Voice from the Back of the Lecture Hall.

I taught Environmental Science for non-science majors one semester at Michigan State University when the usual professor was on sabbatical. The class had about 150 students in a large lecture hall. I had been reading about the advantages of group learning, and decided to try it, even in this large a venue. My inspiration came from Elizabeth Cohen's book, "Designing Groupwork" and from the wisdom of Chris Christensen of the Harvard Business School, who taught a course on leading discussions that I attended as a graduate student.

As part of my course, I assigned students to groups that chose an environmental issue to research. Each group was assigned seats together in the lecture hall so they could participate in small group discussions that I had planned for the class, and so I could more easily learn about the students.

One of my students was a gregarious young man who, in the first week of class before groups were formed, often contributed to class discussions. He stopped me in the hall before or after class to ask questions and to continue the discussion. He was a potential group leader, and I designed a group around him that I hoped would work well together. I placed them in the back of the lecture hall, because I knew they would be lively in class activities, and I wanted to be sure everyone, even in the back of the hall, was actively engaged. I saved the front seats for groups that had some quiet individuals who I wanted to keep my eye on and  to stimulate; students who might have taken seats in the back of the class if left to their own choosing.

On the first day that the students were given assigned seats, the young man's behavior in the back of the hall began to be disruptive. He would yell out answers to questions without my calling on him, and would speak at times when I hadn't asked for student input. His comments took on an edge of sarcasm. He butted in often so that other students began to be intimidated and wouldn't speak.

If this was your class, what would you have done?

Read what I did.

Copyright December 7, 2002, Karen Strickler.  All rights reserved.