Maximizing Student Engagement through Classroom Configuration

Whenever I walk into a classroom to deliver a class or a workshop, I contemplate what I want the students or participants to do, and as such, will I need to reconfigure the classroom space to be conducive for the learning activities I have planned? Do I want to move the classroom furniture around, and if so, how will I situate the desks and chairs? Or, does the default setting (i.e., rows and columns) actually work best for my planned lesson?

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Considering that most institutions require furniture to be put back exactly as it was found, many instructors may not want to take time to move desks around if, in 50 minutes, they have to move them back (tip – get your students to help with this task!). While default layouts can certainly be conducive to learning, there are other seating arrangements that may work better for your classroom context, making that bit of time to move things worth the initial effort.

Many of the classrooms at Langara—if not most institutions in general—are set up in the traditional, lecture style of rows and columns. Students have space on either side, everyone is facing forward, and the instructor is front and centre. The instructor can make eye contact with every student whose attention is focused to the front of the room. On some occasions, this may be the ideal configuration; however, there may be times—particularly when you want students to actively engage with each other—when the default setting simply will not work (Renner, 1992).

Considering the outcomes of your lesson as well as your intended learning activities, adding the classroom configuration to your lesson plan may result in improved student engagement. Not only is it useful to consider the furniture arrangement, but also how often you may move students from seat to seat.

Classroom Set-up Options

While there is a multitude of potential classroom configurations, below are five variations of classroom layout and considerations for each:

Rows & Columns is the traditional classroom set-up, and is the default or standard at Langara College. This configuration is best for teacher-centred instruction; promotes independent learning; is ideal for exams, presentations, and demonstrations; and can be used for a variety of class sizes. It is not, however, conducive to group work or discussion, and some students may be overlooked or ignored based on their seating position.

Horseshoe or U-Shaped classrooms can be good for both teacher-centred and student-centred purposes, it brings forth a sense of one cohesive group, and can be a good way to build rapport among smaller classes. Everyone is seated so they can engage, and it is easy for the instructor to move from student-to-student. As well, the space in the middle can be a useful area for staging presentations and demonstrations. Conversely, some students may feel too ‘exposed’. The desks may create an obstruction if students are required to get up and move around, not to mention that the instructors are often situated on the ‘other side’ of the barrier created by the wall of desks.

Circles are similar to the horseshoe; however, desks are pulled away – removing the physical barrier separating participants, and there is no gap at the top, creating a closed circle whereby the instructor is at the same level of participation as students, leveling the power dynamics. This has been the most common arrangement for my recent experiences as a learner (in several workshops as well as two sessions on Indigenizing the curriculum). This can be an excellent way to create egalitarian group discussion. However, as a circle is a more discussion focused configuration, an obvious drawback is that it is not conducive for note-taking or focusing attention to screens or whiteboards. As well, some students may feel too exposed with desks or tables removed.

Clusters or ‘pods’ are formations whereby students are grouped by fours and distributed around the classroom, encouraging learner-centred instruction. It can be used in all sized classes (divisible by groups of four). This configuration is ideal for skill-building in areas of collaboration, problem-solving, Intercultural communication, etc. As the groups are relatively small, it offers safe spaces for students to share who may otherwise be too reticent to contribute to full-class discussions. However, a major drawback is the difficulty in focusing on the instructor (i.e., front of class) when needed. Some students may be poorly positioned (e.g., with backs turned or necks strained) to focus on screens, presentations, or demonstrations. As well, if the clusters remain static, there is a tendency for the strongest students to take control.

Learning Studios are similar to clusters; however the set-up is more deliberately holistic (Herman Millar, 2008; Rands & Gansemer-Topf, 2017). This configuration extends beyond the placement of desks, and includes a purposeful intention to “decentralize the teacher’s zone” (Herman Millar, 2008). While akin to the clusters described above, learning studios aim to develop teamwork and communication skills, to encourage discussion-based, inquire-based, problem-based, or case-based learning. Learning studios should have tables rather than desks, and adequate technology should be available within each group.

Above are some of the more common seating arrangements you may encounter in a college classroom. There are, of course, several other possibilities. A search of classroom seating resources include such names as the ‘runway’ the ‘stadium’ the ‘fishbowl’ the ‘gallery space’ the ‘roundtable’ the ‘circle’ (Renner, 1992; Schrock, 2018; Sheffield Hallam University, n.d.; Teach Thought Staff, 2018; Yale Center for Teaching and Learning, n.d.).

Seat Selection and Classroom Management

Even when changing around the classroom arrangements, students will most likely sit in the same spot. After all, people are creatures of habit. Some research (Chandra, 2018; Meeks, Knotts, James, Williams, Vassar, & Oakes Wren, 2013) indicates that students’ habits of sitting in the same spot creates a sense of security, and allowing that level of choice can be lead to better academic success. That said, there are times that the instructor need to take control of the room (whether for classroom management purposes, or diversifying the learning experience), and move students around. For some instructors, they might opt to assign specific seats for the duration of the course or change the set up at set intervals. For example, in team-based learning, groups are intentionally set up at the beginning of the semester and maintained for the duration of the term (Team-Based Learning Collaborative, 2018). In my own classroom practice, I tend to move students to a new spot/pair/group at least once during each class. I do this to deliberately get students up and moving, to change their focus, or to encourage students to work with others. There may be also be occasions when a particular group needs to be broken up, or an eye kept on disruptive behaviours. Rather than coming across as a disciplinarian, take the opportunity to move everyone around under the guise encouraging new perspectives and discussion groups within the class. For example, quickly number students off to create new groups; or have them draw cards to find their partner.

In summary, the classroom configuration that we select for our students can have a real impact on the quality of the learning experience. When we ask ourselves what we want our students to do, we should also ask ourselves how we can arrange the classroom to best facilitate our outcomes. In your own classrooms, I invite you to experiment with some of the above-mentioned configurations to find those that work best for your teaching and learning context.

Written by Shawna Williams, Curriculum Consultant in TCDC

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Resources and References for Classroom Configurations

Chandra, S. (2018, August 7). The psychology behind why you always want to sit in the same seat. Quartz. Retrieved from

Earp, J. (2017, March 16). Classroom layout – what does the research say? Teacher. Retrieved from

Effective classroom seating arrangements. (2016, August 25). Retrieved from

Herman Millar. (2008). Rethinking the classroom: Spaces designed for active and engaged learning and teaching. Retrieved from

Meeks, M. D., Knotts, T. L., James, K. D., Williams, F., Vassar, J. A. & Oakes Wren, A. (2013). The impact of seating location and seating type on student performance. Education Sciences, 3, 375-386. doi: 10.3390/educsci3040375

Oliver, S. G. & Kostouros, P. (2014). Desks in rows. Transformative Dialogues: Teaching & Learning Journal, 7(3), 1-12. Retrieved from

Rands, M. L., & Gansemer-Topf, A. M. (2018). The room itself is active: How classroom design impacts student engagement. Education Publications, 49, 25-33. Retrieved from

Renner, P. F. (1992). The instructor’s survival kit: A handbook for teachers of adults. (2nd ed.). Vancouver, BC: Training Associates.

Schrock, K. (2018, July 1). Creative Classroom configurations. Discovery Education. Retrieved from

Sheffield Hallam University. (n.d.). Classroom configurations. In Spaces for learning: Teaching and assessment essentials. Retrieved from

Teach Thought Staff. (2018, November 26). 20 classroom setups that promote thinking. Retrieved from

Team-Based Learning Collaborative. (2018) Overview. Retrieved from

USC Rossier Online. (2015, October 15). The science of classroom design. [Infographic]. Retrieved from

Yale Center for Teaching and Learning. (n.d.). Classroom seating arrangements. Retrieved from