So how would you design a lecture theatre?

One could, as we have discussed here before, ask whether lectures in the traditional sense will play a significant role in universities in future. But right now lecture theatres are still being designed and built, and for various reasons I have been taking an interest in what might be regarded as best practice. One example that was suggested to me can be found here. However, if this represents best practice it is focused on various operational, energy and environmental aspects. Pedagogically it doesn’t really reflect any new insights we might have gained over the past 100 years. It assumes a largely passive audience taking in whatever the lecturer is saying. It is physically entirely inflexible and is not usable for break-out work as part of a session. The muted lighting probably stimulates tiredness.

Are all new lecture theatres still being designed in this way? If so, surely this will hasten the end of the lecture as a teaching device. At least, that’s what I might hope.

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17 Comments on “So how would you design a lecture theatre?”


  1. I know we do a lot of bite size learning in labs these days but I don’t think it will go as far as to never having lectures.. There is always a time when you need to impart some information to everyone without distractions (the downside of students being taught in labs). However in its current state, it still requires everyone to be present in the room at once to take part (participation issues aside).

    Surely it is less to do with how it will look but how you can get better participation from distance learners who’s only ability with the lecture would be to passively watch it if it gets posted online (talking of that iTunesU at RGU please).

    Now here’s where it gets a bit more airy-fairy.. How can we get them present in the same space as an in-house student? Make them all virtual participants? Allow some virtual video/IM avatar presence in the theatre?

    Rambling now, so stopping here…

  2. Paul Says:

    Agree with your comments. The photograph could have been taken 50 or 100 years ago. Constructivist learning seems to have bypassed the architects. But how would we go about changing the picture? My starting suggestions would include flattening the room and adding flexible seating and writeable walls.


    • Agree. I also can’t see that it is right to have a lectern/podium at the end of a room. I prefer the lecturer to be – or for it to be possible for them to be – in the centre.


      • A nice idea, but in reality, at any one time 50% of the audience will be facing the speaker’s back thus not engaged with the speaker. Also, displaying slides or presentations would be a huge challenge.


        • Ricky, both of these things can be addressed, or at any rate they can be with a good lecturer. Mind you, if you feel compelled to focus on your notes all the time – which is not ideal for lecturing anyway – it would be a problem. Slides can be presented on several screens.


  3. Speaking of lecture theatres, do you recall from your DCU days the infamous lecture hall known as ‘The Pit’? This is a room in which all of the desks are slanted at a 30 to 45 degree angle towards the student, making it impossible to use them. The fluorescent lights are also angled in such a way that they concentrate blinding light in the face of the lecturer, while leaving the students fumbling around in the darkness.
    Design students should be marched through this room to show them a lesson in how NOT to design functional spaces.


  4. CG86 in the Henry Grattan Building. A monstrosity which seems to have been closed off now.

  5. Paul Says:

    Participation from distance learners can be enabled in Second Life auditoria. The feeling of ‘being in class’ is enhanced with personification through an avatar.

    In real world it’s the flexibility of the room that counts. Those times when we need to ‘address’ the audience need a particular form. Those times when the ‘speaker’ is really a facilitator need another.

  6. Graham Says:

    A typical architectural response to a lecture theatre – as you say, displaying no response to pedagogical developments.

    There is an alternative, though. Tom Kelley of IDEO and Stanford’s d-school, is at the forefront of reconfigurable, innovative learning environments:

    http://www.fastcompany.com/tag/dschool-0

    http://dschool.stanford.edu/

    I know which I’d prefer to learn in.

  7. Martin Says:

    The new Swanston Academic Building at RMIT University is going to have nearly all its lecture theatres (10/12 ranging in size from 60 seats to 240 seats) designed to facilitate a lectorial style in lectures. Some of them are designed so that students can turn around and discuss with the people behind them using the bench to be the discussion area. Some of the lecture theatres are built around groups of 6 chairs around tables, so that students can work in groups during the lecture. Based upon the designs that I’ve seen, I’m really looking forward to using them, as trying to do interactive work in a traditional lecture theatre is difficult.

    You can see the website for the building, unfortunately they don’t seem to have any plans of the lecture theatres up on the site.

    http://www.rmit.edu.au/bus/sab

    In the concepts presented to us by the architects a couple of years ago, they did show us some designs where the lecturer was in the centre surrounded by the students, but as Ricky pointed out, that means you are turning your back on people and that is a major non-verbal way to show contempt, so not really conducive to a good learning environment

  8. Al Says:

    I have seen some shite design alright…
    Seen worse than that.
    In order to have a space that suits everyone a design cant be function specific, especially in a small country like ourselves. You can imagine what would be timetabled there eventually.

    But sometimes obstacles too can also be an asset to a learning environment….
    Stanford or MIT did somethings interesting a few years ago??
    If we had the weather it could be all outdoors!!!

  9. C Says:

    Things I have learnt about lecture theatre design from my current employer:

    1. Do not have the entrance(s) that students will use at the front of the lecture theatre near where the lecturer is standing. Guess what happens when a student arrives late?

    2. Consider the direction of the sun, and where it is going to shine in. Not washing out the projected material is good, as is not blinding the lecturer.

    3. Do not have the controls for the air-conditioning located in an unmanned room seven miles away. Especially when the lecture room is airless, hot, and contains a projector over-sensitive to heat.

    4. Match the sound projection qualities of the room to the size of the room. A large room and sound-absorbing carpet isn’t a good combination.

    5. Do not have strange panels of light switches that it takes a long time to figure out how to use.

    6. Be careful that the frequency of the radio mikes is not the same as that used by the gym in the next building.

  10. no-name Says:

    Ah yes, the infamous Pit. But, Ricky, my class loved that lighting…it wasn’t possible for the speaker to see how many people he/she was addressingšŸ˜‰ It also wasn’t possible to see who had opened that door and left halfway through or who was asleepšŸ™‚ Fond memories.


  11. In the work that we have been doing at the OECD Centre for Effective Learning Environments we have seen the move away from this format being predominantly used in higher ed and school design, but it is still a force to be reckoned with. I wonder why the university went with it in this case? Probably because acceptance by educators of ‘pedagogical insights’ still has some way to go. Something we have also noticed.


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