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Engaging the Silent Majority

Posted by on August 13, 2019

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 tool.

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, Socrative, TurningPoint, Google Forms, 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 application.

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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