Why classroom seating matters: 3 seating arrangements to maximize learning

When most people think of a classroom, they think of a format something like this:

traditional seating

Students all at their own desks, all facing the teacher, who stands in front of or next to the blackboard, whiteboard, projector screen, etc.

Does this look like your classroom?

If it does, that’s OK. It’s been used for a long time for a reason: it’s effective. There are a lot of advantages of this seating arrangement.

Advantages of the “facing forward” seating arrangement

“Sit up, face forward!”

This is the stereotypical “strict teacher” line because we’ve heard it so many times in real life and it’s made its way into TV and movies.

Why? Because that’s what you need to do as a student to get the most out of this seating arrangement.

This arrangement allows every student to see the teacher and/or the board if they sit up and face forward. If they turn in any way, their view will be worsened. If they slouch, they’ll just see the back of the head in front of them.

So here are some situations when this is a good arrangement:

  • teacher lecture
  • video
  • test/quiz done individually

Why? Because for each of these, you want students to be looking towards the front, and not at their classmates.

Since you’ll do at least a little bit of these three things in your language classroom, this seating arrangement is sometimes useful.

First alternative: The U

U seating

Disclaimer: This is where my lack of image editing skills start to show. But hey, your students aren’t going to form a perfect U in class either.


If your desks aren’t bolted to the floor, you can customize your seating arrangement.

For the past few semesters, I’ve trained all of my speaking classes to move their desks into this arrangement before class every day.

Why speaking classes?

Because we don’t speak to the back of people’s heads. In the traditional arrangement, the only person the student can have a face-to-face discussion with is the teacher.

With the U, every student can face whoever is speaking. This makes group discussions much easier. It also makes it impossible for students to hide.

Small group work is also facilitated much easier in this arrangement. Students just need to turn their desks a few degrees to make pairs or a group of three.


Look back at the (beautiful) picture. See the student in the bottom left corner? He’s going to have a difficult time seeing the board. This arrangement isn’t always ideal when you’re showing videos or writing a lot on the board. I usually tell students that they can move if they’re in one of those positions.

The other negative is testing. Students are closer to each other in this arrangement. They’re often almost elbow to elbow. The flip side of allowing students to be more visible to each other is that their tests are also more visible. You can have them go to a traditional row arrangement on test days or just be more vigilant about walking around the U. In my speaking classes, most of our assessments are presentations, so this problem is avoided.

Second alternative: Group tables

group tables


For this seating arrangement, you ask your students to put their desks together like a table that they’re all sitting at. As you can see from the picture, it’s adaptable: four desks fit together nicely, but you can also add one more on the end and it’s still effective. Of course, depending on what you’re doing, you could have made three groups of three.

In this seating arrangement, you can do small group work. This is the best seating arrangement for team problem-solving activities or collaborative projects. If there’s a worksheet, paper, or object that the group has to work with, it can be set in the middle of the desks and everyone can see it clearly. With the U, there’s a great distance between students for these types of things, and in the traditional seating arrangement, people will have to twist and turn around to be able to see the student with the paper/object/whatever.

The other advantage is that everyone in the group is close to one another and facing one another. No one can hide; everyone has to participate. If you have massive classes, dividing students up into these groups can make sure that all the students are engaged and you have a bit of organization.


Visibility is a drawback in this arrangement as well (see the theme here?). Students will have no problem seeing their group members in this arrangement, but they won’t be able to see people in the other group easily without twisting and turning around. Also, that front row of students will have to turn around to look at the teacher or the white board. This grouping only works if your students are doing group work; if you need to do something as a whole class, it’s probably best to rearrange.

What is best for your class?

That all depends on what you’re doing that day. My recommendation is to pick a seating arrangement that works for your main activities for the day and ask your students to move their desks into that arrangement at the beginning of class. For example, if you do a whole class discussion at the beginning of every one of your speaking classes, the U is probably the best seating arrangement for you and your students should have that U ready before you even step foot inside the classroom.

Any other seating arrangements that work for you? Please let me know.

Thanks for reading.


Featured image credit: THX0477
All other beautiful images carefully created by the blog author


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