sustainable learning spaces

Instructor Perceptions of a Flexible Writing Classroom

Dana Gierdowski, Elon University



The results from this study reveal that continued research is needed to better understand the role a flexible classroom design can play in higher education writing classrooms and other disciplinary areas.

While this study has notable implications regarding flexible classroom design and teaching in these environments, it also has its limitations. It is important to note that the methodology chosen for this research was qualitative in nature and offers an in-depth view of one composition class situated in a flexible classroom; therefore, the results are not meant to be generalizable. Due to the small sample size (one composition class of 18 students, and one instructor and TA), the study is limited to the perceptions and experiences of these individuals in one institutional context. With replication, however, the categories identified here might reveal a typology of perceptions of instructors in a variety of disciplines and at different institutions.

Since I limited the scope to one section of the instructor’s classes, it stands to reason that the data collected from the courses the instructor taught during the same or subsequent semesters might vary, as he described his interactions with students in his other classes as markedly different in regard to whole-class participation and discussion. While this study examines one class through a magnified lens, the results may be relative to this particular instructor and these specific students.

While the relatively short-term (one semester) nature of this study offers insights on how one specific group of users perceived the space, a longer study examining instructor perceptions could be beneficial; a more longitudinal approach would offer researchers greater opportunities to observe an instructor experimenting with the resources and how that experimentation might impact teaching. Studying the same instructor teaching different classes (either in the same semester or over the course of several semesters) could potentially shed more light on the role a flexible classroom plays on pedagogical choices, as well as the impact working in a more de-centered learning environment has on one’s philosophy of teaching.

Given that the design of the flexible classroom was new to the institution’s first-year writing program and was being used by the instructor for the first time, it is possible that the results might differ had the instructor experienced more teaching in the room. Triangulating this data with the results from data collected via other methods, such as surveys and interviews conducted with teachers in other classes who have also used the space, is recommended; doing so will add depth and breadth to the research on learning spaces and give stakeholders a larger picture of the varying roles flexible design can play in the teaching of Composition Studies.

While an ethnographic approach allowed for the capture of individual voices in this study, the method also has its limitations. At one point in the semester, the instructor indicated in passing that he believed he was inadvertently explaining his assignments and activities in greater detail during class for my benefit, which indicates that my presence could have influenced his actions.

Another factor that could have affected the results of this study is the addition of the mobile furniture and whiteboards to the space several weeks after the semester started. When the semester began, the space still had fixed pods that sat six students each. Since the participants had used the fixed furniture in the room for several weeks, it is possible that having this comparison could have influenced their perceptions of and opinions about the room. However, having this comparative experience gave me the opportunity to learn more about the instructor and TA’s preferences and comfort levels with the fixed versus the flexible furnishings. Such information is useful when we consider the design of future classrooms, whether they are fixed or flexible.

Compared to the four interviews that were conducted with the instructor, the TA was interviewed once (after the semester ended). This decision was initially made based on the fact that the TA taught the class on his own for a limited time (the last three weeks of the term). As evidenced from the results, the instructor’s perceptions seemed to evolve over the course of the semester based on his growing level of comfort with the resources in the classroom. Additional interviews with the TA could shed light on the evolution of perceptions and might also offer an opportunity to explore differences in pedagogical approaches, such as those influenced by generation, teaching philosophy, and prior educational experiences.

Additional research on instructors’ specific use of the space could also reveal more about how the space encourages or discourages active learning. Isolating and studying how specific targets are used in the space, such as the LCD screens or mobile whiteboards, can shed more light on the kinds of activities instructors assign that engage students actively in the learning process.

More information about how the material affordances are used in the space can also influence and inform future decisions about classroom design, such as including low-tech resources like mobile whiteboards in more traditional spaces and adding remote technologies to instructor lecterns to de-center the space further. For example, how might uses and perceptions of the space change if instructors have a way to operate the digital equipment from any spot in the room versus only at the control panel positioned at the classroom “front”? Exploring these issues could illuminate further the impact of this model as a tool for teaching and learning, as well as the financial sustainability of the design for higher education institutions.

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