Gray Matter: Lecture halls are not conducive to student success

By now, every student is well-acquainted with the layout of a typical lecture hall, with its sweeping rows, intimidating lectern and podium and awkwardly narrow aisleways. 

Lecture halls may be ubiquitous at USC and at any other college campus, but a large body of research, including a study conducted by professors at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, has found that their layout and structure are not optimal for student learning. This research suggests that an overhaul in not just classroom design but also lecture styles may be necessary to improve student learning.

One shortcoming of a lecture hall’s cascading seating is that students can see the screens of everyone sitting in front of them. This may mean that even if you’re on task and diligently taking notes, pictures, videos and notifications popping up left and right on the screens in front of you can be really distracting. This is especially an issue for people with neurological disorders that impair attention, such as attention-deficit disorder and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. 

As humans, we already have limited attentional capacity, according to cognitive neuroscientists. Donald Broadbent, an early psychologist, described attention filtering as a bottleneck in which we receive large quantities of information in the body of the bottle, but only a fraction of that information makes it through the bottleneck to be attended to. 

For people with attention deficits, this limited attention is exacerbated; brain scans have shown that people with ADHD have a smaller frontal lobe, the part of the brain responsible for attention. Because of this, their attentional capacity is even further reduced. Additional research on selective attention has shown that as the brain filters through environmental stimuli, objects that are colorful and in motion are more likely to attract attention. This means that your peers’ laptop screens are highly salient to your brain’s attentional processing system, making it an easy distraction.

In its publication titled “The Neuroscience of Classrooms,” furniture design firm Spaceoasis recommends designating a separate digital space, which entails all the computers concentrated in one part of the classroom. This could be applied to lecture halls by separating students using laptops and students taking handwritten notes into different parts of the room to help minimize digital distractions.

Another significant barrier to learning in lecture halls is the rigidity of the classroom setup. The majority of research surrounding classroom design recommends using movable furniture instead of fixed furniture pieces along with plenty of open floor space that can be adapted to different kinds of class activities — large-group work, small-group work and individual work. These literature findings contrast starkly with a typical lecture hall, which comprises seats anchored in rigid rows and a whiteboard pinned to the front of the room. 

USC has taken a step in the right direction by furnishing smaller classrooms with mobile desks and chairs. However, these classrooms are often so cramped that it is difficult to actually rearrange the furniture, and their small size makes way for little open floor space. 

Finally, another disadvantage of lecture halls is that it is more difficult for the professor to engage with students. Education research has shown that more student-faculty interaction is associated with student success. 

Faculty tends to agree with this notion — in a study that surveyed professors at the UNC, the majority of faculty members identified the ability to walk around and engage with students as a priority in choosing classrooms. The narrow rows of lecture halls make it almost impossible for professors to reach every student in the class, hence limiting one-on-one interactions.

However, it is also important to consider that interacting personally with students in large, lecture-style classes is not feasible given time and resource constraints. Similarly, lecture halls may not have adaptable furniture because typical lecture styles do not lend themselves to group or individual work time. 

Poor classroom design is only a symptom of the greater problem: teaching style. If students benefit from faculty engagement and small-group activities, then lecture-style classes are counterproductive. 

While it may be impractical to reduce class sizes and to implement a more engaging teaching style in large classes, a study by educators shows that there are ways to incorporate instructional methods that encourage active learning into class sizes of 50 to several hundred students that have proven results. Lecturers can use a method developed by Harvard professor Eric Mazur known as peer instruction, in which professors pose a question to the class, followed by individual thinking and group discussion time. This type of active learning instruction creates a need for classrooms that allow instructors to engage with students in different areas and provide flexible guidelines for different types of learning activities.

To remedy the issue of poor classroom design, we must first tackle the issue of rigid teaching styles and large class sizes so that we have course plans that allow for more flexible classroom setups and aid students’ learning.

Jessica He is a senior writing about neuroscience. Her column, “Gray Matter,” runs every other Wednesday.