Does our classroom physical space impact learning?

Have you ever walked into a classroom and felt uncomfortable? Was it because it was dimly lit? Was it a mess with desks, chairs, and all types of items strewn around the room? Did it look as if the board had not been cleaned in weeks? Were there no windows? Were the lights buzzing? Did it smell funny? Were the floors dirty? 

In all my decades of teaching, I have been in some pretty awful classroom spaces. Yet, to my surprise, overall, students didn't complain very much as they were just grateful they had landed a coveted seat in a PA program. Recently, when I walked into the classroom for a program that had just moved to a brand new building, I was shocked. Nothing about the room felt inviting or supportive of learning. Actually, it felt quite sterile. The sides of the room had become storage areas, so the space had a lot of clutter. Although the entire back wall of the classroom was windows, most of the time, the shades had to be down because of the glare it would produce on the boards. The only electrical sockets in the room were on the side walls. 

The effects of physical space have long been documented. Many hospitals and healthcare facilities have created more welcoming and comfortable spaces because they foster better health outcomes and support healing and well-being (Engineer, Ida & Sternberg, 2020; Huisman, Morales, van Hoof, & Kort, 2012). Business companies have created more supportive office environments to foster better work productivity and collaboration. Examples include Apple and Google  (Zhenjing et al., 2022). The same is true for academic, physical environments, and learning. Research shows that the physical environment plays a role in student achievement and behavior and can foster a positive outlook that supports learning, achievement, and social behavior (Fisher & Frey, 2022; NCSSLE, 2024). Neuroscience research shows that prior experience and expectation significantly impact our perception of physical space. The standard classroom with rows of desks or tables facing the boards dulls students' attention because it is what they have experienced most of their educational lives. It literally lowers their alertness. So, when they enter our classrooms, the environment can actually work against their learning (Hrach, 2021, 2022). 

I don't know about you, but it seems it continues to become harder and harder to keep students' attention and focus and engage them in learning. They come into the room, sit in the same seat every day, and wait to be lectured to by a teacher in the front of the room. Even with all the research about the importance of active learning, many of our students do not seem to have had that experience prior to getting to us. Their past experience dictates their perspective, expectations, and engagement. When I taught high school, as soon as spring came and the weather was warm and sunny outside, my students frequently asked me if we could go outside for class. Most of the time, I said no because I didn't think they would pay attention if I took them outside, even though part of me wanted to go outside, too. You can imagine my surprise when the same thing happened while teaching in my first PA program. The weather broke, trees started blooming, the air was warm, and the sky was crystal blue. And my PA students asked me if we could have class outside. I did. A few times. And found that my fears were unfounded. The students did pay attention, and it seemed we all enjoyed the time learning together better. That was before the science supported that the environment affects learning, positively and negatively, and how getting out in nature physically benefits our well-being overall (Weir, 2020). With stress and anxiety levels through the roof with our students, it seems like getting them outside could have many benefits. 

4 ways to improve the learning environment 

Certainly, we have to work within the confines of the physical spaces we have for teaching as well as navigate the weather in our geographical region. However, there are many things we can do to enhance the physical space in ways that can support and motivate learning and increase students' alertness and engagement.  

Do something unexpected 

Simply doing something unexpected and breaking from the usual routine can stimulate alertness and pop them out of their usual classroom daze. Some examples include:

  • Taking the students outside for class or for a brief walk before or after class
  • Move the desks around in the classroom space or rearrange things in some way.
  • Require students to sit in a different seat.  
  • Have students get up and move around the room, or let them move outside the room when working on small group assignments. 
  • Play music when students enter the room or if they are working on small group projects.
  • Walk around the room if you tend to stay tethered to the podium. Stand in the back of the room.
  • Play a game- related to learning and their education, of course, such as Kahoot. 
  • Start the class with students needing to solve a problem. 

Make the physical space into a welcoming, motivating learning place. 

Think about ways to make the space of the classroom where you and your students spend hours into a welcoming, inviting, and motivating place. In K-12 education, it is common for teachers to spend the week before students start or return from break designing and decorating their rooms. This is done to help students feel welcomed, safe, and excited about learning. In my experience, some part of this should continue in higher education. We still need to ensure our classrooms are welcoming, safe, and motivating. For example, just adding some color can have a significant effect since most classrooms tend to be monochromatic. In several programs where I worked, we created a student bulletin board inside or just outside the classroom door for students to put up personal pictures, inspirational sayings, and anything that they wanted to bring and that mattered to them to share with the class and be part of the learning environment. In another program, the students were asked to write their favorite inspirational sayings, which were placed on the walls around the classroom. In essence, finding a way to let students infuse the space with things that make the classroom a place they look forward to learning in and one they enjoy being in. There are things you and the staff can do as well, such as displaying items in the space that speak to the program, faculty, student, or graduate accomplishments. In one program, one hallway in the PA program suite was dedicated to pictures and plagues of such achievements. Our students can be amazingly creative, so you can charge them with this task. 

I appreciate that other aspects of the physical space may require institutional support. However, having good lighting, making sure burned-out bulbs are replaced, that broken windows are fixed so they can be opened, window blinds work, that the floors, boards, and desktops are cleaned on a regular basis, the temperature is comfortable, internet access is reliable, and there are enough electrical sockets plays a significant role in affecting student learning (Hrach, 2021, NCSSLE, 2024). 

Create and support connection and interaction. 

If you think about it, the traditional classroom design, which is still used heavily today, is of desks or tables in rows, and everyone faces forward. It communicates that all attention should be paid upfront on the teacher because the teacher is the one who knows. This setup actually works against active learning. Humans are social beings. Neurobiology informs us that we actually learn better in social interactions than alone (Immordino-Yang & Fischer, 2009; Tokuhama-Espinosa, 2014). I believe most of us are already doing things as part of active learning to engage students in interacting with each other. However, consider other ways to change the space, such as desk arrangement and adding activities to encourage social interactions and connections.  

Switch it up 

Whatever changes you make, it is important not to make them once and leave them at that. It is important to switch things up periodically. For example, if you have student bulletin boards, give them a theme to change it up or ask them to come up with a theme. If we don't change things, we risk falling back into a familiar setting and experience that will dull student awareness. 

I know we all do so much already to encourage and support learning in our students. However, I believe that the more we know about what supports student learning, the better and more effective we can be as teachers.  


Engineer, A., Ida, A., Sternberg, E. (2020). Healing spaces: Designing physical environments to optimize health, well-being and performance. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. 17(4): 1155. doi: 10.3390/ijerph17041155

Fisher, D., & Frey, N. (2022). Tending to learning environments. Ascd. 80(4).

Hrach, S. (2021). Minding bodies. How physical space, sensation and movement affect learning. West Virginia Press.

Hrach, S. (2022). Your learning space: Friend of (Secret) foe. The Teaching Professor.

Huisman, E., Morales, E., van Hoof, J., & Kort, H. (2012). Healing environments: A review of the impact of physical environmental factors on users. Building and Environment, 58. 70-80.

Immordino-Yang, M. H., & Fischer, K. W. (2009). Neuroscience bases of learning. In V. G. Aukrust (Ed.), International Encyclopedia of Education, 3rd Edition, Section on Learning and Cognition. Oxford, England: Elsevier.

National Center on Safe Supportive Learning Environments[NCSSLE]. (2024). Physical Environment.

Tokuhama-Espinosa, T. (2014). Making classrooms better: 50 practical applications of mind, brain, and education science. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.

Weir, K. (2020). Nurtured by nature. American Psychological Association. 51(3). 50.

Zhenjing, G., Chupradit S., Ku K., Nassani A., & Haffar M. (2022).  Impact of employees' workplace environment on employees' performance: A multi-mediation model. Frontiers in  Public Health. doi: 10.3389/fpubh.2022.890400.


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