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How Classroom Design Affects Learning

For people in the education field, student outcomes are the most important indicator of success. Practically everything revolves around boosting student learning achievements, including funding, professional development for teachers, the implementation of standardized tests and enrichment or remediation opportunities for students.

Unfortunately, classroom design—which has a significant impact on learning outcomes—is often an afterthought. Luckily, attitudes around classroom design are shifting, and educators are making an effort to create ideal learning environments for diverse groups of students.

The traditional arrangement of row after row of desks is on the way out. Industrial, cookie-cutter furniture is being replaced by flexible seating options that are intentionally selected to empower students.

The most important—and most worthy—goal of educators is to give students the best education possible. Doing so extends beyond the curriculum to the very environment in which children learn.

Does classroom design affect learning? Yes!

The connection between classroom design and learning outcomes is more than simple conjecture. Recent scientific research backs this up.

A 2015 study published in the journal Building and Environment found that changing some core elements of classroom design can increase student learning outcomes by 16 percent.

According to the study, factors such as air quality, lighting and students’ sense of ownership of their classroom all affected the students’ ability to learn.

Old vs. New Design: Is there really a difference?

The stereotypical classroom has had the same design for decades. Think back to some of the classrooms you occupied as a student or the way classes are portrayed in movies. You’re likely visualizing the oversized teacher’s desk set up in a corner, along with student desks organized in neat rows.

Research by Steelcase shows that rearranging the rows of desks into grouped configurations improves all of the following aspects of learning:

  • Ability to engage in preferred learning methods
  • Active involvement
  • Collaboration
  • Creation of an enriching experience
  • Feeling comfortable to participate
  • Focus
  • In-class feedback
  • Opportunity to engage
  • Physical movement
  • Real-life scenarios
  • Repeated exposure to the material through multiple means
  • Stimulation

Educators embracing new classroom design realize that the teacher-centered furniture arrangement isolates students and limits their learning—not to mention makes the teacher’s job more difficult. Teachers are designing classrooms that look like a “Starbucks for kids” or college apartments. As a result, their students are thriving.

What are the implications of classroom design for students?

Classroom design has the power to impact students’ well-being and motivation, either for better or for worse.

As students have to spend large chunks of time in school, classrooms should be welcoming and warm to boost student morale. Additionally, classroom design can facilitate the learning experiences of students with special needs, including ADD, ADHD and specific learning disabilities.

Educators can provide various types of workspaces to maximize the classroom’s potential for students who learn in different ways. Those workspaces may include:

  • A classroom library sectioned off with shelves and comfy chairs for reading
  • A common area, maybe on a large rug or around a large table, for class discussions
  • A research center with a computer workstation
  • Desk or room dividers or study carousels for independent, focused work
  • Tables and chairs for small group collaborative work

Which details of classroom design make a difference?

The short answer is that all aspects of classroom design make a difference to the space’s ambiance and the learning environment students walk into each day. However, particular design details have the strongest impact and can yield the best results without a complete overhaul of existing furniture and fixtures in a classroom.

Air Quality

According to the Building and Environment study, good air quality and comfortable room temperatures improved student progress by 28%.

Teachers can decorate their classrooms with plants to improve the air quality and brighten up the room. In rooms without local control of the thermostat, fans or space heaters can help regulate the temperature.


Student choice is a major factor in creating an ideal learning environment. Letting students choose how they learn gives them a feeling of ownership and creates a sense of community in the classroom.

Educators can accomplish this by providing flexible seating options and allowing students to decide where they’ll do their best work. Flexible seating options can include:

  • Bean bag chairs
  • Individual workstations
  • Mats or cushions
  • Sofas and couches
  • Standing desks or tables
  • Tables and chairs


The overall layout and interior design aspects of the classroom—including the use of color—create an environment that is either stimulating or not. The Building and Environment study shows that a balanced layout with wall displays and perhaps an accent wall can increase student progress by 23%.

Desk Arrangement

How desks or seating options are arranged has a significant influence on student engagement and the prevalence of active learning. In the Steelcase study, both students and faculty experienced over 30% more engagement in classrooms with new desk configurations over the old standard of traditional rows.

The most impactful desk arrangements are designed with collaboration and flexibility in mind. Desks and chairs should be easily moveable—consider options with wheels on the bottom—to accommodate any given learning scenario, from small group collaboration to larger group learning labs or independent work.


Industrial-style fluorescent lights are unattractive and, worse, may interfere with student learning. In particular, students with autism or sensitive hearing might find the buzzing of fluorescents distracting.

Natural light is ideal for classroom environments. In fact, students in classrooms with big windows and daylight achieve 20% faster progress in reading and math, according to a Heschong Mahone study cited in ScienceDirect.

Teachers whose classrooms don’t have windows can use lamps with natural light bulbs to create a similar effect.

What’s the importance of seeing the classroom from a student’s perspective?

Students don’t see the world through the same lens as adults. That’s especially true for young students, whose physical smallness means they experience the spaces around them from an entirely different perspective than tall “grown-ups.”

Educators should spend time in their classrooms looking at each aspect of design from a student’s point of view. What’s it like to sit where students sit and work for extended periods of time? Can students see what they need to from where they’re seated? What distractions are around? Does the room look too busy? Too dull?

In addition to this exercise, teachers can also get students directly involved in classroom design. Ask students’ opinions and get them to help rearrange and redesign the classroom.

Ready to take advantage of the benefits of classroom design?

If you’re ready to revamp your classroom or the learning environments in your school, let us help. Our designers can craft a plan to create the best possible classroom environment for your students. Schedule an appointment with one of our specialists by calling 877.779.3409, or fill out our online form for more information.



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