Breakout rooms are the new must-have in educational design. While they’ve always existed on some level, because of the emphasis on group and team learning, many institutions are investing in placing breakout rooms throughout new and existing classroom buildings, libraries, and student centers. 

A breakout room can be a simple as a room with a table and some chairs, but the most effective breakout rooms follow a few simple strategies: their proximity to classrooms and amenities is considered, they’re not closed off, they have basic technology available, they’re easy to reserve, and they’re flexible—to a degree. 

A room with a table and chairs

Image of Life Edit, furniture provided by Interior Elements, photo courtesy of High5 Productions

Location, Location, Location

In interior design, adjacencies are everything. One of the first things a design student learns in space planning is to consider what spaces should be near to each other, and which spaces should be far away. This approach is vital to planning breakout room placement—if you build it, you want them to come. 

Place breakout rooms in visible locations that are close to where the students are. One successful approach is to embed breakout rooms in corridors with classrooms, allowing students to leave class and head to a nearby breakout room with their classmates to work on a project that was just assigned, or to gather before class to review homework together. This can help eliminate the inevitable corridor traffic jam as well, as students gather before or after class for a quick discussion. 

A room with a yellow wall and a couch

Image of Dunn Construction, furniture provided by Interior Elements, photo courtesy of High5 Productions

Locating breakout rooms in other areas besides classroom buildings can be highly successful as well. Analyze where students gather—learning commons, libraries, student centers, etc.—and consider if providing dedicated space for groups to meet could reduce crowding or noise for the primary usage of the space. 

Degree of Openness 

Breakout rooms work best when there is some degree of openness to the corridor. This allows students to see which rooms are in use, and which aren’t. Partial or full glass walls can also help students feel safe when working in a group with other students they don’t know well, and can serve as an informal community-building, allowing students to wave at friends who pass by. Using glass can also allow for more natural light within the room, which is always a bonus!

A glass wall with chairs in the middle of a room

Image of Furman University, furniture provided by Interior Elements, photo courtesy of High5 Productions

Breakout rooms are a perfect opportunity to integrate modular construction into a project. Modular construction can be used to construct part or all of the breakout room, depending on the location. When embedded in corridors, perhaps using a modular wall for the corridor wall is sufficient. Modular construction can also be used to construct the entire breakout room, which is especially useful in learning commons or other wide-open spaces. Designing the modular room with or without a ceiling is an option as well, allowing for either reduced cost or improved acoustic control. The flexibility that modular construction provides can be essential, particularly when working in a space like a learning commons that must shift as needs change. 

A room with a couch and a tv

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Image of UAB, furniture provided by Interior Elements, photo courtesy of High5 Productions

Technology Agnostic

Just like in active learning classrooms, furniture solutions provided in breakout rooms should be technology-agnostic. Technology will inevitably evolve more rapidly than any other factor, so selecting furniture that can work with any type of technology is always a sound idea. 

A glass doors in a room

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Image of UAB, furniture provided by Interior Elements, photo courtesy of High5 Productions

Low-tech integrations such as writable surfaces and ample electrical outlets should be included in every breakout room, regardless of the furniture selected. 

Easy to Reserve 

If a reservation system is used, and it’s hard to use or difficult to see when rooms are in use and when they’re not, they won’t be used. Incorporating a screen near the door that connects with the reservation system and displays which rooms are available allows a student to make a choice at a glance, without feeling like they’re trespassing or interrupting others. Modular walls can easily support all types of systems and technology, often easier than a sheetrock wall can. 

A glass door in a building

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Image of Brassfield & Gorrie, furniture provided by Interior Elements, photo courtesy of High5 Productions


Of course the breakout room must be designed to be flexible—to a point, at least. Flexibility can mean different things here, from providing different seating options to having completely different furniture in different breakout rooms. After all, breakout rooms aren’t relegated to having just tables and chairs. Having rooms options with lounge furniture, standing-height tables, and a hybrid mix can support all types of work—while being inclusive to all. 

A room with white walls and chairs

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Image of Greenville IPS, furniture provided by Interior Elements, photo courtesy of High5 Productions

For more information on active learning and design strategies to support all modes of learning, including breakout rooms, or to be connected to Interior Elements, click here.

About the Author

Breakout Rooms in Higher Ed: Study, Gather, Learn

Anna Ruth Gatlin, PhD, is an award-winning interior designer and design researcher. Currently an Assistant Professor of Interior Design at Auburn University, she transitioned to full-time academia after a career practicing institutional, commercial, healthcare, and educational design.