Monday, May 1, 2017

Assigning Seats in College Math Class? Yes, It Makes Sense Sometimes

Most college courses do not have assigned seating. It's not part of the culture to assign seats in math classes at the college level.  There exist courses (say labs), when students are assigned a station.  So why did I assign seats last term and go against the grain?  Equity.  There are several reasons why you'd want to assign seats, but last term equity was the issue.

Last term I had a student with a disability. This disability required sitting in the front row, and the disability was not evident if you met the student.  I use groups regularly, and change the groups every week or two.  The changes in groups requires students to have to find each other and then find a place to sit.  I didn't want to place the student with the disability in a potentially difficult situation, having to explain each time the situation or perhaps the student would not say anything and then sit farther back. The course was also freshman calculus, so it's early in their college careers, and at the beginning of the term (when you need to decide on such things like assigned seating), you don't know your students yet and how they respond to situations.

Normally I assign groups, and let students sit where they want. Part of the fun is figuring out how to negotiate where to sit.  If I did this last term, then the student with the disability would have to talk about the disability every single time, and the student having to ask others to swap seats or move to a specific place.  It can get old to have to meet new people for the first time, and the first thing you have to do is to talk about a disability.

Hence, I assigned seats.  Instead of figuring out where to sit and find each other, more time was spent by students on getting to know one another.  They got in their new groups, and it was on to the learning.

Some have asked if I'm coddling the student the disability.  People say things like shouldn't the student just figure it out and deal with it?  They need to learn how to handle life.    First, I understand why people might think this way.  Second, I disagree with that perspective.  Third, the conclusion I came to is that my goal as a teacher is to provide a level playing field, not a tilted one.  Assigning seats causes no harm to anyone, and it ensures that the student with the disability is accommodated. This student is not getting extra help or a special hand. The student is merely sitting where the learning environment is equivalent to what all the non-disabled students have. It was all seamless to the students, people could be themselves, and the focus of every class was the math. Seems fair to me.

Other reasons to assign seating exist.  One can make sure that certain personalities are together/apart. The physical space in the rooms sometimes have their own quirks, where groups have to be carefully carved out of fixed seating or other factors like limited seating. In some of my classes I have exactly the number of seats as students.  So inefficient group arrangements actually is a practical problem.   Taking attendance, if you do this, becomes a breeze (look at the empty slots), and it saves some time when you regroup. People know where to go, and you get on with the learning.

The usefulness of teaching strategies depends on classroom specifics.  Employing what seems like an arcane idea, assigning seats, actually helped make a more inclusive and equitable classroom.  I am reminded again that sometimes, if we think a little, we can find good uses for our strategies to address specific needs.  A painter (artist) doesn't look at colors and brushes with an ideology of this color is always good and this brush is the best.  The colors and brushes are tools, and should be deployed according to the vision and goals of the art.  Likewise, classroom strategies, tools, techniques, can be viewed the same way.  They serve a purpose of helping students learn, and the teacher's role is to assemble them in ways that provide a fair, equitable, and engaging learning environment.