01 January 2003

A lot of teaching goes on in lecture theatres, but how much learning? A 1999 study by David Fleming, now at Northumbria University, and John Storr, at Sheffield Hallam University, explored how students and university facility managers (FMs) perceived the importance to the learning experience of various aspects of lecture theatre design. The study took the form of a questionnaire, and looked at 338 students and 24 FMs, using 3 lecture theatres. The results form the basis of this checklist.

Most (78%) students felt that the quality of a lecture theatre affects the learning experience. The students identified 16 variables (given below in descending rank order), and the FMs a further 13.

1 Quality of audio-visual equipment

BS 8205:1985 is perhaps no longer worth looking at, as it predates the introduction of laptops, internet access, and data projectors. Even if it didn’t, these technologies are moving so fast that the standard would soon be out of date. The usual approach is to seek advice from specialist AV suppliers/installers, or specialist AV consultants. Regular theatre builders, such as universities, may well have in-house expertise they can draw on.

2 Desk space

Essentially, the more desk space the merrier, so fixed tablet arms will be inadequate. Other options include pivoting tablets (e.g. Griffin Tablet), hinged writing shelves, and fixed tables. David Adler (Metric Handbook) suggests a writing surface depth of 250-450 mm. Seat width (525 –750 mm) and back-to-back spacing (850 mm minimum) come into play here, with obvious cost implications. Fixed tables need about 1500 mm back-to-back, and would be regarded as too generous for conventional university facilities.

Left-handed students need to be catered for – where smaller writing tablets are provided, 13% or so should be left-handed, and marked accordingly.

3 Visibility of visual displays

Vision-impaired users need to be considered. Contrast is the key, which means that lighting levels must not be so high that projected images are swamped. Generally, this boils down to dimmable lighting at the screen (the students will need to see what they are writing).

Distance from the display is also critical – twelve rows is the limit for writing boards and flipcharts.

4 Internal acoustic quality

DfEE’s Building Bulletin 93 Acoustic design of schools, is a very useful first port of call on this subject. The web version links to spreadsheets of absorption coefficients and sound reduction indices, and to a spreadsheet for calculation of façade insulation and reverberation times, run by BRE. Hearing-impaired users are particularly concerned with acoustic quality.

5 Seating comfort

Comfort correlates to productivity (www.usablebuildings.co.uk). Current recommendations for minimum seat width are based on old ergonomic data. An Australian survey showed that women are bigger now than they were in the 1920s, both taller (1-2%) and heavier (10-20 kg). Weight Watchers has increased its target weights by 2-4 kg since the mid-1990s. Designers at the Melbourne Cricket Ground, for example, are allowing 30% more space per patron, 20 mm extra seat width, and more leg room. Seating needs to be strengthened, too. For UK data see the National Sizing Survey website – www.size.org.

6 Natural illumination

Students like natural light, but only one of the theatres in the study had it. Unfortunately, it is normally deprecated by designers as it gives rise to other problems, e.g. glare, heat load, distraction, blackout difficulties. These can be overcome, e.g. with clerestory lighting.

7 Ventilation

Stuffy lecture theatres clearly militate against the learning experience, as the students (or the lecturer) may end up dozing off! IBSE recommends a ventilation rate of 8 L/s per person, and 3-4 air changes/h for displacement systems, and 6-10 for high level systems (noisier and more expensive to run).

8 Occupancy level

Adler suggests that common lecture groups are 30-60 students, so larger theatres aren’t usually justified as they’d mostly be empty. Indeed, he reckons theatres are often under-used.

However, students don’t like the crowding that results from full lecture theatres, so theatres should perhaps seat more people than strictly necessary. Or, if the personal spaces were more generous (e.g. with wider clearways along seating rows), then the number of seats could perhaps be as required. Such a theatre mightn’t feel full even if all seats were occupied (see Desk space).

9 Artificial illumination

Refer to CIBSE Lighting Guide LG 5 Lecture, teaching and conference rooms (1991) for advice.

10 External noise

This is a subset of Distraction, discussed next, but obviously significant enough to warrant its own heading.

11 Distractions

Many room-related factors could draw the attention of students away from the presentation, such as extraneous noises, sights, smells and the like. Students in the theatre should be isolated from external events – fixed double glazing would keep out sounds, clerestory glazing would hide external activities from view, and so on. Internally, noise associated with building services is a possible cause of distraction, e.g. flickering lights, noisy room air-conditioners. Traffic to and from the room is a common cause of distraction, perhaps beyond the designers’ control.

12 Appropriate size

The ability of students at the back of the theatre to read what is written or projected, or to see facial expressions of the lecturer, needs to be considered. 20 m, or 18 rows, is about the maximum. Screen width dictates room depth, too – viewing distance should be between 2 and 6 times screen width. Room width is governed by viewing angle (40° maximum), speech projection angles (90° maximum), and egress limits on the number of seats in a row (22 maximum with gangways at each end). For more on screen viewing requirements, see DIN 15920-3 Stage and studio set up; screens.

13 Position of lectern

Perhaps obviously, the lectern needs to be to one side of the screen, so students can see it! Presumably this isn’t always the case. But not too far off, as the students need to see the lecturer too (and the lecturer may need to see the screen or boards).

14 Rake

Students prefer less steep rakes. A stepped rake of 150 mm per row is suggested. This equates to a 1:6 ramp, far too steep for aisle wheelchair access.

15 Internal finishes

Though ranked low by students and FMs, internal finishes remain important as they affect other, more important, criteria such as internal acoustic quality and illumination. But it seems that they are not important in their own right, at least in terms of their perceived affect on learning outcomes.

16 Shape of the room

Some theatre plans and sections are awkward in terms of access, egress, acoustics and sightlines. For example, parallel side walls may produce flutter echoes (unless diffusive or absorbent), but walls splayed at 25° (maximum) will add to sound reinforcement.


The 1999 study that generated this checklist was effectively a narrow but deep form of post-occupancy evaluation (POE). Interestingly, a 2002 report from a study by Higher Education Design Quality Forum (HEDQF) recommends that every substantial project funded by Higher Education Funding Council for England should conduct a non-recriminatory POE about one year after occupation. These reports will be published on the web, and analysed by HEDQF. This should help designers get to the bottom of designing for a successful learning experience.

It'll be interesting to see if the findings of the 1999 study are backed up by wider POE activity.