Monday, February 21, 2011

An attribution error in teaching

I had the most interesting experience in my criminology class. I've taught it maybe 8 times over the years, and it always go well. Hey, who doesn't love serial murderer jokes?

Well, this class has met five times, and the first four times were dreadful. Sure, I got the material out, and the students participated enough, but the whole atmosphere was dry and boring. Think tumbleweeds blowing through the classroom, crickets chirping, dry coughs--well, you get it.  They even didn't laugh at a particular slide that I put up that for 8 years running has caused uproarious laughter.

In thinking about it, I've had had this happen in two other classes here at UConn, and all three boring classes were in similar classrooms--about 80 people, old fashioned seats/desks, and crowded rooms, and so I started to wonder if part of the problem was the physical setting. I talked to a friend about this, and he suggested that I do an experiment and switch classrooms. I did, to a larger, auditorium-style classroom, and it went great. They were engaged, talkative, and, most importantly, laughed at my jokes.

I'm so attuned to person-attributions, such as I'm doing a good/bad job of teaching or the students are good/bad participants, that I overlook physical atmosphere effects. If nothing else, I'm requesting auditorium-style seating from now on.

This also makes me wonder about church seating. Seems like a lot of churches have a similar layout to my "boring" classrooms. Does anyone know of research on the effects of sanctuary layout? It would be interesting.


Mike Crowl said...

I don't know of any research on the subject, but I can confirm that the place you're worshiping in makes a huge difference. We've been in auditoriums for the last decade or so (two different ones), neither of them built for churches, and the atmosphere is definitely not conducive to good worship times.
And we visited a Baptist church in another city recently: each pew fixed in place on a step higher than the one before, the entrance way in the middle of the area, coming up more steps - and walls as bland as you can imagine.
Makes a huge difference.

Kevin Cunningham said...

This is a great post. Thanks, Brad for starting the conversation.

I will follow with anticipation.

I am also interested in the room setup for the Adult Sunday School or "Adult Bible Fellowship" (mid-size groups). Two of our groups have tables. Two have chairs set up in a semi-circle or similiar type of setting.

Ben Byerly said...

Please say more about "WHY". What kind of environment makes interaction more conducive and why? Feng Shui? ;-).

Brad Wright said...

Ben, I have no idea why. I assume that there are people who study these things, but I'm not one of them. It could be the shape of the room or how crowded it was. And, any changes could be specific just to me, so I would hesitate to generalize.

Brad Wright said...

Mike, that's interesting. I suppose that would be the way to test these things... how the same group worships in different kinds of places.

Brad Wright said...


Rearranging rooms seems like it would be more doable to study. Somebody has to have studied this kind of stuff, though maybe not in a church setting.

Jason Lee said...

thought: in auditoriums people are better able to see/hear each others' responses to the object of attention (eg, professor, slides, etc...). it's awareness of this mutual focus of attention that pumps up the group's collective effervescence and individuals' emotional energy (in the Randall Collins "Interaction Ritual Chains" sense).

Brad Wright said...

Jason, that could be, but we moved from a smaller room, where everyone could see and hear each other well, to a room with 230 chairs (for only 80 students).

Certainly there are bigger video monitors, though, so that might mean more engagement.

unkleE said...

"They were engaged, talkative ..."

Surely there's a message here!? Most church services require most people present to be passive - certainly during the sermon. Yet the NT church was apparently different (if 1 Corinthians 14 is any guide), with people engaged and contributing. Modern educational practice (e.g. active learning) recommends the same.

Perhaps we should be worrying less about auditoriums and sanctuaries, and thinking more about getting everyone involved and using their gifts, and equipping them for the work of ministry instead of talking at them?