The Variation Effect: How seating plans might be undermining learning

//The Variation Effect: How seating plans might be undermining learning

Observe always that everything is the result of a change, and get used to thinking that there is nothing Nature loves so well as to change existing forms and to make new ones like them.

Marcus Aurelius

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a teacher in possession of a large roomful of children must be in want of a carefully crafted seating plan. Secondary schools in particular have normalised the idea that children should sit in the seat where they will be least distracted and best able to learn. There are many excellent reasons to use seating plans: they’re a great way to learn students’ names, keep order and establish routines. These are all sound and it is not my intention to unpick them.

I do, however, want to consider the effects of seating plans on learning. If you’re a regular reader you’ll know I define learning as ‘the long-term retention and transfer of knowledge and skills’. Lots gets said about memory, far less about transfer. The idea is that new information acquired in a classroom ought to be applied elsewhere. There are a number of confusions about transfer, most notably that you can transfer ideas between domains. You can do this, but only if you’re sufficiently expert in a subject or if the domains are incredibly close. For instance, it’s trivially easy to transfer the knowledge and skill of making toast, to the domain of crumpet toasting. And it’s relatively straightforward for a teacher to transfer the knowledge and skill of poetry analysis to the domain of non-fiction writing. But being able to transfer the ability to analyse historical sources to the domain of mathematical equations is rare. Worthwhile transfer between even quite similar domains is much less likely for less knowledgeable students. I’m not dismissing transfer between domains entirely, but I’m far more interested in transfer between contexts.

Ideally, we want our students to go off into the world and flourish, taking with them all the fascinating stuff we’ve taught them. In practice it’s impossible to know whether this actually happens so we tend to settle for transfer from the context of the classroom to the context of the exam hall. This is harder than you might imagine. Memory is context dependent. We tie the acquisition of new ideas to prior knowledge in visual and emotional contexts.

In How We Learn, Benedict Carey talks about how he is only able to solve a mathematical proof using Pythagoras’ theorem in a particular context:

I remember it any time I sit alone in some classroom or conference room under dimmed fluorescent lights, like if I’ve arrived first for a meeting. Those cues bring back the memory of that night and the proof itself (although it takes some fuzzing to get the triangles in place).

The context in which we first encounter an idea creates contextual cues. They are the visual and autobiographical memory we hang ideas on to. Psychologists have run experiments which show playing particular genres of music or inducing particular emotional states and then testing participants in conditions which either share or don’t share those conditions demonstrates the power of context cues in increasing retention. This would be great if we could exactly recreate the conditions in which we learned when taking a test. Carey’s experience is a good example of a widely shared experience – we struggle to transfer what we know into different contexts where cues are absent.

But by varying the conditions in which we learn maybe we can break our dependence on context cues? Smith, Bjork and Glendale’s 1978 paper Environmental context and human memory, was probably the first attempt to explore how this might be done. They gave participants a lost of words to learn and had them study either in the same room twice or in two separate rooms (one a cluttered basement, the other a windowed office.) Three hours later, the students were bundled into a third ‘neutral room’ and asked to recall as many of the words as they could. Those who studied in the same room managed an average of 16 out of 40 whereas those who studied in two different rooms recalled 24 words. The experiment “showed strong recall improvements with variation of environmental contexts.” This has become known as the ‘variation effect’ and since then there are been many other studies which have replicated this findings and built of this research.

The implication for schools is clear: if we want students to perform at their best in the exam hall, we should vary the rooms in which they are taught. Ideally, every lesson would take place in a new room to prevent memories being tied to specific contexts. This would be both impractical and annoying. Maybe the best we could do is to timetable each lesson in a given week in a different classroom, but this would be only slightly less problematic. As an individual teacher it seems there’s little you can do with this information unless you can persuade the chap next door to swap with you now and again. Still tricky though.

One workable solution is to vary seating plans as much as possible. A few years ago I became aware of a very strange and as far as I know, unresearched phenomena. If I taught a lesson where students knew something in that chair, they would not necessarily know it in this chair. Simply asking students to move seats in the middle of a lesson was enough to disrupt their ability to recall and transfer. Memory can be more brittle and fragile than I would have thought possible. If a student spends a term or a year seating in the same seat every lesson then they will see the same things every lesson. They will become dependent on those strong visual cues. If learning is tied to these cues when the ties are severed, the learning seems to unravel.

So I started experimenting with moving students about and giving them a greater variety of sight lines and thus a greater and more unstable range of visual cues. (This might also factor into the discussion on classroom display.) And guess what? Their ability to transfer what they’d learned within the classroom improved. Now, I would, of course, hesitate to make a mountain out of this molehill, but it does seem worthy of further investigation.

My tentative advice is not to throw away your seating plans, but to have more of them. It might seem inefficient to have a different plan for each class each lesson, but if you’re prepared to put up with some short-term disruption for a long-term gain, the pay-off might be that they learn more.

2015-05-17T13:01:36+00:00May 17th, 2015|Featured|


  1. Toby French (@MrHistoire) May 17, 2015 at 12:00 pm - Reply

    Hi David. This ties in with what I’ve been doing recently with testing – varying the tests, desired outcomes and context. One thing that I’m still very uncertain about is the frequency. How often did you move students? Did they know they’d be moving? Did you have a set number of seating plans? And, if so, was there a routine (week 1, lesson 2, I’m sat in the corner) or was this random? How did this affect time to settle, etc.?

    Lots of questions, I know, but this is really interesting.

    • David Didau May 17, 2015 at 3:10 pm - Reply

      Hi Toby – my experiments were very limited. I just had a different seating plan for each day of the week and drilled students in remembering their different seats. It took time to do this, but they got used to it pretty quickly.

  2. hicsalta May 17, 2015 at 12:56 pm - Reply

    The culture in our (‘outstanding’) school is to have all students in Victorian type rows in every classroom. Hence the concept of group work is something that can only be done under very controlled conditions. Not great for fostering a culture of experimentation or fluidity…

    • David Didau May 17, 2015 at 12:57 pm - Reply

      I’m not at all interested in group work. The idea of varying seating is in no way connected to the question of whether one should or shouldn’t ask students to work in groups.

    • teachwell May 18, 2015 at 4:39 pm - Reply

      Oh please – there is nothing wrong with rows – they work with some classes.

      When was the last time you asked your children how they would like to be seated?

      I did every year and every year the majority wanted their own table to work on!!! A few would say pairs and maybe a handful (enough for one table usually) would say in a group. This was as true for 6 year olds as it was for 11 year olds in different schools, in different cities.

      You might want them in groups because you are convinced that group work needs to occur more frequently but children rarely work better in groups of anymore than 4.

      David – spot on about moving children and arranging the tables differently if you can. Having my own classroom meant I experimented with tables and seats as well as moving the children around for different lessons. It was indeed better for them. Never let a table be seen as the one where the LA sit for example. Mix children up so they get to be in different parts of the room – I never saw that research before but it makes sense as they get bored being in the same place all the time.

  3. chemistrypoet May 17, 2015 at 3:42 pm - Reply

    I guess the same reasoning could be applied to lessons where a significant attempt has been made to render that lesson very memorable? Even if the content has passed into long term memory, it may be linked to various extraneous elements of the lesson and hence difficult to recall in a blander environment? (I don’t mean where the lesson was whizzy and distracted learning). Make the lesson bland…..(?)

    • jane May 17, 2015 at 8:45 pm - Reply

      It would also finally dispense with formulaic lesson structure. Could explain partially drop in results when everyone has to be consistent ?

  4. Annie May 17, 2015 at 9:01 pm - Reply

    Students sitting SATS last week in a different teaching room struggled to answer questions on grammar as the working wall in that room didn’t offer the memory cues.

    • teachwell May 18, 2015 at 4:41 pm - Reply

      Err shouldn’t children sitting SATS have no access to looking at any working walls? They are meant to be covered up!!

  5. Edukey Education Ltd May 18, 2015 at 9:29 am - Reply

    Hi David, is used successfully in many schools. Its seating plans are changeable within seconds. This would help greatly in relation to the last two paragraphs of your post.
    The behaviour management is world class, not only is it very easy to award behaviour & achievement points (SIMS writeback supported) but it even identifies how pupils interact and so seating plans that are optimised for behaviour can be made at a click of a button – perfect for NQTs & supply staff.
    Currently it is offered on a 21 day FREE trial

  6. […] The Variation Effect: How seating plans might be undermining learning – David Didau: The Learn…. […]

  7. […] to related subject matter, times, places, people and feelings. I’ve written before about the variation effect and troubling finding that students often struggle to transfer what they have been taught from one […]

  8. Paul Tait May 29, 2015 at 5:09 pm - Reply

    The PiXL group are big on cues etc. for GCSE pupils in secondary schools via their ‘walking talking’ mock exam structures. Seems to be heavily mentioned at every available opportunity.

  9. Ian Johnson August 17, 2015 at 8:19 pm - Reply

    I tried clicking on the link about for Class Charts – it should be – looks like a great idea.

  10. Brian Lister September 29, 2015 at 6:58 am - Reply

    Hi David, I would be interested to know your thoughts on teaching from different areas in the classroom. For instance getting all pupils to turn 180 degrees half way through the lesson then teaching from the back of the classroom. Maybe easier than moving pupils.

  11. […] little Sinead.  However, maybe there is a sound pedagogical reason for changing the seating.  This post by David Didau has really caused me to think and I might well experiment with my classes.  I have 8 […]

  12. […] between contexts is hard and, as I’ve explained before, students might not necessarily be able to transfer from the context of one seat to another seat in […]

  13. […] is hindered and performance is reduced (David Didau provides an excellent account of this effect here). Therefore, flexibility in seating arrangements could make our pupils’ learning more robust […]

  14. […] However, layout directly influences the type of activities planned for in class. One study (Betoret et al, 2004) demonstrated how trainee teachers design their classrooms according to their existing conceptions of teaching and learning and that this has a direct input into the types of lessons performed. It has also been shown that keeping seating arrangements static can actually hinder learning (David Didau describes how here). […]

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