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.