The most effective classroom layouts

Author: Jo Barwell
Published: 05/07/2022

Classroom layout: why does it matter?

As most of us have experienced, your classroom layout can make a big difference to the way children behave and, therefore, learn. However, there is surprisingly little robust research on the subject. Wannarka and Ruhl conducted a review of all empirical research back in 2008*, but if you're short on time, here's a summary of the research and some anecdotal evidence on the most effective classroom layouts. 

Seating arrangements

While your chosen layout depends very much on the space you have available, teachers tend to organise students' desks in either rows, clusters or in a horseshoe. 

It is probably unsurprising that rows have been found to be the most effective layout for direct instruction. All students can see and hear the teacher and the teacher can see and hear all the students. This means students have fewer opportunities to go off-task and misbehave. However, rows do not allow for much peer-to-peer interaction and so, for tasks that require discussion and brainstorming, seating students in rows is less effective than seating them in clusters. Plus, if students are allowed to choose their own row, those who are less engaged are naturally likely to choose a seat at the back of the room. Furthermore, research from Marx, Furher and Hartig in 2000 suggests that students seated in a horseshoe ask significantly more questions than when seated in rows. 

It seems then, that your seating arrangement depends very much on your own style of teaching, your subject and your intended outcome. What is interesting though, is that all the research suggests that, whichever of the three typical layouts you choose, results are better when the teacher decides who sits where rather than the students themselves. 

The position of the teacher's desk

Again, this depends on the space available and most teachers opt to move around the room anyway, but if you do prefer to be seated, the position of the teacher's desk can be significant. 

The front of the room is the traditional spot for the teacher's desk. It allows you to see the whole room and enables you to keep your screen or notes away from the students if you are doing anything confidential. However, it could be construed as a little old-fashioned and, therefore, authoritarian. 

The back of the room is also a good vantage point and also allows you to keep your screen or notes private. However, if students have their backs to you (depending, of course, on their desk layout!), it could make students feel uncomfortable and more detached from you. 

The middle of the room is an interesting choice (and is likely more 'primary' than 'secondary'). It has the advantage of being right in the middle of the action, making you more approachable (both literally and figuratively). However, it's almost impossible to keep anything confidential and you're also likely to have your back to some students. 

As with student seating, there are pros and cons to each. Whichever you choose, there's no doubt that some time spent moving around the room gives you the advantage of keeping abreast of who is doing what and making you more accessible. How much time you spend on your feet will depend on the task and your stamina! 

*Seating arrangements that promote positive academic and behavioural outcomes: a review of empirical research - Rachel Wannarka and Kathy Ruhl, 2008. 

This article was first published as an e-newsletter in August 2022. 

Jo Barwell

Senior Content Lead