By Fred Leichter, Lily Yang, and Alaina Orr

This class made me uncomfortable … in the best possible way.

-Ryan Sung, Claremont McKenna class of 2018

Post-its of classroom space set-up drawn by Lily Yang after each class, Fall 2017

The “Checkerboard” – a class on ambiguity

At the Rick and Susan Sontag Center for Collaborative Creativity (The Hive for short), we teach a semester-long class in Human-Centered Design (HMC E180). We use design thinking methods to get students to learn “to fall in love with the problem – not the solution.” They work in teams on ambiguous, real-world challenges with a focus on defining important unmet needs, taking risks, trying things, and learning from missteps. We work and learn in a studio rather than a classroom and always try to practice what we preach


The class meets three times a week for a full, 15-week semester. In the fall of 2018, I endeavored to set up the class studio room differently for every class. The idea was to do this not just randomly but with intent. We kept the learning objective or activity of that session in mind with each class, asking, “what are we doing and what configuration will help that succeed?”


Research on “variable encoding” (defined here as number of rooms in which material is learned) has shown that studying material in different rooms is beneficial for memory (Smith, Glenberg, and Bjork, 1978). Yet, as creatures of comfort and habit, we’re all predisposed to sit in the same spot in any classroom or dinner table. Another two studies on public settings (Costa, 2012; Guyot et al., 1980) found that most students tend to sit in the same seat or row in lecture halls because establishing their “territory” reduces stress and anxiety by helping them control their environment. While this might be a good defense mechanism in a lecture, we believe the positive aspects of movement far outweigh the benefits of comfort. Furthermore, comfort breeds sleep, and it’s hard to remember things we learned while dozing….


In Human-Centered Design, it simply isn’t possible to settle into the same comfortable spot each class because that spot does not exist!


So, how might we configure the class to facilitate movement and learning? First, you’ve got to have the right furniture. Our tables are on wheels. They are square and easy to push together or pull apart. Our chairs are stackable stools. We also have an array of whiteboards, beanbags, couches, pillows and bins of supplies to pull into the room or take out. Below are a few different layouts you could try to create intentional learning and engagement experiences.

We’ve created a “space deck” to share with teachers and students illustrating 36 different ways to set up a room. Thanks to Lily Yang, we’ve captured a sketch of each room layout divided into four categories: Experiment, Activity, Focus, and Collaborate. These are meant as a tool kit and inspiration to shake up your classrooms for learning’s sake. Try them and make your own!

Sample of classroom setup illustrations from the “space deck”


Here’s what the deck looks like. There is now one available in each room at the Hive. Coming soon will be the smartphone and digital versions! Happy arranging!






Digital flipbook of the cards:

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