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- Seating Arrangements in Korean University ELT Classrooms: What Teachers are Doing and How Students Feel About It
Seating Arrangements in Korean University ELT Classrooms: What Teachers are Doing and How Students Feel About It
Chris Kobylinski has taught communicative English at Hanguk University of Foreign Studies in Seoul, South Korea for more than a decade. He has presented at conferences around the world on subjects ranging from motivation to using authentic sources in the classroom. He is currently interested in how English for Academic Purposes is being taught in South Korean universities. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Why do teachers set up classrooms like they do and how do students feel about these seating arrangements? These are the two commonly overlooked questions that this study explored, in order to better understand the classroom seating environment in the Korean university ELT (English Language Teaching) context. The surveying of 12 teachers showed that three types of seating arrangements: traditional rows, cluster seating, and U-shaped seating, were used in most settings and teachers favored using traditional rows and cluster seating, while students preferred sitting in clusters or a u-shaped arrangement. The study also compared how students in large classes, roughly 30 students, and small classes, under 15 students, felt about the various seating arrangements. While these findings were interesting, the discussion focused more on having teachers take a second look at what they are doing with seating arrangements and why they are doing it, rather than recommending the use of one specific type of arrangement over the others.
Classroom seating arrangement is a very important yet often overlooked part of the classroom environment. It is very important for teachers to consider seating arrangements, because it directly influences what teachers are able to do and how they are able to do it (Scrivener 2012). In addition, effective classroom management is essential for achieving educational outcomes (Emmer & Stough 2001). Many teachers use the same type of seating arrangement throughout the whole year and continue to do so year after year, but is enough thought given to why those seating arrangements are employed and if they are effective? In order to better understand which seating arrangement or arrangements should be used in the classroom, teachers must first ask what the purpose of seating arrangements is and then decide which one or ones match that purpose.
Wang contends that seating arrangements should be used for two purposes, to maximize task achievement and to minimize problems, specifically behavioral problems (Wong 2007). While these goals are probably applicable to all classrooms, they might not specifically match the goals of a university level class, where behavior problems aren’t often seen as an obstacle or an issue. In addition, teaching English as Foreign Language has some unique issues that might make some seating arrangements more useful than others. Rates argues that in addition to supporting task achievement, that seating arrangements in EFL classrooms should also support the interaction between students and the interactions between the teacher and the students (Rates 2009). This concept is probably more applicable to the EFL classroom, where a bigger emphasis is placed both on student-to-student interaction and teacher-to student interaction.
Given the importance of seating arrangements in the classroom and some of the unique aspects of teaching EFL, specifically in the South Korean university context, this study examined how and why teachers set up their classrooms and then surveyed students to see how they felt about some of the most common classroom arrangements. 12 teachers were asked how and why they set up their classrooms and then 95 students were asked how they felt about the various types of classroom arrangement. In addition, students from two different class sizes, large (around 30 students) and smaller (under 15 students), were surveyed to see if the opinions differed based on class sizes.
Classroom management and seating arrangements are very important and therefore, many books have examined the importance of classroom management and about how various seating arrangements influence classroom interactions and discussions (Harmer 2008; Scrivener 2012; Wong, Wong, Jondahl, & Ferguson 2014). In addition, previous research on seating arrangements has looked at how seating arrangements influenced both task and academic achievement (Hastings & Schweiso 1995; Wannarka & Ruhl 2008). The purpose of this study wasn’t to see how the arrangements affected performance or task research, rather the purpose was to get an idea of what type of seating arrangements were being used in Korean university EFL classrooms and how the students felt about the arrangements that were typically being employed by the teachers.
After the teachers were surveyed, it became clear that despite the variety of arrangements available, only a few were actually being utilized by the teachers. In fact, the teachers surveyed only used three types of seating arrangements: traditional rows, cluster seating, and the u-shaped seating arrangement. In order to see why these three types might be more popular, a further examination of their pros and cons is warranted.
The use of rows is probably the most common seating arrangement in most classrooms around the world, and for good reason. First, it is convenient and it is the classroom that most teachers were taught in before they themselves became teachers. In addition, there are also some benefits to this traditional layout. First, the teacher can stand at the front of the classroom and can be seen and heard by all students and this promotes the “sage on the stage” style of teaching. Second, it allows teachers to move around the classroom easily. And last, it is often seen as the best arrangement for test taking and individual assignments (Displays2go 2016). Many EFL teachers would argue that this type of classroom isn’t ideal for group or partner discussions, but there may be some advantages to using this type of arrangement for EFL classes. This arrangement can be good for reading and listening activities (Rates 2009).
While there are some advantages to this arrangement, there are also many disadvantages. Most EFL teachers believe that this arrangement limits group activities and discussions, but there are also other limitations and problems with this arrangement. One such problem is with the fact that students don’t view all the seats within this arrangement as equally beneficial. Park and Choi highlighted this biased view towards certain seats by saying that a “Golden Zone” and a “Shadow Zone” exist in this traditional layout (2014). The “Golden Zone” is made up of areas that students really like and the “Shadow Zone” is an area in the back of the classroom that most students dislike. While the use of traditional rows is familiar and convenient, it is an arrangement with some problems, especially in EFL classrooms.
Another very common seating arrangement is the cluster arrangement. Clusters are groups of desks or a table with chairs where students gather in small groups. In classrooms with desks, clusters are often groups of four desks put together in a square shape. While rows are seen as being great for individual activities, clusters are wonderful for group activities. Clusters are good for collaborative learning and discussions (Currie & Ly 2016; Emmer & Stough 2001). Clusters might be the easiest way to introduce group activities into the classroom. This is extremely important, because a study by Artini, Ratminingsih, & Padmadewi found that students responded favorably to group activities in EFL classrooms (2018).
Despite the positive aspects in regard to group work and collaborative learning, the cluster arrangement does have some drawbacks. One of the most common criticisms of cluster seating is that it often allows students to get off task. Another criticism is that in almost all classrooms, cluster seating prevents some of the students from seeing the board or screen (Earp 2017).
The last arrangement discussed in this study is the u-shaped arrangement. In this arrangement, the desks are arranged in a u-shape. This allows the teacher to stand at the front of the classroom or walk around the inside of the u-shape and gives all students a clear view of each other, the teacher, and the front of the classroom. This arrangement is recommended for smaller classes and allows students to make eye contact with everyone and creates an environment that facilitates communication (Scrivener 2012).
While this arrangement has many positive attributes, its main limitation is that it is only good for small class sizes. The shape itself becomes impossible because of the size restrictions of most classrooms. While some teachers recommend using a double u-shaped arrangement for larger classes, this shape negates the benefit of eye contact, because some students are seated directly in front of other students.
How and why are teachers setting up their classroom seating arrangements and how do students feel about the arrangements that are being used?
12 Native English Speaking (NES) teachers who teach EFL in South Korean universities were surveyed about how they arranged their classes and why. The teachers all teach first or second year classes designed for non-English majors that are a required class in most Korean universities. The teachers had between 3 and 18 years of experience teaching university classes in South Korea and had taught at various universities. Although this wasn’t a random sampling, it was thought to give a good representation of different levels of universities in different regions of the country.
95 students were surveyed in this study. All students gave consent and came from two different groups. 82 of the students came from three large classes of 28-30 students and 13 of the students came from one smaller class of 14 students. Two different class sizes were surveyed to see if class size made any difference in regard to seating arrangement preference. All of the students were from courses that were similar or identical to the courses that the surveyed teachers teach.
Research design and procedure
The survey given to the teachers
The teachers were given a survey that showed five of the most common seating arrangements used in most EFL classrooms and a blank space that said others where they could describe another arrangement that wasn’t shown on the survey. Teachers were asked to check which seating arrangement they used in their classroom during the previous semester. Teachers were also told that if they used more than one, that they should check all that were used and note an approximate percentage of how often each arrangement was used throughout the semester. Finally, the teachers were asked to give some qualitative feedback on why they used the arrangements that they used.
This survey was done first and after the results were analyzed, it was determined that only three types of classroom seating arrangements were used. This was then used to determine what types of seating arraignments the students would receive and be surveyed about.
The survey given to the students
The students experienced all three types of seating arrangements throughout their semester and then were asked at the end of the semester to complete a survey about the three types of seating arrangements. The survey listed the three types of arrangements and the students were asked to rank the seating arrangements from 1 (being the best) to three (being the worst). The students were also asked to give qualitative feedback by listing what they liked and what they didn’t like about each type of arrangement. The three large classes and one smaller class were given the same survey. After the surveys were completed, the data was analyzed to see if any preferences or patterns emerged.
Results and Analysis
Quantitative data from the survey given to the teachers
As alluded to in the previous section, only three types of seating arrangements were used by the teachers surveyed, and two arrangements were the most common. Five teachers responded that they used a traditional seating arrangement of rows, four said they preferred a form of the cluster arrangement, two employed the u-shaped arrangement, and one replied with other. Upon analysis of the information provided, it was determined that the other arrangement was actually a cluster arrangement and not another unique seating arrangement. Therefore, the final results of the survey revealed that five teachers used traditional rows, five used cluster formations, and two used the u-shaped classroom. Even though it was a small sample size, it was thought that there would be more variation and the fact that the teachers used only three different styles was quite surprising, although not completely unexpected. A previous study of 50 elementary school teachers found that 48% used small groups, and 40 % used traditional rows (Gremmen, van den Berg, Segers, Cillessen 2016). Additionally, although teachers were encouraged to mark more than one seating arrangement if they had used more than one arrangement in class, none of the respondents did so.
Qualitative data from the survey given to the teachers
The qualitative data collected from the teachers was in line with what most of the previous research and books had said about the strengths of each type of seating arrangement, but one common response might be unique to the Korean context. Three of the 5 teachers that used traditional rows, said they did so because they felt that Korean students were accustomed to this layout and were therefore more comfortable sitting in rows. Additionally, four of the 5 respondents said that time, convenience, and classroom limitations were major factors in choosing to have students sit in traditional rows.
All 5 of the teachers that used cluster seating commented that they used this type of arrangement because it created a better environment for communicating in class. One teacher commented that the cluster arrangement was the only arrangement that “encouraged students to communicate when they were with a partner, in a group, or speaking with the entire class.”
Ease of communication was also given as the primary reason by the two teachers who used the u-shaped arrangement. One teacher commented that the u-shaped classroom had a unique advantage over other arrangements because it allowed the teacher to shift from student discussions to teacher centered instruction effortlessly. “This shape allows me to walk around and listen to the students discuss topics, yet it also allows me to get their attention and show them certain teaching points on the board.”
Quantitative data from the survey given to the students
82 students from three large classes were surveyed and asked to rank the three classroom arrangements from best to worst. Of the students surveyed, 39 ranked cluster seating as the best arrangement, 37 favored the u-shaped arrangement, and 6 listed traditional rows as the best. In the smaller class where 13 of the 14 students completed the survey, the results were slightly different, and 9 students said u-shaped seating was the best, four said they liked cluster seating the best, and none of the students listed rows as the best arrangement. These findings were interesting, because three of the 5 teachers that used rows said they thought that Korean students were more comfortable sitting in rows.
This perceived preference for sitting in rows also wasn’t evident when the data for the least favorite arrangement was analyzed. Overwhelmingly, rows were ranked as the least favorite arrangement by both the students in the larger classes and in the smaller class. Out of the 83 students surveyed from the larger classes, 60 ranked rows as their least favorite arrangements while 11 students ranked both clusters and the u-shape as their least favorite arraignment. In the smaller class, 10 students said rows were their least favorite, while two students listed clusters, and one student said the u-shape was their least favorite. While there were some differences between the two groups about which arrangement was preferred, both groups displayed a negative bias towards sitting in rows.
Qualitative data from the survey given to the students
The feedback provided by the students shed some light on why the students preferred certain arrangements more. Most of the feedback for traditional rows focused on how it was difficult to interact with other students. Most of the positive comments about the rows had to do with convenience. One student summed up these feelings by saying, “I don’t like rows, because I can’t talk to others. But I like not moving desks. It’s not good, but it’s easier than the other styles.”
Most of the comments about both clusters and the u-shaped seating highlighted that these arrangements were better for partner and group work. A majority of the negative comments for both arrangements were about the lack of space in some of the classrooms. Overall, the qualitative data supported the quantitative results and the feedback was consistent with most common thoughts about each arrangement.
Discussion and recommendations
The results of this study revealed some interesting information which should be looked at and considered by teachers teaching ELT in Korean universities. First, the survey of the teachers showed that teachers employ very few types of classroom seating arrangements and tend to stick with the same arrangement throughout the semester. This is something that should probably be examined by all teachers. Teachers should ask themselves why they are using the arrangement that they prefer and should see if this arrangement is the best one for what and how they are teaching. Additionally, teachers shouldn’t be afraid to change the seating arrangement throughout the semester. If the activities and assignments are changing, should the seating arrangements also change?
Additionally, ELT teachers in the Korean context should reevaluate why they are using the seating arrangements that they currently use. While three out of 5 teachers in this survey said that they felt that Korean students were used to and therefore more comfortable sitting in traditional rows, the vast majority of the students in this study didn’t share that belief. Many pointed out that they felt the other arrangements were more suitable for an ELT class. Teachers shouldn’t assume that just because students are accustomed to something, that they necessarily like it.
ELT teachers in Korea and elsewhere are often looking for ways to improve their classes, yet many might be overlooking a very simple way to do so. While this study showed that students preferred other methods over rows, it doesn’t mean that every teacher should blindly start using cluster seating in large classes and u-shaped seating in smaller classes. Instead, teachers should analyze their class and their lessons and try to find the best arrangements to deliver the best class possible. This self-reflection will probably cause teachers to use a few different arrangements throughout the semester.
There are a few limitations to this study. First, the sample size of the teachers surveyed was quite small and wasn’t a random sampling. While the sample was thought to represent a large portion of the types of classes NES in Korean universities experience, a large and random sample would have been much better and will be used in a future study.
Another major limitation of this survey was that it asked students to rank the three seating arrangements from best to worst. Although this showed clearly which arrangements were preferred and which ones weren’t, it probably would have been more informative and accurate to use a Likert scale, rather than an absolute ranking system. In a future study, a Likert scale will be used and this will probably lead to less dramatic differences.
The results of this study don’t prove that one seating arrangement is better than other styles of seating arrangement, rather it shows that teachers aren’t always willing to experiment with seating arrangements, while students, particularly in Korean university ELT class are more receptive to arrangements that encourage communication. Teachers might be less receptive to using various seating arrangements because of classroom limitations, yet most classrooms have some flexibility to allow for various seating arrangements. As teachers create lessons and use classroom activities that require more group communication, teachers should think more about the importance of seating arrangements. In addition to the activities, teachers must also consider the opinions and needs of the students. Park and Choi pointed out that student opinion and feedback about classroom experience is important (2014). When choosing a seating arrangement, teachers must not only consider classroom restrictions, but also the activities being used in class and the opinions of the students. Often this will result in teachers using more than one seating arrangement during the semester or even more than one seating arrangement in a class.
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