Setting Up Your Classroom to Enhance Student Learning

by Brian J Martin

How should you arrange your learning space? Brian reminds us that there is more than one good way to set up student desks. And beginning with one configuration doesn’t mean that it cannot be changed in the course of the year—or the day. Brian discusses some of the factors to consider in setting up a classroom, and provides examples of types of configurations that work well for particular classroom activities.

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One of the things that you want to keep in mind when setting up a classroom is that they’re multi-dimensional. Lots of things are taking place. One day you might be lecturing on the board and all the students are watching. The other week I had bicycle maintenance in here. Sometimes you’re practicing for a program, so lots of things are happening.

One of the things you want to avoid is classroom contradictions. For example, if you put all your students in a row but you want them to interact with each other, you sort of have a contradiction there. You’re set up for isolation, but yet the students are supposed to interact with each other. [That] makes it difficult.

As you could see in my one Spanish class I had, the students originally were spread out as we did some of the things on the board and then they were also practicing flashcards together, so I wanted them to be in groups, which is why I have the classroom set up the way that I do.

Then once we get an instruction part, then somebody has to turn around so it only takes a few seconds and they’ll learn after a while to just sort of spread their desks out and everyone can see what I’m doing there. Some of the flexibility there with the students is they can push their chairs and angle their chairs, that allows them to see the board fairly well.

If we transition to a group activity, then they just sort of turn their chairs again. One of the things that this does: it’s way more space efficient. It also allows me to meander throughout the classroom. I think better than in traditional rows. I can watch for—in Spanish class, I was listening to them pronounce their words, I was watching to see how fast students were going, what the difference was between the slower students and the faster students.

In math class of course, I was walking around making sure they were doing the problems correctly and that kind of thing. I could point out things, tips.

Classrooms have a lack of privacy. You always have students watching you and you’re always watching students and even student to student. It’s really hard to keep a grade private unless you are really careful about how you have—and we tend to forget that. That’s another thing to keep in mind when you’re setting up your classroom.

[For] tests, sometimes I will spread the desks out, probably should do it more than I do. Just spread the desks in any random order and then they sit down and do their tests. For my smaller classes, I don’t take all the desks up, they just sit anywhere, so that’s not an issue, but if I have all the desks full, then I would recommend spreading them out for test time.

Other than that, if they’re working on their homework together I don’t really mind if they help each other because that’s not summative assessment, that’s still the learning process, practice, helping each other. And when you’re helping someone else, that helps you learn it better as well.

The science class was more traditional: students in rows. And that facilitated the intention of a lecture; students could all see the board and what was going on. It put the teacher at the center up on stage because he was presenting his lesson for that day.

Make sure the frequently used items are accessible. Don’t put your pencil sharpener right behind a desk.

Symbolic identification: personalize your classroom. A lot of time classrooms are very hard and rigid, sort of like an institution. Two institutions that come to mind when I think of an institution: there are prisons and hospitals, and nobody likes to be in either of those places. Add some softness. And that’s something elementary teachers tend to do better than secondary teachers: they might have their teddy bear or a couch or something, some soft things around. That just makes it feel more like home. The psychology that goes with that just enhances student learning.

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