Saturday, December 31, 2011

The Physical Learning Environment

The other night I had a dream in which I had been assigned a classroom on the Ag Campus next to a building that was being demolished. There was a constant, high-pitched alarm emanating from the building. I was trying to conduct class but I couldn't focus at all. In desperation, I left the classroom to find a secretary who could find me a new room in the building. I then gave my students directions to the new room, but they got lost on the way--I couldn't even find it through the maze of elevators and Willy Wonka-esque domes. This leads me to my point:

The most common problem I have in class is the classroom itself. 

  1. Rooms without technology. Last semester I was assigned a classroom that had a projection screen but no projector and no place to set the portable projector to get a good image. This was in a class where I had planned regular student presentations. Luckily, someone switched with me. I've also been in classrooms that had only a chalkboard and were across campus, so it was difficult to convey the projector even if there had been a screen and convenient plug. I usually solve this problem by scheduling a class in the library for special viewings, but I find it very limiting to my pedagogy in general. 
  2. Location. Sometimes I'll have a class on the far side of the Hill and then another right afterward in Humanities. That's tough, but not impossible. Much worse is the condition of a friend who has one in Humanities followed by one on the Ag Campus--that's 15 minutes to get to a class almost a mile away.  When I've taught on the Ag Campus, I haven't had to rush there or back, but it was still a problem because students were often late. And don't get me started on classrooms that are still TBA 2 days before classes start.
  3. Access. Once I taught in a room that could only be accessed through a narrow stairway. A student broke her leg, and we moved for four weeks to the library. 
  4. Sound pollution, sometimes due to construction and sometimes to other classes. In an otherwise perfectly nice SMART classroom, the class next door was always showing films too loudly. I sent the instructor an email requesting he not show any on the day of the midterm. At a final exam this past semester, a classroom across the hall was having some kind of student presentations that were too loud and I couldn't do anything about it. I would love to work in a place that has sound barriers, even just corkboard on the walls.
  5. Size and shape. I've taught in large, cavernous rooms where my voice echoes. One room in the Alumni Memorial Building had a little stage in front, which would have been great if it had been a literature class instead of a writing class. One class had old wood floorboards that creaked and echoed over my voice. I also had a classroom that had huge filing cabinets taking up half the space.
  6. Climate control. Older buildings with window a/c units are particularly problematic, because it's a dilemma between comfort and being able to hear. In lots of other rooms, you can't control the temperature at all. This is so important that I once traded a SMART classroom without working a/c for a plain room that had window units. 
I don't want to sound too negative--my university has some lovely rooms, and overall I've been lucky. I simply want to observe that it's harder to have a good class when the physical environment is working against you.

*Image from


  1. Oh, what a fantastic piece! The issue of universal design is HUGE, and I think UT violates a number of the ADA mandates. (Based on my own classroom experiences, paired with yours here.)

    A friend of mine is doing her dissertation on learning spaces and how they constrain actual learning. I guess there's been a lot of research done on spaces, but not in the Humanities. I forget the name of the scholar she reads, but if you're interested, I can get it to you.

  2. The classrooms with the rows of long tables I find tough, too--it's nearly impossible to circulate around them and interact with students while they work. I read about a school that got a grant for upgraded classroom designs, which included modular furniture on wheels, which could be easily moved into different configurations. I would love that.

  3. Bellatricksy, UT does now have some rooms like that. The old language lab on the 2nd floor of HSS has been converted to have chair with attached desks that flip up and the chairs wheel around. I'm not sure who is so lucky as to have that environment.

    Casie, I'd be interested in who is writing on this subject and what's being said, if you find out the name.

  4. Sure thing, Robin. I'll ask Dana (my friend) for some citations.

    Monica: State (Dana, really) just received a grant to redesign a learning space with moveable tables, chairs, whiteboards, and technology stations. We're piloting it in the spring. I would LOVE to teach in there. The whiteboards alone are supercool.

  5. I totally agree! I have noticed that cramped quarters with no tech (like the music building before it was torn down) led to less than stellar student interest and involvement while classes at the Haslam building (my favorite place to teach) were always, always wonderful!

    Here's hoping that you have great rooms this semester!