The way you should set up your desk arrangements and classroom layouts matters. It sets the scene and mood for your classroom.
Your desk layout reveals what sort of learning you want to occur in the classroom, such as:
- social learning or individual learning?
- Student-centered or teacher-centered learning?
There isn’t a best classroom design. Each classroom seating plan has different pros and cons.
So, this article provides a description of each major classroom layout theory and an explanation of how each desk layout connects to learning theory.
Feel free to navigate to your layout of choice using the menu below or scroll down to browse. I’ve provided classroom diagrams (images) for each layout below:
Okay, let’s get started!
1. Table Groups Layout
The classroom layout with tables which form groups is common in early years and elementary / primary school classrooms.
This is also my ideal classroom layout for my approach to teaching.
This format tends to fade away as students get older and teaching styles move away from play-based and hands-on learning.
Nonetheless, this format is one of the most popular contemporary class layouts and is commonly seen across age groups, including in college seminar classes.
Interactive hands-on lessons. Table groups encourage social interaction. This makes them ideal for group work and project-based learning. Modifications are also common in universal design for learning setups.
Managing student behavior. If you struggle controlling the flow and behavior of your students, consider using another table layout until you can trust your class to move into this more free flowing classroom layout.
Theoretical Connection: Socio-Cultural / Social Constructivist Theory
Teachers who consider themselves sociocultural theorists tend to prefer these classrooms. Sociocultural learning theory highlights that social interaction is integral for learning development. By talking through the content in groups, students get to hear other people’s perspectives. This helps students to improve their own understanding of the content.
Pros and Cons of the Table Groups Layout
|Social interaction is encouraged, making these classrooms ideal for helping children learn from each other.
|It is hard to find a way to get all student looking directly at the teacher. Teacher-led activities or teacher modelling at the beginning of a less are therefore awkward to operate.
|Lessons tend to be dynamic and very engaging. Consider this format with a class that is reluctant to speak up. In college classes, this is a great format to ‘break the ice’.
|Because students are looking directly at one another, lessons tend to be very noisy and therefore hard to manage.
|Classroom management can be underpinned by ‘table group’ reward systems. Get table groups to race to tidy up after lessons in order to win rewards as a group. Allow students to come up with a name for their table team.
|Personality clashes among students on the same table are amplified as students are often looking directly at one another.
|Differentiation can be easily achieved. Sort your students by ability levels and differentiate the lessons by each table. Alternatively, consider mixing ability levels so the stronger students can ‘teach’ their struggling peers.
|One distracted student can quickly distract their peers. Beware of where you place your biggest misbehavers, ensuring they are teamed up with diligent students who will not be peer pressured into playing up.
|Resource sharing is made easy. Simply develop one resource pack per table. Given the emphasis on social interaction, you can create less printouts and nominate one person per table to read out activities to the other students.
|This is not the most economical format. If your classroom space is small, you may find students have very little space between themselves and the table behind them.
2. Table Rows Layout
Table rows are a traditional classroom layout style designed for teacher-centered instruction. Still common in high schools and exam halls, this format emphasizes individualistic working conditions and maximum teacher control. Students have clear views of the front of the classroom which is beneficial for teacher instruction.
Individual student work and exams. Students face forward, keeping their concentration on their work on their desk, the board at the front of the room, and the teacher standing at the front.
This layout is also ideal for formal teacher-centered lessons in high school classrooms. Students all face directly to the front where the teacher stands.
Social learning. It appears a deliberate design feature of this layout that students do not have shared desk space and have no peers directly facing them.
Keep where you stand in mind. Aim to stand in the front, middle only when seeking students’ attention. Students will learn to go quiet and stop their work when you walk towards your regular ‘teaching spot’.
Use the think-pair-share method when trying to get students to socially interact. There aren’t too many other options.
Theoretical Connection: Behaviorism
This classroom is popular amongst behaviorist teachers who prefer teacher-centered environments. The students observe a teacher modelling content out the front before attempting the tasks in solitude at their desks.
Pros and Cons of the Table Rows Layout
|Teachers are able to exert control in these environments. Students are restricted from interacting with one another and always have their faces to the teacher.
|Social learning is very difficult. If you have lessons that are designed for social interaction, students are limited to talking with the student to their side.
|Lessons that rely on videos projected on the front board will work well in this environment as all students should have a clear view of the front wall.
|Resource sharing is difficult. The best option would be to have two students share the one resource. Compare this to table groups where you could have 6 to 8 students sharing resources in the center of the table.
Workstations are a very popular classroom layout today. They are closely associated with the ‘open learning spaces’ trend that has taken hold in the past decade.
Workstation classroom layouts are very flexible, loose, free-flowing environments, but have the in-built design intention for students to be working at different tasks depending on the station they are working at.
Project-based discovery learning. As each workstation has a different shape and structure, you can create projects with a variety of different foci that revolve around the day’s theme.
Personal space. Students generally don’t get a permanent personal workspace in workstation environments. Some students who desire personal private space will struggle in this environment. In particular, I have had students with autism struggle in these spaces.
Set up strict guidelines around when students should stop to pay attention to the teacher. Practice with your class having them immediately stop and give your attention after a cue such as ringing a bell or a clapping sequence.
Theoretical Connection: Constructivism
Constructivism in the classroom emphasizes discovery learning, project-based tasks and exploration for learning. For constructivists like Jean Piaget, the most important task a student can engage in is hands-on experimentation. With workstations, students can do plenty of experimentation and exploration on a variety of tasks throughout the day.
Pros and Cons of the Workstations Layout
|Great for promoting social interactions. The workstations in this classroom layout tend to be sociable table spaces which encourage students to talk about their tasks.
|Requires a lot of preparation. As this classroom layout has many different types of workstations that lend themselves to different activities, you’ll find yourself preparing multiple mini-lessons for each session.
|Can cause stress for shy students. I have found that introverted students will often try to find somewhere to hide that is quiet for them to do their work in peace in these environments.
|Noisy and very busy. If you have ever been in an open learning environment, you’ll know what I mean! Students work in groups on different tasks, leading to noisy spaces.
|Encourages creativity. The project-based premise behind open learning spaces encourages students to think laterally to work on their own projects rather than relying on teacher-centered instruction.
|Best with multiple teachers. As you will have students working at several different workstations at once, I often feel the need for more teachers or assistants in the classroom to help me cover all my bases.
|Prepares students for life. Real life and careers often involve self-led projects much like the sorts of projects that tend to occur in workstation style environments.
|Difficult to help prepare students for tests. I did some research in an open learning space and the teachers all told me: their students struggle in traditional test environments because they’re not used to it!
4. Horseshoe Desks
Horseshoe desks are common in university seminars, although are seen in just about any classroom format.
The key characteristic of this design is that the students never have their backs to one another and all students have a clear unimpeded view of the central ‘stage’ area of the classroom.
Large group discussions. Students can see one another when speaking up, encouraging face-to-face dialogue. This makes the horseshoe the ideal college classroom layout (especially for college seminars).
Also very good for guided practice which involves a lot of presentation and modelling from the teacher before students get to have a go themselves.
I have found that students can be intimidated about speaking up in this environment. With shy groups, I prefer to pair them off in table groups to give students the courage to speak up in smaller group discussions.
An add-on to this format is the ‘butterfly’ layout, where additional desks are placed in the open space in the middle of the classroom if you need to fit more students in.
Theoretical Connection: Bandura’s Social Learning Theory
The great open space in the middle of the classroom gives all students a front-row seat for observing what’s going on. Observational learning (as promoted by Bandura) is therefore ideal in this situation.
Pros and Cons of the Horseshoe Desk Layout
|Open presentation space. The space in the middle of the room is prime learning and teaching real estate. Make the most of the open space for modelling scientific experiments and having students give presentations.
|This layout takes up a lot of space. The trade-off for having a nice wide-open space in the middle is that you may not be able to fit many student work desks into this space.
|The teacher has great access to all students’ desks via the open space in the middle. Walk around the central space to keep an eye on all students’ work.
|Noise. Students’ voices carry in this classroom space as all students speak towards the middle of the room.
|This space is great for large group discussions as all students are facing one another.
|This space is not conducive to small group discussions. The best bet is to get students to move their chairs to the middle space to form smaller groups in the copious open area opened up by this format.
|The teacher has a good view of all students which prevents excessive misbehavior.
|The lack of gaps between tables means students take a long time to walk around the space to get to their seats.
5. Double-U Horseshoe Variation
The double-U variation of the horseshoe layout includes two rows in a horseshoe table layout.
This variation is commonly used in large classes where students cannot fit in just one horseshoe shape.
It can reflect an amphitheater model where everyone is looking at one focal action point at the front middle of the classroom.
Double-U classrooms layouts retain some of the benefits of horseshoe models. All students face forward at the front of the classroom allowing all students clear vision of the front of the classroom.
However, there is less space in the middle than in the traditional horseshoe model, meaning there is less free room for presentations, modeling and active learning.
The Double-U method is best for a teacher-centered passive learning classrooms. Students are all facing directly at a singular ‘action zone’ in the front center of the classroom.
Guest speakers giving a lecture would be able to use this layout to talk to students and, potentially, keep the attention and eyes of all students.
It is also a good layout for show-and-tell sessions where students can show-off the props they bring into class. The props can be passed down the line of the horseshoes.
Small classrooms. This setup is not space efficient and may not be possible in a smaller classroom with minimal space.
Active learning. There is not much open space for students to engage in active learning on the floor of the classroom.
Group involvement. It is hard to work in both small and large groups in this layout because students have their backs to one another.
Consider placing taller students in the back row. This enables taller students to still have a clear view of the front by looking over the heads of shorter students in the inner horseshoe.
Theoretical Connection: Teacher-Centered Classroom
A traditional teacher-centered classroom classroom, such as in a lecture theater, has this sort of layout.
Pros and Cons of the Double-U Horseshoe Variation
|Teachers can keep the attention of students who are all facing the ‘action zone’ at the front of the classroom.
|Lack of open working space
|Lessons involving powerpoint slides, videos and demonstrations on the board at the front of the classroom work well with this method.
|Inner areas of the class (the inside horseshoe) may be inaccessible for students in wheelchairs. Consider classroom inclusivity.
|Difficult students can be separated in their seating. This can help improve classroom management.
|Students have to walk a long way around the desks to get access to some areas of the classroom.
6. Circle or ‘O-shape’ Layout
The O-shape layout has the desks in a complete closed circle so all students are facing one another.
It is an uncommon desk layout for classrooms, but can be good for science demonstrations and student-curated performances in the middle space.
The open space in the middle of the desks is clearly the focal point or ‘action zone’ in this sort of space.
Whole-class discussions. Students are all facing one another, enabling discussion across the classroom. This discussion format is great for democratic style engaged learning spaces where there is no one person at the ‘head of the discussion.
The teacher can also stand in the middle of the circle and very easily move from student-to-student or give science demonstrations.
Mobility. Make sure you have flexible and movable furniture such as desks on rolling wheels for this layout. Students are constantly wanting access to the middle area, requiring a desk to be pulled away to provide access.
It is also possible to use this layout for computer-connected classrooms. As all desks are attached, wires can be fed under the desks to prevent dangerous wires blocking walkways.
As there aren’t rows of tables, students also cannot see too many other students’ computer screens in this format which may minimize distractions and lead to more effective learning.
Theoretical Connection: Progressive Democratic Education
The circle or ‘o-shaped classroom’ can facilitate democratic discussion because all students are an equal distance from one another and facing each other. There is no head of the table meaning power is evenly distributed.
Pros and Cons of a Circle-Shaped Layout
|Power is distributed around the classroom evenly as all students are facing each other in a circle.
|Access to the center of the classroom (the ‘action zone’) can be difficult. You’ll find students climbing over and under desks a lot.
|There is a lot of floor space in the middle of the classroom that can be used for science demonstrations, etc.
|The person demonstrating in the middle of the classroom will always have their back to someone.
7. Class Conference
The class conference layout brings all desks in the room together to create one large, long ‘conference table’.
This sort of table is very common in professional workplaces where groups of board members get together to discuss big picture issues.
Harness this layout to model real-world conference situations.
Big picture discussions. Students get together as a group of equals to discuss ‘big picture issues’ as if they are the decision-makers at a conference board.
This layout can also be excellent for sharing resources. There is ample space in the middle of the conference table for resources to be pooled. Students can take resources from the middle as they need.
Small children. Sometimes smaller children find it hard to communicate across large desks. Similarly, they may not be able to reach the resources in the middle of the table.
A modelled teaching or teacher-centered teaching style may not suit this layout. Students are not all facing in the same direction making it hard to attract their attention.
Be conscious of space. I have tried this layout with larger classes and haven’t been able to fit all students at the group desk.
Theoretical Connection: Authentic learning and democratic theories of learning and teaching
While there are issues with the idea of ‘authentic learning’, the basic idea is to have students learn in ways that mimic real life. Getting students to pretend they are a board of directors can have them mock real-life workforce situations.
With all students facing one another, it is easy to facilitate discussions in this space. Have students face one another, chat, and share resources at the conference table.
Pros and Cons of a Class Conference Desk Layout
|Facilitates discussion and engaged learning in social situations.
|Chatty students may struggle to balance talking with their peers as well as focusing on work.
|Mimics boardrooms to prepare students for the workplace.
|Not the most space efficient layout – you may struggle with large classes.
8. Rows and Columns
The rows and columns classroom is a very traditional layout that was near universal up until the mid-20th Century.
This layout is designed to separate all students as much as possible so they cannot see or communicate with one another. It may help facilitate engaged learning as distractions are minimized.
While considered outdated to many, all students still come across it at some point in their schooling. An exam situation is the most common situation in which this layout is used.
Exams. Students find it very hard to communicate with one another and cannot look at each other’s work. This helps ensure students work in isolation and do not cheat.
Social learning. It is almost universally accepted that social interaction helps stimulate learning. This type of classroom setup is specifically designed to discourage social learning.
The only time I would use this layout within my own classroom is to give students exposure to this layout for upcoming standardized tests. If students are only ever exposed to active learning spaces, they may be blindsided when they walk into a quiet exam space with a columns and rows format. So, I would use this layout simply so students are aware of what to expect when entering an exam room.
Theoretical Connection: Behaviorist theory of teaching and learning
This layout is a textbook example of a behaviorist approach, whereby the teacher delivers ‘truths’ to students and the students practice what is taught in isolation.
Pros and Cons of the Rows and Columns Layout
|Distractions are minimized to encourage engaged learning.
|Students cannot learn from their peers, seek clarification from each other, or share ideas to learn together.
|Students are unlikely to cheat or chat with their peers.
|Learning only takes place in isolation.
|Teacher has very strong control over the class. It’s good for strict behavior management.
|Students will learn to resent the teacher’s forced control environment.
9. Pair Up
This layout is very flexible for educators. Some teachers may want ask students to be silent and work along, mimicking a rows and columns format (see above).
However, this format also allows students to work with one peer to discuss their ideas and share resources.
Think-pair-share activities. The think-pair-share method involves getting students to work in isolation, then as a pair, then as a whole class.
Pair-up activities feel very natural in this situation. The tables in this format are designed for students to sit alongside one other student.
Free floor space. I often find it hard to free up room for free floor space in this layout. The desks tend to take up most of the area of the classroom, minimizing options for moving students to the floor for non-desk related activities.
Make the most of pairing up students to encourage engaged learning. Consider pairing weaker students with stronger students or pairing students into learning styles to differentiate lessons based on pairs.
To create groups of four, have students turn around and work with the pair behind them.
Pros and Cons of the Pair Up Approach
|Teacher can control students in this layout well to encourage either individual or paired-up activities.
|It’s harder to get students into groups larger than 2 in this layout.
|Students are all facing the same direction making it easy to do front-of-class presentations and modeled teaching.
|There tends to be not much floor space when this layout is used.
10. Perpendicular Runway
The perpendicular runway classroom has two rows of students facing one another.
It is a method that is uncommon but can be useful for when you want to divide the class into two distinct and equal groups.
Debates. Get the students into ‘Team A’ and ‘Team B’. Have the students come up with ideas for their side of the debate then return to their desks. Zig-zag down the rows asking each student to present a thought defending their side of the debate.
Presentations. The long rows both look out over a ‘runway’ of free, open space for presentations. Have students use the free space in the middle of the class to present their content or have guests give their presentations in the middle space.
Teacher support. I’ve found this layout very easy for the teacher to access every student’s desk space quickly to provide tailored support.
Mobility. The long rows mean students are often tripping over each other’s chairs when trying to get in and out of their space. Consider the needs of children with mobility issues and physical disabilities when designing this space.
Pros and Cons of the Perpendicular Runway
|Lots of open space in the middle to use as an ‘action zone’ such as for presentations.
|If students need to look at the board at the front of the class, students toward the front of the class have a bad viewing angle.
|Students are split into two groups where debates can take place or where you can differentiate content between two groups.
|Mobility can be difficult for students wanting to get in and out of their spots.
|Students at the far end of one row will find it hard to communicate with students at the other far end of the row.
The stadium method pivots all student desks so they’re directly facing the ‘action zone’ in the front middle of the class. The pivot of the desks gives all students a good view of the front of the class.
Watching videos and presentations. Teachers who love to use videos in their teaching might consider this method. Similarly, if you commonly have students give front-of-class presentations, this might be a good environment for you.
Computer and laptop use. If you use a lot of laptops or tablets, this class might be good. Students will be able to collaborate with one another through messaging software. This may minimize the limitation of this layout, which is lack of ability to use group work.
Group Work. As students sit in rows, it’s hard to form groups to get students talking to one another. There are also many students who will be looking at other students’ heads, so you might find a lot of students pivoting to talk to one another.
I find the pivot of the desks frees up a little bit of space at the front center of the class. With younger students, I get them to sit at the front of the class for more intimate discussions.
Theoretical Connection: One-to-many Method
The strong focus on the central action zone that all the desks are facing encourages one-to-many modeled instruction rather than small group discussions.
Pros and Cons of the Stadium Layout
|All students are looking directly at the central presentation area of the classroom.
|It is hard to get students into small groups for sociocultural learning opportunities.
|Teachers can maintain control over the class as students are less able to talk to one another.
|Shorter students need to sit at the front of the classroom and taller at the back to ensure everyone gets a good view.
12. Wall-Facing Desks (Computer Room Style)
This method became very common when ‘computer rooms’ were introduced into schools in the late 1990s. It remains one of the most popular layouts for classrooms in which desktop computers are provided at each student’s workstation.
Computer use. Students each face their computer and away from others to help them to remain focused on the content. There are few opportunities for students to be distracted by other computer screens aside from those to their direct left and right.
Group discussions. Students are all looking away from each other. When I have used this method, I’ve had to ask all students to turn their monitors off and turn to face the rest of the class during the modeled instruction at the start of the lesson.
Ensure all computer cables are tucked under the desks to prevent hazards. This method is most commonly used because there is a very short distance from computers to the wall plugs, preventing chances for injury from cables.
If you want students to communicate, consider linking them up to a class chat log on an online forum discussion.
Theoretical Connection: Cognitive Tools
The cognitive tools theory pictures computers as tools for supporting higher-order cognition. This layout is ideal for computer-enhanced learning for teachers who want to employ try a cognitive tools theoretical approach.
Pros and Cons of the Wall-Facing Computer Room Style
|Prevents dangerous computer cables running across open space.
|Students are all facing away from each other, reducing social learning opportunities.
|Makes it easy for teachers to look over the shoulder of students as they work at computers.
|When the teacher needs students’ attention, the students need to pivot in their chairs.
|There is direct access to every spot from the door, making it easy for students with physical disabilities to move around the room.
|Classrooms with desktop computers have little desk space left for handwritten and book work.
Concluding Comments: What the Research Says about Classroom Layouts and Learning
The research on classroom layouts is quite clear that it’s not so much the layout that matters, but the teacher’s pedagogy.
In other words, if you think changing your tables is going to solve your problems, you’re probably not going to see results.
But, if you want to change your pedagogy then paying attention to they layout should be a part of that change.
For example, if you’ve decided that you have set yourself the goal of teaching more socially engaging, problem-based lessons, then you might want to think about incorporating table groups and workstations into your classroom design.
Similarly, if you’ve decided that your students are excessively misbehaving, you might want to go to rows while you work on getting your class’s behavior back on track.
However, you’ll then need to follow-up with appropriate pedagogical strategies.
In other words, classroom layouts should send a message and work with your pedagogical strategy. But, alone, desks are just desks: you need to actually create lessons and class rules that work with and alongside the classroom layout that you have settled on.
As Wannarka and Ruhl argue:
“There is no single classroom seating arrangement that promotes positive behavioural and academic outcomes for all tasks, because the available research clearly indicates that the nature (i.e., interactive versus independent) of the task should dictate the arrangement.”
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]