How can you ensure all students in a teaching session have the opportunity to engage, be involved and interact?

This is the question that I wanted to address when I set out to understand why students choose to sit in a given location within the lecture theatre.

Learning Spaces Research

My case study presented to the RSB was centred around a paper I published alongside Dr Mel Lacey and my student at the time Angela Hoara, entitled “Who goes where? The importance of peer groups on attainment and the student use of the lecture theatre teaching space.”

The research determined not only where the students were
sitting but why they chose that location. This video below explains the core
concept and findings of this work.

Students were asked a simple question: “Why are you sitting
in the location you are today?” Responses were coded and mapped back onto the
lecture theatre, alongside the outcomes of assessment tasks.

The study was performed on a mixed cohort of ~300 first and
second-year students taking Bioscience-related degrees. A range of social and
environmental themes emerged from the dataset around seating choice and are
summarised below:

  • Friendship: Students
    would sit in rows with peers on the same course. For example, there would be three
    or four Biomedical Scientists from one tutor group sitting on the same row as a
    group of Human Biology students.
  • Audio/visual: The
    ability to see and hear was a major driving factor for seating choice. However,
    these choices were subjective, with those at front reporting that they were
    there to see and hear better, which was precisely the same reason as those in
    the middle and the back.
  • Engagement: A
    student’s willingness to engage with the lecturer determined if they sat at the
    front or the back of the room. This pattern correlated with the tutor
    perception that high performing students sit at the front, and would indicate
    that staff relate overt engagement with achievement.
  • Anxiety, nerves
    and lone working
    : Student comments around nerves and anxiety did show
    clustering to specific areas of the lecture theatre driving students to sit at
    the edge of the room.
Friendship groups get similar marks, but seat location does not matter

When the attainment of the students was plotted onto the
room in either an essay or a problem-solving task, no clear pattern between
location and grade was seen. Students sat at the back were equally likely to
get the same mark as students sat at the front.

However, clusters of similar marks to within rows did correlate
with friendship groups. Our data indicated that these students are working
together, obtaining similar scores on problem-solving tasks. What was
particularly worrying was the lone students at the edge who tended to score
below the class mean.

Change the dynamics during peer-assisted learning

Peer learning sets out that students interact
with each other to obtain educational goals. During large group teaching, think-pair-sharing
activities are used extensively and are championed in lecturing handbooks as an active learning

Students are given a question
or problem by the tutor and asked to share the answers or solution with
classmates. Given the location choice of the students, these conversations are
likely to be with a friend at a similar level of attainment.

There is then the risk that misunderstanding or self‐validation
of mistaken ideas can occur and be propagated through the group. To prevent
this, and facilitate a broader sharing of knowledge, the way think-pair-sharing
was conducted within large groups was changed.

Instead of talking with the person next to them, students
were instructed to swap written work or speak with people in front or behind
them. This would break students out of their usual groups and form transient
interactions with others, and groups of differing abilities are able to
exchange knowledge and ideas and identify and address any misunderstandings.

Interacting with the silent majority

It is essential to student learning, wellbeing and equality
that all have a channel through which they can interact with the lecturer. Many
students identified as being anxious and chose their seat to prevent people
sitting behind them, or sat at the sides to better manage their anxiety. How
then do you engage with these students, who have selected locations
specifically not to interact with the tutor?

The solution to this problem was to use open text
response systems during the lecture. Anonymous responses from internet-enabled
devices allowed students to ask questions without the fear of being called out
in front of their peers.

There are a variety of open text response systems (Padlet,
, etc.) that can be used and most of them are free for
educational use. I tend to opt for systems that do not require a login so that
identifiable student information is not given to third parties. It is also
essential that the system works well on mobile phones.

Students are directed to the text response system by
URLs or QR codes, and can use the platform to answer questions set by the tutor
or ask their own questions.

A pause point, during which a question was asked by the
tutor, was timed to take place every 20 min, requiring 10 min in total during
the lecture. Each question builds on the last, moving from knowledge recall to

For example, here are three questions taken from a
lecture around genomic editing:

  • Outline the molecular basis of CRISPR.
  • How can CRISPR be used to edit a gene in cell culture?
  • Design an experiment to create a cellular model of a
    disease of your choice.  

This intervention sets up a two-way dialogue, allowing
the level of understanding and any misconceptions to be addressed. Removing the
need to speak openly allows students to have their voice heard and the
opportunity to ask or answer questions they wouldn’t usually contemplate if
they are unsure about raising their voice in lectures.

Beware the Trolls!Open text response systems are open to misuse. To keep the use of the
systems on task, ground rules can be set with students, and the reasons for
using the response systems explained. Moderation of posts or a second screen
that only the lecturer could see was used to prevent inappropriate material
being shown.


I entered into the lecture theatre study with preconceptions
about my students and how they engage. Uncovering that anxiety and nerves were
forcing students to the edges of the room was a real driving factor in the
introduction of the interventions.

Anonymous communication has led to a richer learning experience for all and has helped me discover where gaps in student knowledge occur. Drawing the study together for the RSB was an uplifting experience, and hearing from my peers and students on how my ideas have positively impacted on the learning experience has been fantastic.

Resources created by Sam and Claire, Learning Technologists in the directorate of Learning Enhancement and Academic Development at Sheffield Hallam University. Read more


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