For a good percentage of corporate trainers, facilitators and learning & development professionals, you might find yourself taking your training course to either a customer's site or to a neutral location (such as a hotel). Because of that, you often have to think about how you arrange the tables and chairs in that space.
For others, you may always do your training at your company's training location, so the arrangement is always consistent and always the same.
Your Classroom is Your First Impression
But in both scenarios, how much consideration do you really give to the setup / arrangement of your training space? Is your pat direction to the hotel, "Classroom-style seating?"
I believe that your classroom setup is the first impression that your course makes with your students.
There is tremendous power in your classroom layout and it begins the moment your students walk in the door. And believe it or not, in the brief few seconds that it takes your students to scan your classroom, they immediately deduce - based on their past experience - how your class will operate.
Making Engagement the Primary Goal in Your Classroom
If you are familiar with my approach, which I call The EMU Experience, then you know that the "E" in EMU stands for engagement. Purposefully engaging your students early and often is your #1 goal when you step into your classroom.
And how you decide to set up your classroom is a huge factor in how successful that engagement will be.
How does the classroom setup factor into engagement?
The best classroom arrangement automatically creates small groups of 3-5 students.
Some setups make is much easier for you to move around the room.
Easier movement around the room makes it easy for you to engage each small group or an individual student.
There are times when you want to mix up the groups. The classroom setup you use impacts how smooth or chaotic such a change will be.
Engagement gives everyone the opportunity to function as a group leader. Some setups allow you to visually track who the group leaders are at any time.
Creating small groups facilitates networking opportunities for the students.
If you want to conduct some form of competition )either planned or impromptu), the teams are already formed.
The Common Classroom Setups
Just because it says "classroom" in the name doesn't make it the best choice!
The image above shows your basic tables and chairs in a row setup. This layout is what you most typically see in schools and corporate training environments. Why? Because it's what we're used to. And it's easy to set up...because its usually already set up that way!
Because it is "what we're used to," I truly believe that a switch gets flipped in the brains of students when they walk into a training course and see this setup.
What does that switch do? It mentally transports them back to the good ol' days of high school and college, when they could sit with their buddies and goof off, check email or text and not have to really pay attention to the teacher because the teacher hardly engaged them anyway and the notes would be available somewhere online after the class. [and inhale]
Since this is the setup that they are expecting, why are you setting yourself up for failure before you even say, "Welcome to my course?"
Don't give them what they expect. That's the whole "U" component of The EMU Experience - deliver the Unexpected. But, in the process, don't make it...
"Even Worse Than Classroom Style" - Theater / Lecture
Unless you're in the midst of your Nobel-prize winning road show, your training course should not be a lecture. So why would you think that a Theater- or Lecture-style setup would be an advantage?
Yes, you can cram more butts in seats, but that does not help your content stick with your students.
Trying to engage too many people in the room - especially if you're not confident in what you are doing - is literally like herding cats. They may look cute and all, but at the end of the day you're wiped out and what did you really accomplish?
I once was put into a situation where we had to engage 90 students. That's about 4 times the number of students that we had trained our facilitators to handle for this workshop. But because we had a solid and tested approach, we managed to make it work. But it was far from easy.
I won't lie; things got hairy and complicated - especially during the card game activity which involved about 20 sets of customized playing cards - but as a team we pulled it off...even after the facilitator opened the workshop by saying, "This is my first time teaching this workshop."
"You're Stuck In A Conference Room" Setup
You show up at a customer site to conduct your class, only to find out that the only room that is available (or possibly the only meeting room they have and failed to mention to you on the planning call) is a conference room...with a really big table that takes up most of the room.
Nothing brings people as close as a conference room, that's for sure. But depending on the room dimensions, it can be hard for you to find a good position to speak from and navigating around the table can be challenging. Not to mention finding space for the group activities or getting groups working on wall charts. You can make this work, but there are more ideal scenarios.
The Best Classroom Setups for Engagement
Tables and Half-Rounds
The best setups for classroom engagement are Tables and Half-Rounds. They promote all of the engagement bullet points previously mentioned above. These setups send a clear message to your students:
You will not get to sit in the back of the room and check out. You will be involved and you will participate.
All of this information gets communicated without you having to say anything as they enter your classroom.
The biggest problem is that these setups are not intuitive to most instructors because they've rarely deviated from the classroom setup. But I've had some really cool experiences in my Train-the-Trainer workshops when I demonstrate how powerful the Table and Half-Round setups are.
In fact, I once conducted my workshop for a group of executives and I used the Tables setup. At the end of the day, one of the participants - the IT Director - was so blown away with how the setup worked that he called his admin into the room. "See this setup," he said. "This is how I want us to set up all of our classes going forward!" He was absolutely giddy and I loved it!
A more simplified version of Tables is shown above.
In one of our first sessions of a new training workshop, the space that was made available to us by our customer was...their warehouse. Yep, there we were. About 30 students, arranged in the setup above, surrounded by as many boxes-for-walls as they could find. But those boxes did nothing to subdue the constant sounds of forklifts driving, lifting, backing up. Despite everything, the workshop was a success and our customer was happy!
You may find yourself in situations where you have very challenging room dimensions, not unlike in a conference room. We encountered this once when conducting a training course in an Embassy Suites in Seattle.
The meeting room was long, but very narrow - too narrow to really use tables or half-rounds.
So, the morning of, we adjusted into the Chevron format you see here. The instructor set up two flip charts, one on each side of his desk. So the left side of the room worked on the left flip chart, and the right side worked on the other. It was a great way to use the limited space.
The Multi-Purpose U
While not at the top of my list of seating arrangements, the U-Shape is still more effective than classroom. It doesn't make it super easy to break your students into small groups, but you can make it work in a pinch.
The real strength of the U is that it allows the instructor to get really, really close to each and every student. There is nowhere to hide in the U! And it allows the students to easily see each other.
I've used this setup both in classrooms, conference rooms and hotel meeting rooms. If Tables, Half-Rounds or Chevrons are not options, consider the U.
You Can No Longer Make Excuses
Because you have read this post, you can no longer make excuses for your classroom setup. Phoning-in a "classroom-style" setup with a hotel will no longer cut it. You are now informed and educated. You've been exposed to other setup options and why specific ones are much more effective.
So go out and use them! And let me know how you're doing. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.