 2(3), 249-263.
  • Sommer, R. (1977). Classroom layout. Theory into Practice, 16(3), 174-175.

This is an edited version of an article that first appeared in Teacher, published by the Australian Council for Educational Research. Reproduced with kin​​d permission.
To read the full article, see: teachermagazine.com.au​