May 20th, 2008

The Rationale for Seating Charts


In the May issue of The Teaching Professor, there’s a follow-up article that further explores the issue of control in the classroom and how much there needs to be to create the kind of environment learning demands. My colleague and good friend Mitch Zimmer came down pretty strongly on the side of control, citing as an example his use of seating charts.

I’ve always thought seating charts were pretty superfluous. If you just let students be, by about the second or third week of the course they have selected their own seat and (at least in my experience) will regularly plant themselves there for the rest of the term. In fact, on the day when we talk about the nonverbal messages conveyed by space, I have been known to suggest that for next class, a student should sit in the seat of someone who is absent today and the rest of the class should observe the absentee’s reaction when he/she returns to class to find someone else in that seat. It almost always makes for an interesting discussion.

A personal email from a long-time reader of the newsletter also made the case for seating charts, indicating that they were not being used to control students but to enable the professor (who struggles with names, like so many of us) to “improve the quality of the classroom experience by personalizing. . .interactions with students.” I can see that working, especially if students get to select their seats and the instructor shares the rationale for the chart with students. This instructor can also motivate students with his previous experience. “It’s worth mentioning that my wife and I met each other in college in an alphabetical seating chart, and we’re now approaching our 45th wedding anniversary.”

In the grand scheme of educational issues that matter, seating charts probably don’t even register. But I do think it’s interesting how the intentions behind a practice make such a difference. It is also noteworthy that intentions may not be obvious. Unless they are communicated explicitly, students, learners, teachers are left on their own, assuming what they will about rationale and purpose.

—Maryellen Weimer