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REL Central Ask A REL Response

Literacy and Math

February 2016


What is the effect of classroom seating arrangement on K–12 student motivation and engagement?


Following an established REL Central research protocol, we conducted a search for research reports as well as descriptive study articles to help answer the question. The sources included ERIC and other federally funded databases and organizations, research institutions, academic research databases, and general Internet search engines (For details, please see the methods section at the end of this memo.)

We have not evaluated the quality of references and the resources provided in this response, and we offer them only for your reference. Also, we searched the references in the response from the most commonly used resources of research, but they are not comprehensive and other relevant references and resources may exist.

Research References

Barrett, P. S., Zhang, Y., Davies, F., & Barrett, L. C. (2015). Clever classrooms: Summary report of the HEAD project. University of Salford. Retrieved from

From the introduction:

“Three types of physical characteristic of the classrooms were assessed: Stimulation, Individualisation and Naturalness, or more memorably the SIN design principles. The factors found to be particularly influential are, in order of influence: Naturalness: light, temperature and air quality – accounting for half the learning impact, Individualisation: ownership and flexibility – accounting for about a quarter, Stimulation (appropriate level of): complexity and colour – again about a quarter.”

Bicard, D. F., Ervin, A., Bicard, S. C., & Baylot-Casey, L. (2012). Differential effects of seating arrangements on disruptive behavior of fifth grade students during independent seatwork. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis 45(2), 407–411. Retrieved from
Full text available

From the abstract:

“We investigated teacher versus student seat selection in the context of group and individual seating arrangements. Disruptive behavior during group seating occurred at twice the rate when students chose their seats than when the teacher chose. During individual seating, disruptive behavior occurred more than three times as often when the students chose their seats. The results are discussed in relation to choice and the matching law.”

Duncanson, E., Volpe, J., & Achilles, C. (2009). A case study: Natural outcomes of creating classroom space. National Forum of Educational Administration and Supervision Journal, 26(4), 1–9. Retrieved from,%20Edward%20Natural%20Outcomes%20of%20Creating%20Classroom%20Space%20NFEAS-26-4-09.pdf

From the abstract:

“Having empty floor space in a classroom contributes to student achievement, but how open space influences teaching and learning is not as well understood. In this case study, researchers coached two teachers in a rural elementary school regarding the reduction of material and furniture, and using storage and classroom organization to support the taught curriculum. The researchers observed the classrooms multiple times to uncover teacher and student behaviors that emerge when a classroom is planned around space. Increasing the amount of empty floor space had a positive influence on affective behavior, organization, and opportunities for student learning.”

Guardino, C.A., & Fullerton, E. (2010). Changing behaviors by changing the classroom environment. TEACHING Exceptional Children 42(6), 8–13. Retrieved from
Full text available

From the introduction:

“What impact does the classroom environment have on overall class behavior and learning? Many teachers face dispruptive behavior in their classrooms. How can they target and change problem areas in the classroom environement? By collecting data on students’ engagement during instruction, disruptive behavior, and teacher observations, teachers can identify which physical aspects of their classroom need improved. Changing the classroom environment can increase academic engagement and decrease disruptive behavior.”

Kariippanon, J., Lancaster, S., Parrish, A-M., Cliff, D., & Okely, T. (2016). Spaces research project: Evaluation report. Wollongong, NSW: University of Wollongong. Retrieved from

From the executive summary:

“In recognition of the evolving learning needs of 21st century school students, and changes to teaching practice, resources and the required associated changes to the built classroom environment, the NSW Department of Education has committed to transforming 1,600 public school classrooms into flexible learning spaces over the next 10 years.

To inform the statewide implementation of this initiative the Early Start Research Institute at the University of Wollongong conducted a qualitative evaluation of schools already utilising flexible learning delivery, providing an understanding of the processes involved in adapting classroom layouts and furniture, and its impact on pedagogy, learning and other student outcomes.

A qualitative evaluation was conducted in four primary and four high schools across Sydney and the Illawarra region of NSW, Australia. Participating schools were located in a broad range of socio economic backgrounds from areas with an index of relative socio-economic advantage and disadvantage (IRSAD) ranging from 518 to 2094. The student sample represented a diverse mix of cultures drawn from 15 different ethnic backgrounds. In total 12 school executives, 35 teachers and 85 students participated in thirty two focus group interviews. A further three independent consultants who offered schools support to develop and fit-out flexible learning spaces and incorporate innovative digital resources, were interviewed to add depth to the evaluation.”

Simmons, K., Carpenter, L., Crenshaw, S., & Hinton, V. M. (2015). Exploration of classroom seating arrangement and student behavior in a second grade classroom. Georgia Educational Researcher, 12(1), 51. Retrieved from

From the abstract:

“The purpose of this study was to determine if a specific classroom seating arrangement can contribute to students being on or off-task while completing independent work within the general education setting of an inclusive second grade class. In this study, three classroom seating arrangements were compared in a second grade classroom. These seating arrangements were cluster seating, horseshoe seating, and row seating. There were specific targeted off-task behaviors that were to be observed: inappropriate talking, students out of their seats without permission, students not following directions, and students not starting independent work promptly. Data were collected using three methods: observation/ anecdotal record, teacher behavior checklist, and a behavior tally sheet. Data revealed the number of students who displayed off-task behaviors as well as the specific amount of times these behaviors happened during each seating arrangement. It was determined that row seating had the fewest off-task behaviors for this particular second grade class was row seating. It was also determined that inappropriate talking was the most frequent occurring off-task behavior and not following directions was the least off-task behavior observed. For this particular classroom, row seating was the best classroom arrangement. Implications of differing seating arrangements will be discussed.”

Wannarka, R., & Ruhl, K. (2008). Seating arrangements that promote positive academic and behavioural outcomes: a review of empirical research. Support For Learning 23(2), 89–93. Retrieved from
Full text available

From the abstract:

“Seating arrangements are important classroom setting events because they have the potential to help prevent problem behaviours that decrease student attention and diminish available instructional time. The purpose of this synthesis of empirical literature is to determine which arrangements of desks best facilitate positive academic and behavioural outcomes for primary through secondary high school students with a range of characteristics. Eight studies that investigated at least two of three common arrangements (i.e., rows, groups or semi-circles) were considered. Results indicate that teachers should let the nature of the task dictate seating arrangements. Evidence supports the idea that students display higher levels of appropriate behaviour during individual tasks when they are seated in rows, with disruptive students benefiting the most.”


Keywords and Strings

The following keywords and search strings were used to search the reference databases and other sources:

  • “Flexible seating”
  • AND “student engagement” or “student motivation”
  • “Flexible classroom”

Databases and Resources

We searched ERIC for relevant resources. ERIC is a free online library of over 1.6 million citations of education research sponsored by the Insititute of Education Sciences. Additionally, we searched Google Scholar and Google.

Reference Search and Selection Criteria

When searching and reviewing resources, we considered the following criteria:

  • Date of the Publication: References and resources published for last 7 years, from 2010 to present, were include in the search and review.
  • Search Priorities of Reference Sources: Search priority is given to study reports, briefs, and other documents that are published and/or reviewed by IES and other federal or federally funded organizations. ERIC is the next priority, followed by academic databases, including EBSCO, JSTOR, PsychInfo, PsychArticle, and Google Scholar.
  • Methodology: The following methodological priorities/considerations were used in the review and selection of the references: (a) currency of available data, (b) study types – randomized control trials,, quasi experiments, surveys, descriptive data analyses, literature reviews, policy briefs, etc., generally in this order (c) target population, samples (representativeness of the target population, sample size, volunteered or randomly seleted, etc.), study duration, etc.

This memorandum is one in a series of quick-turnaround responses to specific questions posed by educational stakeholders in the Central Region (Colorado, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, Wyoming), which is served by the Regional Educational Laboratory Central at Marzano Research. This memorandum was prepared by REL Central under a contract with the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences (IES), Contract ED-IES-17-C-0005, administered by Marzano Research. Its content does not necessarily reflect the views or policies of IES or the U.S. Department of Education nor does mention of trade names, commercial products, or organizations imply endorsement by the U.S. Government.