Teaching Thursday: Teaching to the Room

This semester, I’m teaching in two classrooms that enjoyed recent renovation. Both rooms are active learning classroom, of a type, with tables, white boards, and as many TV monitors as a sports bar. The rooms are fancy, well-appointed, but also a bit awkward for teaching history. 

The building in which they are located is the old medical school and many of the rooms were originally designed as labs. As a result, they were originally oriented perpendicular to the central hall way with large windows on one wall and a door on the other. To make them into classrooms, the university removed the divisions between the labs or offices and oriented the rooms parallel to the central hall way. In some cases, this created square rooms that can accommodate about 30 students:

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This room is oriented by the teaching station which stands in front of a wall with a large dry erase board and a pull down screen for images. While it lacks the bells and whistles of an active teaching room, the chairs are on wheels and can be easily rearranged and the additional white boards on the back and side walls allow for students to re-orient the classroom or to break it group work spaces with their own dry-erase boards. 

The room where I’m teaching Greek history is a bit less flexible, but it seats 60 students. One of the challenges of O’Kelly hall is that the central hallway and weight-bearing walls mean that a room of this size must be substantially longer than it is wide.

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Rather than chairs with desks on wheels, this room is organizes around 9, six-seat desks each with a video monitor and a dry erase board. The teaching center in on the hallway side, flanked by two doors and opposite a wall with several large banks of windows. Because the room does not allow for a clear view of the wall behind the teaching center, it lacks a large pulldown screen for projecting images, and instead it is possible to send images out to the remote monitors on each table. The wall behind the teaching station does feature a small dry erase board, but it is not visible from every table in the classroom. Finally, the teaching station is not centered in the room. The classroom extends about 4 meters further to the right of the monitor than it does to the left.

This presents some challenges for my teaching style.

First, despite the ability to send images out to individual tables, it is hard to teach from images or plans because it is difficult to point to various features in an image. The little pointer disappears when its stationary for more than a moment and to illustrate or point out any feature, I need to be focused on the monitor at the teaching station rather than the rest of the room. This is awkward.

Second, the asymmetrical orientation of the room means that I have to shift to the right to be equally close to the entire room when I talk to the class, and this moves me away from the teaching station. This invariably starts a little dance where I walk to my right, say things, and then move back to the monitor to point things out. Back-and-forth, I’ll wear a path in the carpet.

Third, the group work space is not bad, with six chairs around each table, but since the classroom accommodates classes from 35 students to almost 60, this arrangement doesn’t necessarily scale well across the entire range of possible class sizes. My Greek history class is ~35 students with about 30 showing up on any given day. This is at the upper range of a class in which a full-class discussion can happen. The arrangement of this room, however, makes this almost impossible. In fact, the orientation of the students toward one another and the monitors makes it challenging to get the students to engage the entire class. 

Lurking behind these observations is that my class remains anchored in lectures and full-class discussions. In the normal class, I engage the students every 10-15 minutes with a discussion of a text or an image. This style of teaching is a hybrid of the lecture style and the seminar and is generally appropriate for a class of 30-50 students.

While it is not the latest in active learning methods, it represents a disciplinary tradition that is consistent with what many of my colleagues do in upper level classes (giving the students a sense of familiarity), and also general effective in achieving learning outcomes that emphasize basic content knowledge and improvements in reading unfamiliar and challenging texts and images. The difficulty in using this room for this style of teaching is, to me, an interesting problem.

On the one hand, this is the tail wagging the dog with classroom design forcing faculty to adapt their teaching style. At UND, department have less control over their classrooms than in the past, and it is clear that the room in which I’m teaching was not designed with history classes in mind. In fact, when we created a similar active learning room, we designed it with more flexibility making it easier to adapt to the lecture-discussion style favored by our department.

On the other hand, I’m kind of intrigued by the challenge of making this space work and adapting my teaching style to these unique constraints. One of the more interesting things about teaching at a university is seeing how shifts across campus impact what we do in the walled-garden of our department. Budget cuts, new classroom architecture, no strategic initiatives and other shifts in big picture university planning influence how we do what we do, teaching what we teach, and know what we know. It’s fun to have such an explicit example as this classroom to use as a laboratory!



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