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This issue of CDTL Brief on Engaging Students features articles by colleagues and a student on how to engage students in the learning process at different levels.

May 2009, Vol. 12 No. 2 Print Ready ArticlePrint-Ready
Learning Spaces
 
Associate Professor John Richardson
Department of English Language and Literature and
Vice Dean, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences
 

The layout of a teaching room cannot determine the nature of the interaction and learning that take place in it, but it can exert a considerable influence. There is more likelihood of discussion in a room in which students face each other, than in a room in which they all sit looking at the lecturer and other students’ backs. Moreover, the existence of large numbers of rooms of the second kind sends a message to students as they walk round the campus—the message that learning is a process by which a lecturer actively transmits knowledge and students passively receive it.

All this is well known. What is not quite so obvious, however, is the influence of specific details of classroom layout. Before this semester, I had heard of rooms with white boards on different walls, but had not been convinced that this could make much difference. My mind changed when I taught in such a room.

Just before the beginning of the semester, Professor Mohanan and I conducted a research workshop for 18 junior college students about to embark upon H3 research in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences (FASS). Our learning outcomes were modest. We wanted students to acquire some sense of a research question and understand that the research approach—methodology—must be adapted to the question. In order to achieve this, we had a number of tasks for the students to perform.

The workshop was held in a recently refurbished room in FASS. The room has five hexagonal tables so that the students sit in groups of five or six. It also has two white boards on each of the three walls without windows. But the white boards were not why I chose the room; I simply wanted the students to sit around the round tables.

The students worked in four groups of four or five, and halfway through the workshop, we asked each group to choose one research question from their earlier applications for the H3 scheme. We planned to discuss the questions, and in particular, to think about how to refine them and about the kind of methodology each would require. While the groups were discussing, we decided, off the cuff, to use the white boards on facing walls.

The decision had consequences which I had not anticipated. As soon as we started eliciting the questions and writing them up, the students had to look back and forth across the room at us and at each other. Similarly, as soon as we started discussing the questions, they had to make comments in the direction of other students. The result was that they began talking not just to us but to each other. As one student threw a suggestion across the room, another would catch it, consider it and throw it back. A discussion developed which was still directed by the teachers at some points, but which was driven and shaped by the students.

The position of the white boards was instrumental in fostering this discussion. The students had to move to see the different boards, and in doing so they caught the eye not just of the students near or opposite them, but of students all over the room. This had the effect of creating considerable crosstalk.

The workshop was not an unadulterated success. I finished by giving tips from the front about bibliography and writing, and the students’ attention visibly waned. However, the middle part went well as students engaged with their tasks, with each other and with us. A good part of that success was owing to the room arrangement and the facing white boards.

 
 
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Inside this issue
Encouraging Youth Engagement in the Public Square
   
Designing Interactive Spaces for Teaching and Learning
   
Make Large Classes Engaging
With ‘Quick-ins’
   
Learning Spaces
   
Maximising Opportunities for
Experiential Learning at NUS