The space a class is taught in often has a profound impact on the students’ attitude and the ambiance of the classroom’s community. It’s not everything, but it can go a long way. As an adjunct, I have virtually no control over what room my class is taught in, so I’ve learned to make the most of what I have.
This semester, I have one particularly rowdy group. Their attention is easy to loose and difficult to hold. The classroom we are in has tables that 2 to 4 students can sit at.The tables are lined up so the students all sit facing me. It’s set up for a traditional, lecture style class.
In other places I’ve taught, and even in other buildings of the same school, I’ve had classic college desks, desk/chairs on wheels, and tables on wheels.
The heavy, not moving rows of tables are by far the worst. The students wind up expecting a lecture. They sit with their friends or hide phones under the big tables and cruise through social media all class.
They were okay for the first few weeks of class, but quickly dissolved into random interruptions, side conversations, abuse of phones and chaos.
So by midterm, I got fed up. I knew I needed to make some kind of change. The content I was using in class worked fine with other groups, so I thought I’d try changing the space and structure.
I got to class early and dragged the heavy tables together in the center of the room so it was set up like a conference room instead of a lecture hall.
The students were confused when they came to class, but quickly adapted. They didn’t all get their usual seat by their friends, and even if they did, they couldn’t easily hide their conversation or phones. It wasn’t just me looking at them, but their classmates.
When we started a discussion, instead of asking for volunteers, we just went around the table. Students were allowed to say pass if they weren’t comfortable talking, but few took that option in a majority of the discussions. Eventually, I did allow the discussion to take a more natural form, but by that point, it was much easier to moderate.
While I still noticed a few people texting, no one was having side conversations and the interruptions were minimized. Students were more respectful of each other and of me. They listened and made eye contact with the people who were talking. They stayed on topic (mostly). Everyone who did talk contributed something valuable to the discussion whether it was presenting their research or on strategies for avoiding procrastination.
By making a few adjustments to the layout of the room and structure of discussions, I transformed a the rowdy class that gave me anxiety to one I look forward to teaching again.