Rolling out the Rows – Lecture Theatres at the U of L

Over the past year, a lot of talk on the U of L campus has pertained to the imminent Destination Project and its possible implications. Faculty and non-academic staff alike have spent hours in consultation meetings to discuss needs for space, services, and infrastructure in the New Science and Academic Building as well as a renovated Uhall. In these consultation meetings, external consultants were invited to discuss the functional programming of the building (i.e., what goes into the new building). One of the items in the building inventory are classrooms, and the Learning Environment Evaluation (LEE) Project, an initiative of the Teaching Centre, has been part of the conversation around them.

Think of your standard lecture theatre. For us at the U of L, that means the large, tiered rooms we have in the 1st Choice Savings Centre for Health and Wellness, also known as the PE building. These are going to be the ones we’re talking about in this article. Now, in the consultation discussion about classrooms, one important proposition made by the external consultants was to build all future lecture theatres with two rows per tier. Here’s what that means: Most standard lecture theatres, such as the ones in PE, have one row per tier. On every step, there is one bank of desks with (usually moveable) chairs (i.e., one row per tier). The proposition was to have two banks of desks with chairs on every step (i.e., two rows per tier) for all newly built or newly renovated theatres.

When we asked the reason for such a radical redesign, the answer we got was that “the lecture is dead.” We protested heavily, but our resistance was futile. The idea of two rows per tier was planted into the ears of many of our faculty during the consulting process. Little did the consultants know, however, that the U of L already has several two-row-per-tier lecture theatres! And these are the five rooms that you can find on the 6th level of Uhall, which are mostly disliked by our students, as well as the two theatres in Turcotte Hall. Following this dissonance, LEE decided to look into this topic in a little bit more depth.

From September 2013 to June 2014, LEE investigated lecture theatres, including representative samples of both one-row-per-tier lecture theatres (PE250, PE261, PE264, PE275, E690) and two-row-per-tier lecture theatres (C674, D634, TH201, TH204). Further, other tiered rooms that are not formerly classified as lecture theatres included C640, MH1040, MH1060, and MH1090. LEE conducted classroom surveys in two classes in each room. For the same classes, students were invited to focus groups, classroom observations were conducted, and instructors participated in an interview. This blog post will highlight one finding from the student survey.

In the student survey, we asked students questions pertaining to the physical features of the room (e.g., quality of lighting, acoustics, furniture) as well as the overall effectiveness of the room as a learning environment. A compound score of all the individual questions was compiled to produce an overall quality score of the room as a percentage of the maximum possible score. Below you will find the graph showing the distribution of lecture theatres.

You can clearly see that, with the exception of E690 (our worst room on campus so far), the two-row-per-tier (2RPT) lecture theatres in orange ranked consistently lower than the one-row-per-tier theatres (1RPT) in blue! What that means is that the overall quality of our 2RPT theatres is worse than that of 1RPT theatres, or that students like 1RPT theatres more than 2RPT theatres. Note that the difference between TH204 and PE275 is not statistically significant (p = .08), but TH204 is significantly different from all rooms further to the right (p < .008) and from C674 and E690 to the left (p < .006).

Now, we were interested in what might cause this difference in overall quality between the 2RPT and the 1RPT lecture theatres. One thing that has come up in all student focus groups and that our observers have seen during classroom observations was that the design of the rows plays a big role. What this student described was echoed by a lot of our focus group participants:

“[Y]ou’ve got like a foot and a half between where you’ve gotta sit, move, and people are trying to get by you. [You’re] just crammed, just squeezed into your seat. Yeah, you need more space for sure. It would be better, honestly, on both of those tiers, if you were to take both rows [and] combine them, so you have about two feet. You can have papers, you can have your laptop, there’s more room there. Plus you’ve got more room behind you and around you for people to walk through for you to move … or to set up groups if you have to.”

Therefore, we took room measurements of desk depth, estimated desk width (since chairs are moveable and desks are continuous benches, this is an estimate), and interstitial space between the rows to figure out if any of these items correlates with the trend in quality score we observed. Check out the graph below. Here, we used a slightly different measure. All students answer the question how they generally like the room, and are asked to rate it on a scale of 1 = I hate it to 5 = I love it. Because the quality score is a compound score, and furniture is one of the items, we decided to use the Love/Hate rating of the room instead, which overall gives us a very similar trend to the quality score.

A linear trend line was plotted to better visualize any correlations. Desk depth (in red) did not significantly correlate, and estimate desk width actually correlated negatively. However, the most interesting measurement was interstitial depth! It turns out this measure correlates positively with the average room rating. What that means is rooms with less space between the rows were disliked, and rooms with more space between the rows were well liked! Seems intuitive, right? But who knew that the interstitial space might indeed colour students’ overall perceptions of the rooms! And the 2RPT theatres happen to have very narrow rows, only exceeded by the ultimate narrowness of E690. And chances are that’s the reason it’s our very worst room!

The reasoning behind having two rows per tier in a lecture theatre seems to make sense: Students can turn around and have a table to collaborate on with those students sitting directly behind them on the same tier. However, our current two-row-per-tier lecture theatres fail abysmally at translating that concept into action. The rows are far too narrow, the desks are far too shallow, the ceiling is far too low, the sightlines are far too miserable (one is lucky to see a corner of the board from the back) and, finally, instructors have little to no intentions of actually doing any collaborative work with a class of 100 students. Of our 33 instructors who were part of the full study, and an additional handful who we interviewed about the concept of two rows per tier, three exhibited interest in doing collaborative work with their class of 100+ students. However, for only one of these instructors would this comprise more than 10% of time in the semester. Oftentimes, the need for collaborative activities arises in higher levels (3rd and 4th year), when students have a knowledge base of their field of study. By default, those classes tend to be much smaller than 100; in fact, they are generally below 30, and often well below 20. And slotting classes of 20 students into a 100+ seat two-row-per-tier lecture theatres is no longer a feasible option. We think there’s a place for different modes of instruction, and we believe that there should be separate rooms that accommodate each one.