Chances are, your classroom layout looks pretty different than the one you experienced as a student. Over the past few decades, the set-up of classrooms has changed, emphasizing a focus on collaborative work and student-centered discussion. Though the traditional classroom model might be of desks in a row facing the teacher, the majority of classrooms now look more like pods or clusters of desks, or even a conference layout where the desks form an L or U shape around the room.
While these are undoubtedly excellent spaces the majority of the time, they are often not appropriate when asking students to work and study on their own. Expecting students to complete individual studies in spaces designed for collaboration can be frustrating for both teachers and pupils. Yet making this space available in the classroom is incredibly important for student success.
Why are study spaces important?
Where a student studies can play a big role in how well they study. Even students who learn best in group environments need to learn the skill of quiet, individual focus. While the majority of class time may be spent working in teams, there are critical times when a student needs to settle into working alone. After all, the very tests that make it possible for a student to get a higher education - the ACT and SAT - are administered individually, and take over 3 hours to complete. The same is true of AP tests and any state or district required tests.
Still not convinced? Think about your students with IEPs. They often require special study carrels for test taking to reduce distraction, or the option for noise-canceling headphones to drown out ambient noise. These accommodations, while required for these students, can also prove incredibly beneficial for your general population.
Like any skill, most students will benefit from practicing the kind of quiet and focused studying that these tests will require. Without practice, students will not develop the ability to cope with distractions, lost focus, and general mental exhaustion. Luckily, you can help by providing study spaces where students can practice in a setting more similar, and conducive, to a testing environment.
Trying out new study spaces
Providing quiet study and test prep spaces in your classroom doesn’t mean a total restructure of your layout. Those of you with the above-mentioned study pods or u-shaped layouts can still integrate dedicated focus spaces into your classroom. Many teachers provide individual study spaces at the sides or back of the classroom where students can go to focus on a test or reading assignment. If you don’t already have these, try adding them in. And while it may be tempting to have them face the more active learning space of the classroom, try having the desks face a wall or window where students will be less distracted by the ongoings of the rest of the class.
While an unadorned desk is a great place to start,even better are study carrels that are specifically designed to block off any distractions and reduce noise. The flexibility inherent in the carrel design also allows you to move students to a wider variety of spaces within the classroom. Students who benefit from more natural light can move a carrell near a window, while another may prefer a quiet corner. For those without the resourcing for special materials, a makeshift barrier made from posterboard or even a cardboard box is a great alternative!
If you hesitate to allow students select their own seating, or don’t have the space/extra desks to add to your classroom, feel free to have all your students rearrange their desks. Particularly as tests get closer, it can be highly beneficial to have students practice working for a day (or more!) in a more traditional looking classroom. Think, forward facing desks in neat rows. After all, that’s likely how students will encounter most testing that isn’t on a computer.
Introducing study spaces to students
Once you have your study spacesin place, don’t be afraid to use them! Although many students will be just fine taking tests and studying in the normal layout, other students need to learn to opt-in to the dedicated study spaces. Students used to working in teams or groups may by default associate working alone with punishment, so it’s important to reframe these spaces as tools for learning instead. Be especially considerate of your more gregarious, talkative students. These are the very students who likely need a change in physical space to accommodate the change in study style, but who associate a separate desk with negative consequences. Try out an analogy that compares these spaces to finding the right tool for a project.
You may also find that it’s important to set expectations around when students can use dedicated study spaces, and for how long. As students become more comfortable studying and testing in isolation, these spaces may become more in-demand. Using timers and schedules not only allows all students access to these resources, but helps develop the skills of time management and pacing.
While the physical layout of a space is often the last thing on our minds when it comes to teaching and testing, it can be a powerful strategy to help students improve focus, understand their own study habits, and ultimately succeed in school. With a little effort, some clear expectations, and the willingness to try something new, your classroom can model accommodating study spaces for all your students.