Yale Center for Teaching and Learning

Classroom Seating Arrangements

The physical setup of a classroom space is significant. Instructional communication theory suggests that the seating arrangement can impact how the instructor communicates with the students, and how the students interact with one another, both of which can influence learning (McCorskey and McVetta, 1978). More recent work also suggests that students tend to prefer more flexible seating arrangements (Harvey and Kenyon, 2013). In particular, students have been shown to be more partial towards classrooms with mobile vs. fixed chairs, and trapezoidal tables with chairs on casters as opposed to 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). The reality is, however, that many classrooms at colleges and universities have been built using more conventional space models for lecture and seminar-type courses. This resource is designed to help instructors consider their classroom seating arrangements and modify or utilize them to the extent possible to maximize student learning.

Example Seating Arrangements:

Seating Arrangements Chart

  • Traditional - The traditional lecture setup typically consists of rows of fixed seating. The students face the instructor and their backs face one another.  This classroom seating arrangement has been historically common in colleges and universities. This setup minimizes student-student communication and largely places the focus on the dissemination of information by the instructor. 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. 
  • Roundtable - Many seminar-course room arrangements may consist of a single large table with the instructor and students around the table. This seating arrangement can also be formed using individual desks. The 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 encourages discussion between the instructor and students, and the students with one another. In this setup, there is a often higher amount of engagement between the instructor and the students directly opposite, and a medium amount with those students immediately adjacent to the instructor. A horseshoe set up may be used when the instructor is projecting course-related material in the front of the class. In this setting, because there is an opening, the instructor can walk along the horseshoe during instruction.      
  • Double Horseshoe -  This seating arrangement involves an inner and outer horseshoe. Similar to the conventional horseshoe, this setup invites discussion. One limitation is that the backs of the students within the inner circle do face the students in the outer circle. However, students may also more easily interact with those nearest to them or turn around and face the students behind them for group work.  
  • Pods (Groups, Pairs) - For courses where students will work in groups or pairs with their classmates for a large portion of the time, the arrangement of seating into pods can support their learning. This can be done 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.  The arrangement of seating in pods communicates a learning community where students are expected to work with one another. 

Recommendations

  • Book a Classroom - Instructors can consider booking spaces at Yale where the furniture set up most aligns with course goals.  The features of classrooms at Yale and their pictures can be found at: classrooms.yale.edu.
  • Align Arrangement with Activity - Instructors can use the classroom seating arrangement most compatible with the goals of the instruction. For instance, if some classes involve mostly group work, while others whole class discussion, the instructor might consider group pods in the former, and a horseshoe set up in the latter. The beauty of a flexible space is being able to arrange it as desired.
  • Bolster Arrangement With Engagement - As described above, there are limitations to various seating arrangements. Being aware of this from the start, the instructor can still consider strategies that maximize student learning. For example, in a typical horseshoe arrangement where there often is less engagement with students along the sides, 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, in the front of room, etc.). 
  • Set Up Early - To the extent possible an instructor can designate time for setting up the classroom and/or can ask their students to help. If there is not another class immediately before, this can be done prior to class, or alternatively during the first few minutes.  Similar consideration should be given to placing the room back in its proper arrangement after class ends.

References

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).