Seating plans – the bane of many teachers’ existence. It can seem like no matter what you do, there are still disruptions and issues caused by where the students are sitting. I did some research into the research, and give you some ideas for your own class.
Short Read: What is the ‘best’ seating arrangement? Research says rows usually out-perform groups or semi-circles in terms of ‘on-task behaviour’, but that you should be flexible and arrange the desks according to activity type.
I’ve taught so many different classes in my four years of teaching, and each one worked best with something slightly different. Sometimes I changed the arrangement of the desks and the students a couple of times a term, sometimes they were in the same arrangement for the entire year.
Like all aspects of teaching, seating arrangement doesn’t have a ‘one size fits all’. You’ve probably noticed yourself what works best for one class in one situation doesn’t work as well for other classes or in other situations.
The key is to be flexible and consistent, and stick to your guns. Students will grumble no matter what you do with the seating plan, so try out your favourite first but be open to changing it if and when needed.
There are two key aspects to consider when planning the layout of your classroom – desk arrangement, and student arrangement. Desk arrangement is exactly that – where and how the desks physically sit. Student arrangement is where you place each student within the desk arrangement. Below I outline the most popular versions of each – they all have benefits and complications. At the end I give a brief overview of what the literature says – you might be surprised by the outcomes!
Note that I don’t discuss at any point the current trend of ‘alternate’ or ‘flexible’ seating – classrooms that have couches, beanbags, and other forms of seating that aren’t desks. The reason I’ve left this out is mainly because I have no personal experience with it, so I don’t feel qualified to discuss it. I also couldn’t find any research papers that discuss it – sure there are plenty of blogs and such from teachers who use it, but I couldn’t find any actual research papers (if you know of any, please share them with me!). What I did find seemed to focus on the fact that flexible seating gives students a chance for physical movement breaks, or provide a sensory experience, and then go into detail about the benefits of the movement/experience rather than the seating arrangement.
Research on seating arrangement appears to be a bit narrow, with a lot seeming to only compare rows to groups, and to measure success according to ‘on-task behaviour’ appropriate for that activity. Overall though, it is entirely dependent on the type of activity you are doing with your class, and what you perceive as ‘on-task behaviour’.
A stock-standard arrangement for secondary schools is simply to put all of the desks in rows. It mimics the university-style rooms you were probably taught in, and makes sure everyone is facing the board.
If you are going to do this arrangement, make sure that the rows are broken so you can walk through the middle of the room and aren’t restricted to the outsides. This also makes it easier for students to move through the desks.
Rows means it’s relatively easy to separate individual students, and strategically place those that need to be up front to be close to the board or to you.
It works well if you prefer lecture-style lessons and individual work, and certainly easy to separate out into individual desks when needed, but it doesn’t work as well for group work. Students will likely need to rearrange the desks, or at least move their chair, in order to form groups. You can get around this a little by having the desks line up, and each odd-numbered row simply turns their chair around to the person behind them to form groups. This limits desk space, but is often easier than rearranging the entire room for group activities, only to return it again when the activities are finished.
A downside is that you will probably be forever dealing with students turning around to have a chat to the people behind them. Have clear rules in place about this happening at inappropriate times, and be consistent in dealing with it.
Research has consistently shown that rows are superior for the majority of ‘on-task behaviour’, so you might like to give it a try if you haven’t already.
In complete contrast to rows, and most often seen in primary schools, is arranging the desks into groups. This is, of course, more successful for group-work situations, but does not encourage independent work, and is often seen as less successful for ‘on-task behaviour’ in any situation other than group collaboration.
The size of the groups will likely be dependent on the shape and size of your room. Sometimes you can have groups of 6 or 8, but usually a group of 4 desks works best. Group work is often said to work best when there are 4 group members, and this allows you to set it up from word go.
A benefit of this layout is obviously the ease which you can do group activities, so if this is more your style of teaching then it makes sense to arrange your desks this way. It also often limits chatter to individual groups, which can make it easier to manage.
The biggest downsides are that some students will always have their back or side to the part of the room they need to focus on, and that they are sitting face-to-face with other students. This can lead to many disruptive behaviours simply due to the perception that you ‘can’t see what they’re doing’, that it will always be difficult for some of your students to see what you’re doing, and that they are literally facing someone to talk to. Of course it’s a great way to foster group discussions, but there is no saying that the discussions are on-topic.
You need to think very carefully about how you are going to arrange your students into these table groups. Are you going to have them grouped by friendship group, similar-ability, mixed-ability, or alphabetical? Are you going to have an even number of boys and girls in each group? Be careful that you don’t inadvertently sit one friendship group together, but not others – students will pick up on this straight away even if you don’t, and it can cause big dramas.
This works particularly well if you have a larger classroom or a smaller number of students. It also seems to work better for older grades than younger ones. U-shape, or semi-circular, seating is shown to increase student questioning of the teacher compared to rows or groups.
It allows easy class discussion as some students will be facing each other across the room. But that also means it could allow disruptions to occur easier as well. Similar to groups, some students will always be facing side-on to the front of the room. This will mean some students craning around each other to see, so if you spend a lot of time up the front of the room this shape may not be great.
Being able to stand in the middle and see everyone is great, particularly if you don’t tend to work exclusively off the board. It allows for better eye-contact with all students, and gives the lesson a more collaborative feel. It does have similar issues to rows if you are wanting to do group work, in that the students will likely need to physically move to form groups. It does seem to work relatively well for individual work, as long as the students aren’t getting distracted by their across-the-way peers.
How did 2017 shape up for you as a teacher? Did you do some form of reflection like this? What did you learn?
I could only find one paper that discussed student arrangement within desk arrangements at the secondary school level (future research topic for someone out there perhaps?), such as seated next to friends or not-friends. Angela Jean Hammang suggests that teacher-chosen arrangements resulted in better learning outcomes than student-chosen arrangements, and that communication between the students and the teacher were crucial in a successful arrangement.
This is a stock-standard way to start the year. It allows you to get to know your students’ names a little easier, and generally they expect this arrangement so will present little argument to it.
It doesn’t matter how the room is arranged for this seating plan, just start in one corner and have students sit in alphabetical order (usually by surname, and in the same order as the roll) going seat-by-seat until they’re all used up. This has a bit of an added benefit that if there are extra desks in the room, you have students sitting up the front instead of the back.
The downside is that you could be inadvertently creating little spots of trouble – unless all the students are new to each other as well as to you, there is likely to already be a dynamic amongst the individuals in the class. You could be sitting trouble-makers together, or ex-friends, without even realising it. Just keep an eye on them, take in account if any of the students tell you they can’t/shouldn’t sit next to a particular person, and make adjustments as necessary.
Another favourite of many teachers sees students sitting next to members of the opposite sex. It is often used as a punishment for ‘naughty’ classes, and often used as a way to separate groups of boys or groups of girls who cause disruption when sat together. Teachers often pretend this isn’t the reason for changing the seating plan to this format, and students often pretend to believe them, but most of the time everyone knows that’s exactly what’s going on, so if you’re going to do this just be upfront with your class.
I guess the idea here is that friendship groups are generally pretty same-sex, so this will split them up a bit. It certainly seems to work best with younger grades, where they’re often a bit more uncomfortable with the opposite sex still. Older grades seem to just see it as amusing, and sometimes even as a beneficial arrangement that allows them to sit next to ‘the girls’ or ‘the boys’ under the guise of the teacher telling them to.
If you have a class where friendship groups are mixed-sex, this can still work to break up disruptions with careful planning. It can be harder if many of the class are in the same friendship group, and can backfire spectacularly if there are or were relationships between students who you are sitting together.
If you have just a handful of particularly disruptive students, you can try splitting them up by sitting them at the four corners of the room.
The idea is to put as much physical space between them as possible, in the hopes that this will limit the disruption. I’ve had this work wonders in a class where a few of the boys just couldn’t get along and would set each other off at any opportunity. Having them so physically apart made it difficult for them to achieve this goal, and easier for me to pull them up on their behaviour (it had to be pretty overt to reach across the room).
A way you can keep a bit of peace is by letting students choose one friend to sit next to. I tend to do this secretly, but telling each student to write down on a piece of paper the one person in the class they feel like they work best with and would like to sit next to. I then still make the final call and create the seating plan, not telling them who each other chose as their one friend. I keep it a secret so that no-one gets offended if the person they choose didn’t end up choosing them.
Having one friend to sit next to means students have someone they are comfortable with to do pair work (which can significantly reduce behavioural issues in those activities), and can limit excessive noise because they are usually content just chatting with that one person. It also allows students a bit of perceived freedom (whether or not you let the ‘bad combinations’ sit together is still ultimately up to you), which builds trust.
This last strategy is to simply let students sit where they like each lesson. This paper suggests that student choice seating can have impact on peer status – those who sat in the centre of the room were perceived as ‘more liked’, and students rated those they chose to sit next to as more ‘likeable and popular’ than students they didn’t choose to sit next to.
Allowing the students to choose where they sit gives them a lot of autonomy. Sometimes friendship groups have a falling-out, and allowing them to sit where they choose without discussion lets them separate themselves from others they don’t want to be around right now. This alone can save a lot of hassles (and tears) because they can self-manage according to their needs each lesson.
It also allows students to chat and work with people they are comfortable with, which can have huge benefits for them academically and socially. Not to mention the benefits to you when there are no arguments about the seating plan (unless someone is sitting in someone else’s ‘spot’).
On the flip-side, of course you are going to have students sitting together who will cause problems. You can approach this in a number of ways.
The first is to pull the students aside and be frank about your concerns of them sitting together – be honest and say you are worried they will be disruptive/not do their work, and that you are giving them a chance. If they blow the chance by misbehaving, separate them immediately (with another little discussion about why you’re separating them when the opportunity presents itself, like at lunch-time once the rest of the class has left). They will argue about wanting another chance – give it to them if you feel like it, but make sure to separate them again on a more permanent basis as soon as needed.
The second way is to simply refuse that they sit together from word go. Expect arguments about how unfair it is that everyone else gets to sit where they like (which is a fair point), so be prepared with explicit reasons and be firm with your stance. They will be angry at you for a while, but eventually they should get over it, but expect the anger to last multiple lessons and possibly cause more disruptions than if you’d let them sit together in the first place.
Any of these can backfire…
There is no magic way to arrange your class that will solve all your problems. Even a seemingly perfect seating plan will eventually grow old, and problems can start leaking in.
Determined students will call across the room to their friends or cause other noisy disruptions no matter where you sit them, so make sure you are being consistent with your management of such behaviour.
If your class has a large friendship group in it, or indeed if the entire class gets along really well, it can be difficult to arrange them in such a way that chatter and disruptions are minimised. I faced this in my first year with a class of year 10 students – there were 20 boys and 7 girls, and the vast majority of them got along really well. It didn’t matter how I arranged the desks or the students, they were still prone to disruptions and being off task, simply because they wanted to sit and chat with their friends (who were the rest of the class). The only real way I could deal with this was letting them sit where they liked, because it usually limited the chatter to smaller sections of the room.
Any seating plan can cause loads of arguments between your students and you. Draw the line about these arguments where necessary, but don’t be unreasonable. I once had two boys come to me and say they just couldn’t sit together because they’d end up fighting and getting suspended ‘as it always happens’ – of course I listened to their reasoning and sat them apart!
Students will likely argue with your about your choices if they feel victimised, e.g. they are the only one who isn’t sitting next to a friend, or they’re put into the ‘dumb group’.
Don’t be afraid to have very honest and open conversations with your students about your reasoning behind desk and student placement, especially if you have a difficult class, or if you feel it will help the process run smoother. Remember, students will engage with your lessons much better if they have a good relationship with you, and this is a great time to help foster good relationships. If they see you are being honest, and are open to at least a little negotiation where appropriate, they will be much more willing to be on your side. That being said, don’t entertain arguments for the sake of it – tell your students they can come and see you after class if they have any problems with the seating plan, so that you aren’t taking more time out of your lesson.
In the end…
A review of imperical research by Rachel Wannarka and Kathy Ruhl ended with this advice:
“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. Teachers, especially those who have students with special educational needs that impact on their behaviour in inclusive or homogeneous settings, should be able to eliminate many disruptions that are due to inappropriate student interactions by utilising a rows arrangement for individual tasks and moving desks together when interaction is desirable.”
I encourage you to read at least the discussion of the above paper if you are interested in the research around this topic – it all backs up my own experiences and the outlines I have given above. It is perhaps a bit dated now, but there doesn’t seem to be a newer version that covers this level of research.
How do you prefer to arrange your desks and students? Have you seen other research I can include in this article? Don’t forget to share this with any of your colleagues who may benefit!
About the Author:
Emily is a secondary science and math teacher in Australia. She enjoys blogging about her experiences, facilitating the ‘light bulb’ moment in her students, and drinking tea and wine. Emily is currently on maternity leave with her first child. You can read more teaching articles from Emily here, or about her life as a new mum over at Actual Mums.