Monthly Archives: August 2014

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.

Teaching for Conceptual Understanding

Concepts! They’re everywhere! Textbooks are full of them. Our lectures strive to explain them. We organize entire courses around them. We write tests designed to measure students’ understandings of them. Moreover, we often ask students to write papers critically assessing them. But, what is a concept? Are all concepts of equal merit? In our courses, are there any fundamental and powerful concepts students need to know in order to understand other, related concepts? Without downplaying the role of memory, how can we teach concepts in a way that goes beyond memorization? In short, how can we teach for a conceptual understanding of concepts themselves?

Herein, I suggest a few ways one might teach for a conceptual understanding of concepts. It is pedagogical in nature with a practical focus. Hence, it refers to research in the area but focuses on a few teaching activities designed to help students deepen their understanding of concepts. It is the first in a three-part series dedicated to teaching for conceptual understanding. Because the literature on this topic is broad and deep, my brief discussion here simply wants to share a few, useful strategies for your critical consideration. As well, I hope to build on the many good things instructors are already doing to promote conceptual understanding in their classrooms.

To begin, many see concepts as tools that help us make sense of the world. They are considered to be lenses through which we perceive the world. As such, theories of concepts are diverse, numerous and heavily debated. A concept can be thought of as “a mental construct or category represented by a word or phrase” (Wiggins and McTighe 2005, 340 quoted in Case and Clark). Concepts are considered to be mental representations, abstractions that help us understand concrete objects. Some see concepts as abilities peculiar to cognitive agents, and the very constituents of thought itself (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 1). For example, as an abstraction, the concept, island helps us understand concrete, specific islands. As an ability, the concept democracy helps us identify democratic and non-democratic nations while drawing inferences about other democracies.

According to some, whenever we reason through a problem to its solution, we use concepts. (Nosich 2012, 56). For example, if we are reasoning about the justice system in Canada, operative concepts such as justice and fairness are at work in our thinking. As well, if I want to know whether or not my students understand a concept, a specific notion of understanding itself will inform that inquiry. Consequently, such an understanding also informs my choices about what assessment rools I’ll use to decide whether or not my students understand a specific concept.

So, if concepts are deeply relevant to, and always present in our thinking, how can we teach for a deeper understanding of them? What might be some challenges in teaching for a conceptual understanding of concepts? And, how can we cultivate a culture of conceptual understanding in our classrooms? I’ll only be addressing the first of these questions in this short article. I’ll leave the others for parts two and three in the series.

An important question to ask before going any further is, what does the expression conceptual understanding mean? Without pretending to be exhaustive, there are a few, widely accepted indicators of conceptual understanding. They involve the ability to:

  • identify essential and non-essential attributes of concepts,
  • pose problems with the usefulness of existing concepts,
  • identify examples and non-examples of concepts,
  • clarify and apply concepts to new situations and contexts,
  • trace the historical development of concepts,
  • deconstruct and reconstruct assumptions underpinning concepts.

As well, it’s generally believed there are many different ways one can teach for conceptual understanding. Given that, people have organized them into three distinct categories: concept recognition, concept attainment and concept formation (Case, R. and Clark, P., 2008, 58). This brief discussion focuses only on concept recognition strategies. In short, they are designed to help students identify essential/non-essential attributes and examples/non-examples of concepts.Briefly, an essential attribute of a concept is one that is typically associated with that concept. For example, an essential attribute of pencil is that it contains graphite. A non-essential attribute could be, has an eraser (Case and Clark, 2008, 58). Usually, such strategies are instructor-centered, quite popular, and considered to be the most straightforward way of teaching concepts.

For example, students needing to understand the concept economy would be given a set of instructor-selected set of essential and non-essential attributes and a set of examples and non-examples of the concept economy. Usually, four of each category is sufficient for a total of 16 items. Students then take those items, and categorize them accordingly, identifying which ones might be essential/non-essential attributes and examples/non-examples of the concept economy.

Often, the instructor prepares a chart that lists all the items, organizing the pre-selected ones on the left hand side of the page, and four columns on the top of the page (essential attribute, non-essential attribute, example and non-example). Students then simply check off where the item belongs on the chart. Interestingly, this teaching strategy can be done as an introductory or culminating activity. As well, it can be used as a valuable means of formative assessment.

I’d like to share one more concept recognition teaching strategy that I have found useful. It is called SEE-I.It is a teaching strategy designed to help students recognize and clarify the meanings of concepts (Nosich, 2013, 30). It’s been used as both an introductory and culminating activity. As well, it could be used as a follow-up to the strategy outlined above.

SEE-I is an acronym that stands for:

  • State: state your meaning of the concept in a clear, short sentence.
  • Elaborate: elaborate and expand upon your meaning of the concept in 2-3 clear sentences.

o   Here the student explains in more detail what their short sentence actually means

  • Example: give a good example and counter-example of the concept.
  • Illustrate: illustrate your meaning of the concept with an image, metaphor, diagram or analogy.

For example, say I wanted my students to understand the concept, ideology. I would begin by having them do a SEE-I on the concept. This would give me a snapshot of their prior understanding of the concept itself, and offer me a reasonably sound place to begin. As mentioned earlier, I could also use SEE-I as a culminating activity to see if my students’ understanding of the concept has broadened and deepened.

The benefit of having students briefly state their meaning of ideology in a short sentence is that it forces them to be clear, accurate and precise. In turn, it also focuses their subsequent elaboration and explanation of the concept, often preventing them from getting off track. Next, by having students give a good example and counter-example of ideology, the instructor can see if they understand the deeper subtleties of the concept. Lastly, by asking students to illustrate their understanding of the concept, they can further clarify their meaning through a visual. This helps refine and deepen their conceptual understanding of ideology.

In one of my classes, a student illustrated ideology with two images: a mirror and a pair of glasses. He saw ideology as something that reflects both who we are, and how we see the world. I also recall doing this activity with the concept critical thinking. In her SEE-I, one student came up with a very clever illustration of critical thinking: a scuba diver. I asked her to explain it, and she simply added, critical thinking allows you to see more because it takes you deeper. Again, pretty insightful illustration. I hope you’ve found this discussion relatively helpful. Please feel free to contact me with any questions, concerns or conundrums.

Written by
Dr. Lance Grigg – Faculty of Education


Case, R. and Clark, O., 2008. The Anthology of Social Studies. Vancouver, Canada: Pacific Educational Press.

Nosich, G. 2012. Learning to think things through: critical thinking across the curriculum. Boston, MA: Pearson Education Inc.

Wiggins, G. and J. McTighe. 2005. Understanding by design, expanded 2nd ed. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

What is SCALE-UP?

Did you know that the Teaching Centre together with the Learning Environment Evaluation project (LEE) are delving into new pedagogies this fall? It turns out that these pedagogies work best when there are classrooms that facilitate them. One of these is SCALE-UP, which we’ll portray briefly below.

SCALE-UP stands for Student-Centered Active Learning Environment with Upside-down Pedagogies. And to figure out what that means, you just need to dissect the acronym a little bit, which we’ll do here:

  1. Student Centered.

In SCALE-UP, lectures have a very minimal place (limit: 15 min per session, if you have to do it at all!). The instructor does not take the stage, but acts as a guide on the side. Here, especially, the SCALE-UP classroom facilitates the SCALE-UP pedagogy: This classroom has fixed tables designed for students to sit in teams and groups, an instructor station in the centre of the room, and no front of the room. The students are the focus of attention. Students collaborate in teams of 3, or groups of several teams based on table size (6 or 9). Roles and responsibilities within the groups are clearly defined to maximize participation and contribution to the process.

  1. Active Learning.

In active learning, the responsibility of learning lies with the students, not with the instructor. There are carefully designed tangible and ponderable activities for students during class to engage in problem solving. This can be followed by whole-class discussion or group presentations.

  1. Upside-down Pedagogy.

This is also known as the Flipped Classroom. Materials are delivered to students prior to class (e.g., textbook readings, PowerPoint presentations, video). Instructors have to carefully think about how to design and utilize these. You don’t just want to put your lecture into a video, because a presentation is a presentation is a presentation, which SCALE-UP tries to minimize. Remember, the focus is on students actively engaging with the material at every step of the way.

Stay tuned for our A Light On Teaching Magazine this fall, featuring two articles on Active Learning and SCALE-UP! In the meantime, we encourage you to visit the LEE project site to learn more: