sustainable learning spaces

Instructor Perceptions of a Flexible Writing Classroom

Dana Gierdowski, Elon University


Data Collection
Field Observations
Data Analysis


Data Collection

The participants in this study included the instructor, teaching assistant, and students in one section of English 101 during the spring semester of the 2011-2012 academic year. The scope of the information presented in this chapter is limited to the instructor and teaching assistant. The class met two times a week in 100-minute periods for 14 weeks. The instructor, a non-tenure track faculty member who had been teaching composition in the first-year program for twelve years, was interviewed four times over the semester.

The first interview focused on the instructor’s academic and professional background, teaching philosophy and practice, and prior experiences teaching in different kinds of classrooms. In subsequent interviews, I posed questions designed to gauge the instructor’s perception of the resources in the flexible classroom and their usefulness to both him and his students, as well as classroom dynamics and his incorporation of collaborative activities (see Appendix A for a list of instructor questions from interviews 1-3).

He described his teaching style as casual and noted that he has tried to center his classes around discussion; in addition, he reported that he uses collaborative activities to add variety to long class periods, to increase student engagement, and to give students the opportunity to prepare their work for different audiences. The instructor taught three sections of this course back-to-back twice a week, starting in the mid-afternoon and going into the late evening; the first section was the class that was observed for this study.

The teaching assistant (TA) assigned to the instructor was a first-year Masters student in the department of English (studying literature). As part of the department’s teaching assistant preparation program, Masters students are partnered with an experienced faculty member in the first-year program during their second semester, during which they shadow their mentors and assist with teaching and grading. Typically, the TA prepares and teaches one unit of the curriculum during the semester under the supervision of the faculty mentor. This TA independently taught a “writing in the humanities” unit during the last several weeks of the semester. Since the TA had no prior teaching experience and taught for a limited time, I interviewed him only one time after the semester ended. Questions for the TA focused on his experiences teaching in the classroom, how he used the resources in the space, and his perceptions of the usefulness of the room to students and to him.

Field Observations

In addition to conducting personal interviews, I was also an open participant observer in the class during the semester. I defined my role to the participants as a member of the class who would be taking notes on how they used the material affordances in the room, and who would ask them questions concerning how they felt about the space. I participated in the class to the extent that I attended meetings regularly (twenty-six 100-minute class meetings over 14 weeks) and sat with other students at or alongside group tables.

During each observation, I took detailed notes, paying specific attention to where students sat throughout the class, how the instructor, TA, and students used the devices and furnishings, the kinds of learning activities they were engaged in, and the levels of participation that occurred with both the old tables arranged in pods (during the first three weeks) and then with the new mobile furnishings. I periodically documented the movements of students, teacher, and TA for varying activities and furniture configurations with digital photographs and video taken with an iPad.

Data Analysis

My process of analysis included a variety of tools to organize, examine, and draw conclusions from the data collected from this study. After having the interviews transcribed and recording the extended field notes from the classroom observations, the data were uploaded to Dedoose, a data coding and analysis program.

Employing emergent design and following the grounded theory process from Strauss & Corbin (1998), I reviewed the interview and observation data in Dedoose for complete thoughts and ideas expressed in phrases, sentences, or paragraphs that related to the instructor and TA’s perceptions of the flexible classroom as well as how they utilized the material affordances in the space. I inductively coded the units through the technique of constant comparison, evaluating for consistency of meanings, patterns, and themes, and testing for internal homogeneity and external heterogeneity.

Through this process, categories were identified, and operational definitions were assigned to the categories for the research question, “How does the instructor perceive the space?” A sample of the data was given to an independent rater for reliability testing, and the results were calculated with Cohen’s Kappa. Four categories were identified that related to the instructor’s perceptions, and the strength of the weighted Kappa was .804 (“very good”) with a 95% confidence interval. This chapter will focus on two specific instructor perception categories: the flexible space as a tool for engagement and an obstacle to teaching.

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