Lindsay J. McCunn Ph.D


Classroom Design From an Instructor’s Perspective

Teaching and thinking like an environmental psychologist.

Posted Aug 10, 2014

I recently taught an intensive summer course on personality psychology. The class was held every day for a couple of hours during July. Although this was not my first teaching assignment, it was my first time providing four months of material in 3-weeks. It was a fast-paced and information-packed experience for me and, I hope, for students. Beyond my task of teaching, I had the opportunity to gain a better understanding of how the design and layout of classrooms can influence the behavior of students (and the instructor!).

For example, there was a stool in my classroom. This is rare, I think. When I noticed the stool during my first lecture I thought, “how nice! I’d love to sit down for the next two hours.”  You may recall from my previous posts that I have a three-year-old and a five-month-old at home. So, by class time, I was knackered.

After a few days of casually sitting on the stool while lecturing, the act seemed to do much more than afford physical comfort. It brought me closer to the students, made me speak less formally, and appear more approachable. I felt relaxed, and this was undoubtedly beneficial in helping me form teaching relationships with students -- especially those sitting in the 'action zone.' 

In environmental psychology, the term 'action zone' is often used to denote the area of a classroom (usually the middle) where optimal visual and auditory vantage points can be attained (Gifford, 2007). Some research shows that sitting in the action zone can increase grades (Brooks & Rebeta, 1991), frequency of participation and attendance, and that students who choose seats in the action zone have high levels of self-esteem (Hillmann, Brooks, & O’Brien, 1991).

I believe there was an action zone in my class. Students who sat in the front and/or centre of the room (or near the perimeter but toward the front) usually remained for the group discussion activities during the latter portion of class time. They seemed engaged, often voicing personal experiences as examples of the theories they were learning about. I’m not stating that those sitting in the back rows did not learn well or feel interested in the material. However, a few sitting at the back seemed to participate less, and many left class when group activities commenced.

Coincidence? Perhaps. Other studies indicate a null action zone effect (e.g., Buckalew, Daly, & Coffield, 1986). I didn’t correlate grades with seat selection. Plus, our classroom had several windows along one wall and I would not be surprised if the opportunity to sit near a view of a sunny, green campus may have altered the location of the classroom’s action zone! Arguably, the design of the room made it simple for students to be inconspicuous in making an early departure from the class. Had there not been an open rear exit, it would have been more disruptive (and obvious) for students to leave early.

Interestingly, two particularly keen and participatory students sat together in the back row once in awhile. When they did, it wasn’t because they arrived late, or because their regular seats were taken. I’m not sure what made them choose where to sit on any given day… I should have asked. Perhaps they meant to implore students in the back rows to stay for the group discussions. Or maybe it was just chance.

Surely, thier flexibility was an exception. Within the first week of class, students found “their” seats and, in turn, the individuals with whom they intended to sit beside (and probably befriend) for the rest of the term. I observed as people exchanged phone numbers and chat with each other in ways that became more familiar over time. I am almost certain two students who met in the class became a couple by the final exam. Regardless, as the weeks passed, I could predict who would sit where each evening. How little seat selection varied was quite neat; I should have collected some data.

Next time.  

The notion of ownership with respect to classroom seats or desks touches on a post I wrote last year about territoriality. I also commented on this occurrence for an article in one of California State University’s (Stanislaus) student magazines called “Relational Caffeine” (Gutierrez, 2014). In the classroom, the phenomenon of territoriality can be thought of as a kind of ‘interaction organizer’ for small groups and individuals (Edney, 1974; Gifford, 2007). Students’ territories (in this case, preferred desks) offer a sense of order to all users of the setting. After the first few weeks of a semester, students come to expect who will sit where, and how the classroom community will behave based on this organization. Such small-scale territories are not likely established at random. Students choose a seat in a part of the classroom in which they feel relatively comfortable (e.g., the ‘action zone’ for some, others concentrate best near an exit or with a view out a window). They come to expect where to find friends after a few weeks of class and, as a result, time and effort spent locating an optimal environment to learn and communicate with peers is greatly reduced (Gifford, 2007).

So, when a class complies with the many unspoken territorial arrangements formed in a classroom, students can benefit from reliable access to social interaction and spatial comfort. As usual, whenever I am doing something that is, at first glance, unrelated to environmental psychology, I end up being inspired to think about the field in unexpected ways. To research a setting well, it helps to experience it in a variety of roles. I now consider classroom design, as both a researcher and teacher, more comprehensively - a special thank you to the recent students of PSYC 330!


Brooks, C. I.,  & Rebeta, J. L. (1991).College classroom ecology: The relation of sex of student to classroom performance and seating preference. Environment and Behavior, 23, 305-313.

Buckalew, L. W., Daly, J. D., & Coffield, K. E. (1986). Relationship of initial class attendance and seating location to academic performance in psychology classes. Bulletin of the Psychonomic Society, 24, 63-64.

Edney, J. J. (1974). Human territoriality. Psychological Bulletin, 81, 959-975.

Gifford, R. (2007). Environmental Psychology: Principles and Practice. Victoria, BC: Optimal Books.

Gutierrez, Renato. (2014). Sit on this. Relational Caffeine. California State University, Stanislaus. Retreived from:

Hillmann, R. B., Brooks, C. I., & O’Brien, J. P. (1991). Differencs in self-esteem of college freshmen as a function of classroom seating-row preference. Psychological Record, 41, 315-320. 

About the Author

Lindsay J. McCunn, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in environmental psychology at the University of Washington Tacoma.

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