Can I get students to sit closer to the front of a large lecture hall?
October 1, 2014 2:12 AM   Subscribe

I often teach in university lecture halls that have many more seats than there are students. Invariably, the students will fill the rows farthest from me, the professor. I think it sets up a very weird and distanced dynamic between us, but I don't know how or if I can fix it.

I often give "one off" lectures to a mix of students that I may know well and others that I may not know at all. So it's hard to create a general classroom environment that is warm and welcoming, beyond trying to be these things from the outset of each lecture. But they all sit at the back of the room, and I stand at the front, with at least four empty rows in front of me.

I could simply ask the back row to come to the front, but that may be imposing myself too much? I could try "roping off" the back rows if I bought some brightly colored tape, a bit of extra effort that may be worth the trouble. All the other faculty simply let the students sit where they want, but I'm very much bothered by the dynamic that it creates from the outset, and I'd like to find a way to change that if it's appropriate. I'm in the UK, in case that matters.
posted by stinker to Education (27 answers total)
I've had professors make similar requests (i.e. please sit in the first x rows of seats). Roping it off is also an easy way of just not saying anything, if it's one-off a lot of people will probably assume you didn't do it anyway and the students you do know will be over it. But I don't think it's super out-of-line to request it. I don't think most students will care and those who do think it is weird won't linger on it for long. Especially if it's a discussion based class, in which case you could make a good justification for it.
posted by hejrat at 2:15 AM on October 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

Just ask the students to move forward. I had many a prof do this and nobody ever thought anything of it. You're not imposing yourself - it's a perfectly reasonable request.
posted by lwb at 2:17 AM on October 1, 2014 [18 favorites]

I had professors in college who would straight up tell us to move to the front of the auditorium as needed. I see no problem with it, especially if you frame it in a kind way. Which I think "wanting to create a better connection/more welcoming atmosphere/more intimacy" absolutely is!
posted by Sara C. at 2:23 AM on October 1, 2014 [2 favorites]

Just ask them to come to the front, and tell them that your expectation is for the first rows to be used, not the back. Even if they dislike it in the short term, in the long term, I doubt any of them will care.

And if you are feeling like you don't have the energy to do that, roping it off isn't a bad option.
posted by troytroy at 2:41 AM on October 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

I highly recommend roping off the back seats. Students will have to choose seats closer up but won't feel like their initial choice was rejected, and nobody will think twice about it.
posted by myrrh at 2:47 AM on October 1, 2014 [4 favorites]

I had a professor who tossed out candy to people who participated in class by asking/answering questions, etc. But she could only toss the candy so far.

It may seem childish but most of the class did eventually migrate towards the front to maximize their chances of catching some candy.
posted by Jacqueline at 2:53 AM on October 1, 2014 [15 favorites]

Yep, we always got moved to the front if we sat at the back. Literally "back three rows, stand up and move down to the front three rows!". Yes, cue a lot of teenage groaning and mumbling but we moved and didn't resent the lecturer or anything.

One tactic if you have handouts is to put them all down the front. If you have tea and coffee put that at the front too (more for postgrads). Another tactic is to ask only questions of those in the back row, but that only works if you see the same students again and again. You may still find the actual first front row is empty, because the front row is really scary and exposed and if you sit there you might get sucked onto the floor and die or something (seriously I go to a lot of senior professional CPD things and nobody sits in the first front row still).
posted by tinkletown at 2:58 AM on October 1, 2014 [2 favorites]

Yep, make the bald request. It's never caused any rankling in any lecture cohort I've been in, and on the contrary I think it increases respect for the lecturer as it indicates they're taking the class seriously. I also, as a student, prefer the atmosphere when everyone is sitting together near the front instead of dotted around the hall.

You could also stand on the stairway (presuming a raked lecture hall) and physically direct people to the lower rows, but I think that's a bit more confrontational. If it's a normal classroom layout, standing near the door and asking the firstcomers to fill out the first couple of rows might work a bit better.
posted by mymbleth at 3:18 AM on October 1, 2014 [2 favorites]

I'm a prof. I ask students in the back row to move closer.

The way I see it, it's for the good of everyone. I lecture better when there isn't that distance between the students and me. Better lecture = happier students.
posted by Milau at 3:21 AM on October 1, 2014

I ask students to move to the front all the time. I always explain I'm asking people to come to the front so they can hear me better / I don't have to be as loud. If they audience is in a jokey mood maybe I promise I won't bite anybody's head off. Some students usually ignore me, I just let it go at that - but call them out if they sit in the back and chat or are otherwise distracting.

It is very much a matter of institutional culture, but the colored tape or candy method would be considered somewhere between weird and ridiculous around here.
posted by Dr Dracator at 3:23 AM on October 1, 2014

Chiming in to say direct is best. I'm an old student who studies with a mix of young and old students in regular or one off lectures. Most lecturers simply say something like 'Can we fill up the front three rows please?' and say it like it's the first order of business before the class starts. Some might say something about not wanting to shout, or having a cold but it's no big deal. I'm pretty sure we all prefer it as students too, but no one wants to be that person who sits front and center all on their own.
posted by Trivia Newton John at 3:45 AM on October 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best is not to have them sit down in the back at all. The roping off you mention is one option. Another option could be to have a (Powerpoint) slide on the screen as they come in, with a text welcoming them and inviting them to sit in the front of the room. That won't help 100% but some will take the hint and then at least those won't have to move.
posted by Ms. Next at 3:45 AM on October 1, 2014

Don't "ask" - Tell them to move up!!
It is NOT a question, it is an order. Move up!!

Look, do it politely - maybe phrase it like a question.
But, be stern. It is your room. You are the speaker. You are the teacher.

I do this adult that I speak before who are paying to hear me speak.
Certainly you can do it with students. If you aren't a commanding presence in the room,
they are probably not listening to what you say.

Unfortunately, it might be too late - if the students already see you as a weak presence,
it might be hard to change your image and really control the room.
posted by Flood at 4:02 AM on October 1, 2014

IME, professors don't really....need to be a commanding presence in the room to do their jobs effectively and be respected by students.
posted by hejrat at 4:30 AM on October 1, 2014

I had a bunch of profs in university who did this. Most times, it wasn't given as an option either. It was phrased as "Everybody in the back come sit closer to the front." I never thought it was unusual.
posted by futureisunwritten at 4:41 AM on October 1, 2014

If all the students are sitting towards the back, i've had professors stand in the row just in front of the students (fourth row, etc) to lecture, but that doesn't work so well if you have to use the board or slides or something. Yeah, its ridiculous, but it got their point across not to sit in the back.
posted by TheAdamist at 4:59 AM on October 1, 2014

Walk in, look surprised at them sitting so far away, and jokingly say, gosh, I didn't realize my breath was so bad last time. It's okay I have, I have gum today, please, move up.

Or, bring a basket of candy and offer a piece to anyone who moves up a few rows.

Humor and chocolate fix everything.
posted by myselfasme at 5:00 AM on October 1, 2014

Walk into the hall and introduce yourself per usual.

Stroll to the back of the hall and give your lecture/presentation from there.
posted by vapidave at 5:28 AM on October 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

I've used tape and have told students they need to sit in the first six rows--both work fine.

What works even better is to greet students as they come into the room the first time and ask them to sit in the first six rows. That way, you short-circuit the problem before it happens. You will probably need to tape off the rear few rows for a few sessions afterwards for students who miss the first session, but greeting at the door makes a massive difference.
posted by yellowcandy at 6:19 AM on October 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

Yeah, start of term here for me so I'm starting each class by telling the back 2 or 3 rows to get up and move up. Also, I use the screen up front for text examples and students soon learn that if they sit way back it can be a struggle but if they move up just a bit it's no problem.
posted by Gotanda at 6:22 AM on October 1, 2014

It's never caused any rankling in any lecture cohort I've been in, and on the contrary I think it increases respect for the lecturer as it indicates they're taking the class seriously.

What? Do you sit in the back of the room? This is a very front-and-center take on the situation.

People sit in the back of the room for all kinds of reasons. Messing around is one of them, sure. But so is easy access to the door due to mobility issues, access to restrooms for various reasons, anxiety about people behind oneself, a class on the other side of campus that starts 10 minutes after this one finishes, etc. I'm a back row person, and got to know a lot of others. A couple guys had been in Iraq or Afghanistan and weren't comfortable unless they could see the whole room.

If you're going to make a big deal out of this (as opposed to getting a more suitable space, which I know isn't always possible) you really should make it clear before anyone sits down. I think it's kinda sadistic to hold an event, allow people to sit and settle in, and then force those who have specifically chosen to sit in the back to pack all their stuff up and move to the front. Rope off some rows so that those who need/want to be in the back can know where that is and then don't worry about it.
posted by the christopher hundreds at 6:43 AM on October 1, 2014 [3 favorites]

I've had two classes like this. One professor insisted that everyone fill in the seats from right to left, front to back, as we arrived. Everyone hated this, and as soon as everyone figured out that this rule was not enforced once the lecture had begun fully half the 200+ student body would arrive anywhere from five to fifteen minutes late. (This was at a large public university with a high dropout rate, and this class was a 100-level gen-ed.)

The second professor just told us to only sit in the first eight rows. He announced this on the very first day, and would stop what he was saying every time someone tried to sit in the back row and ask them to come forward. After the third week he seldom had to stop, and even then the interruption only took about 15-20 seconds out of the class time.

I suggest the second approach.
posted by Urban Winter at 10:23 AM on October 1, 2014

In any of the universities I've studied at, I'd ignore any attempt to dictate where I sit. I can't see being ordered about, patronised with candy or inconvenienced with tape as successful strategies for many students.
posted by turkeyphant at 12:25 PM on October 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

As a student I like the distanced dynamic of a straight up lecture. What would be welcoming for me is to let me sit where I can see the whole room. I would respect the rope but please don't pack us like sardines into a few rows up front.
In churches the "suggested" method is to put dollar bills into the front pew bibles...
posted by SyraCarol at 1:44 PM on October 1, 2014

Nthing the Direct Approach: just request that people move forward. Most will. The ones who don't may have a good reason.

I've sometimes wondered about first thing asking the class to figure out how much they are paying to attend each hour of this class. I guess it could backfire if I do a crappy job.
posted by doctor tough love at 4:20 PM on October 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

I like the candy strategy. But yeah, a lot of folks have reasons for not sitting up front, such as not being thrilled at having to look up the teacher's nose. Some rooms are just not awesome for sitting in the front in, and I actually change where I sit based on rooms. Some I am in the front, or back, or middle depending. Maybe ask them why they all hate the first four rows of the room (which seems excessive)?

Another crazy idea: ask if you can switch to a smaller room. I don't know UK rules, but my alma mater definitely has room rearrangement issues going on for the first few weeks of school.
posted by jenfullmoon at 6:05 PM on October 1, 2014

Lower your voice.
posted by Wet Spot at 6:21 PM on October 1, 2014

« Older Incompatible sex drives the norm for post children...   |   Good long-form resources for debunking conspiracy... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.