The Relative Importance of Physical Space in the Classroom

I teach in one of the oldest buildings on campus as well as in one of the newest buildings on campus. Classrooms in both buildings are fine, and they each have their quirks. In the old building, the lights above the chalkboard flicker and the speakers crackle during lecture. In the new building, learners wade through clusters of mobile desks and avoid tripping over floor charging stations to get to the front of the room if those desks haven’t already been shoved in front of several whiteboards stationed along the walls. Notably, the classrooms in the old building are traditional classrooms, and the classrooms in the new building are designed to facilitate active learning. Universities are now investing in active learning classrooms (i.e., constructing physical spaces in the classroom conducive to integration with active learning instructional methods), and traditional classrooms will become less common (e.g., Flaherty, 2022, September 15). To understand the implications of this change, it is important to compare the different types of classrooms and determine what the effects of classroom environment are on learning outcomes.

Traditional Classrooms

Standard (or traditional) classrooms have rows and columns of individual, stationary desks that face toward the front of the room where the instructor will lecture. Typically, there is a chalkboard, whiteboard, or smart board at the front of the room where the instructor can write notes or project notes onto the board. The room configuration changes with class size, and large lecture halls tend to have stadium seating as well as long tables or lapboards/tablet arms for desks. While group work is not discouraged in standard classrooms, collaborative learning is less likely in these spaces. That is, learners can turn to work with their neighbor on an activity or move stationary desks that aren’t bolted to the floor to collaborate on projects, but learners expect that these activities will be rare events.

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Active Learning Classrooms

Active learning classrooms have several variations. Some active learning classrooms are similar to standard classrooms with individual desks, but they are classified as active learning classrooms because the desks have wheels and can be moved easily into different configurations. Most active learning classrooms also have several whiteboard stations where groups can sketch ideas. Other active learning classrooms are very different from standard classrooms with several large tables for four or more learners at each “pod.” Because learners are already facing each other, they are more likely to talk. We have previously discussed active learning (Martella, 2022, March 1), but the core component of learners actively taking part in their own education seems to be when learners have discussions with their peers. Mazur developed peer instruction as an active learning technique for his physics courses in which learners listen to several short presentations, answer questions about conceptual issues presented in the lectures for 2 minutes, discuss their answers to the questions and their reasoning with their neighbor for 2-4 minutes, answer the same questions again (with corrected answers), and finally the instructor explains the correct answers to learners (Crouch & Mazur, 2001). 

Active learning classrooms are constructed at universities with the hope that instructors scheduled to teach courses in these classrooms will use active learning instructional methods (or will be inspired by the new environment to think differently about their teaching style; see Flaherty, 2022, September 15). While true antecedent interventions have been used successfully in the classroom to improve on-task behavior, reading fluency, and learner engagement (e.g., Allday & Pakurar, 2007; Eckert et al., 2002; Jackson et al., 2022), rearranging or modifying the furniture is unlikely to produce a new teaching repertoire that doesn’t already exist (e.g., using class discussion as a teaching method).

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Evidence for the Effectiveness of Active Learning Classrooms

A few researchers have investigated the effects of an active learning classroom on learner behavior (e.g., Jin & Peng, 2022; Mantooth et al., 2021; Nicol et al., 2017; Odum et al., 2021; Poirier & Feldman, 2007). Most of the research focuses on learner engagement and how much learners liked the course, but few researchers examined the effects of the classroom environment on learning outcomes. 

Baepler et al. (2014) compared the effects of different seating arrangements and course instruction on multiple-choice exam scores in a chemistry course. One version of the course was taught with lecture, demonstrations, and question prompts in a large lecture hall three times per week (i.e., traditional lecture), and another version of the course was taught with optional lecture videos, group activities and example problems, computer simulations, clicker questions, and a modified version of Jeopardy in an active learning classroom once per week (i.e., flipped and blended active learning). Learners who participated in the flipped and blended active learning version of the course scored a few points higher on the American Chemistry Society exam (M = 66.36, SD 13.64) than learners who participated in the traditional lecture version of the course (M = 65.80, SD = 14.10). Learners perceived that the active learning classroom was better than the traditional classroom with respect to engagement, flexibility, their own learning outcomes, and their confidence in their knowledge, so the authors determined that the active learning classroom is better than traditional classrooms. Baepler et al. manipulated both the classroom environment and instructional methods, so it is difficult to determine which of those factors contributed to the slight differences they found in performance and learner perceptions.

Vercellotti (2017) and Hao et al. (2021) attempted to separate the contributions of instructional methods and learning environments on learner achievement. In Vercellotti (2017), the same instructor taught two linguistics courses using active learning instructional methods with the same materials, activities, and assignments in a traditional classroom with front-facing, stationary desks and an active learning classroom with desks on wheels and multiple screens and whiteboards. Learners in both classroom environments demonstrated improvement from their pretest scores to their posttest scores, but the improvement for learners enrolled in both classrooms was similar. Attendance, textbook reading, self-testing, and reviewing course content was also similar for learners in both sections. However, attending class more frequently was correlated with higher grades in the traditional classroom but not in the active learning classroom. Hao et al. (2021) similarly found that academic performance in computer science courses was unrelated to the type of classroom in which the course was taught when instructional style was controlled. When instructors used active learning instructional methods in active learning classrooms, learning outcomes were better in the active learning classrooms than the traditional classrooms with passive learning (i.e., listening to the instructor’s presentation). They do indicate that it is easier to facilitate peer instruction in active learning classrooms than in traditional classrooms but question whether this is justified by the cost when one active learning classroom that can accommodate 30 learners could cost $100,000.

Thankfully, active learning instructional methods can be incorporated into any physical environment, even if the lights flicker and the speakers crackle. Once instructors learn about course design and effective instructional methods (e.g., choral responding, response cards, and guided notes; see Twyman & Heward, 2018) and understand that they don’t need an active learning classroom or access to the most advanced technology within a classroom, they can help their learners without needing to rearrange the physical environment. Rather than access to active learning classrooms, it would help instructors and their learners to educate and support effective course design practices.

Image provided courtesy of Katerina Holmes under Pexels license

Image credits:

[1] Image provided courtesy of Mikhail Nilov under Pexels license

[2] Image provided courtesy of Pixabay under Pexels license

[3] Image provided courtesy of Max Rahubovskiy under Pexels license

[4] Image provided courtesy of Katerina Holmes under Pexels license


Allday, R. A., & Pakurar, K. (2007). Effects of teacher greetings on student on-task behavior. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 40, 317-320. 

Baepler, P., Walker, J. D., & Driessen, M. (2014). It’s not about seat time: Blending, flipping, and efficiency in active learning classrooms. Computers & Education, 78, 227-236. 

Crouch, C. H., & Mazur, E. (2001). Peer instruction: Ten years of experience and results. American Journal of Physics, 69, 970-977. 

Eckert, T. L., Ardoin, S. P., Daly, E. J., III, & Martens, B. K. (2002). Improving oral reading fluency: A brief experimental analysis of combining an antecedent intervention with consequences. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 35, 271-281. 

Flaherty, C. (2022, September 15). ‘Spaces matter.’ Inside higher Ed. 

Hao, Q., Barnes, B., & Jing, M. (2021). Quantifying the effects of active learning environments: Separating physical learning classrooms from pedagogical approaches. Learning Environments Research, 24, 109-122. 

Jackson, J. W., Dunkel-Jackson, S. M., Dixon, M. R., & Szekely, S. (2022). Effectiveness of environmental manipulation to enhance engagement and ecological validity at an agency serving individuals with autism spectrum disorder and other disabilities. Behavior Analysis in Practice, 15, 1390-1395. 

Jin, S., & Peng, L. (2022). Classroom perception in higher education: The impact of spatial factors on student satisfaction in lecture versus active learning classrooms. Frontiers in Psychology, 13, 941285. 

Mantooth, R., Usher, E. L., & Love, A. M. A. (2021). Changing classrooms brings new questions: Environmental influences, self-efficacy, and academic achievement. Learning Environments Research, 24, 519-535. 

Martella, A. M. (2022, March 1). Active learning versus lecture: The false dichotomy in the research literature. Behavioral Education, Behavior Analysis Blogs. 

Nicol, A. A. M., Owens, S. M., Le Coze, S. S. C. L., MacIntyre, A., & Eastwood, C. (2018). Comparison of high-technology active learning and low-technology active learning classrooms. Active Learning in Higher Education, 19, 253-265. 

Odum, M., Meaney, K. S., & Knudson, D. V. (2021). Active learning classroom design and student engagement: An exploratory study. Journal of Learning Spaces, 10, 27-42.  

Poirier, C. R., & Feldman, R. S. (2007). Promoting active learning using individual response technology in large introductory psychology classes. Teaching of Psychology, 34, 194-196. 

Twyman, J. S., & Heward, W. L. (2018). How to improve student learning in every classroom now. International Journal of Educational Research, 87, 78-90. 

Vercellotti, M. L. Do interactive learning spaces increase student achievement? A comparison of classroom context. Active Learning in Higher Education, 19, 197-210. 

Blog post contributed by Melissa Swisher