Can the right to choose be detrimental?

I always start off each class in September with a seating chart where the students are seated in alphabetical order. This arrangement is the quickest way for me to learn the names of the 75–95 names in all my classes, and it’s also a reasonably objective way of seeing how the students behave as a class. If they are quiet and behave appropriately, I may allow them to choose their own seats after a few weeks — or I may simply create a new seating chart.

This year, in two of my classes, I decided to try out another teacher’s method of assigning seats. After each test he has everyone stand up, and then he returns the tests in random order. As each student receives a test back, s/he gets to pick a seat. Clearly this method won’t work for a class where careful assignment of seats is necessary, but it should work well in a group of serious, well-behaved students. So I tried it in two sections of the same course. In one of them the large majority of the students were satisfied, and many of them enjoyed the change of pace provided by the activity. Of course you can’t satisfy everybody, so we just left things as they turned out as a result of the randomly ordered free choice. But in the other section (of the same course, remember) there was massive dissatisfaction. Earlier — when I had assigned seats alphabetically — nobody claimed at all. But as soon as they had the illusion of choice, almost everyone who didn’t get his or her first choice was unhappy. Basically that meant all but the first seven or eight who got to choose. Somehow they preferred no choice to some choice.

It turned out that practically everyone wanted to sit in the front row. Yes, that’s a pleasant and surprising dilemma for a teacher, and I pointed out that it was obviously impossible for more than five to sit there — or six if I slightly rearranged the furniture. So, I asked the students to answer three questions:

  1. Where do you want to sit?
  2. Why?
  3. On a scale of 1 to 10, how strongly do you feel about it?

I then created a new seating chart that would maximize everyone’s wishes, giving preference to those who had compelling reasons for those wishes. (The result worked pretty well, by the way.) What amazed me was the detail that some of these freshmen put into their answers, including diagrams of the room! Here are four examples (with a few details changed to protect the students’ privacy):

On a scale of 1–10 I want to be in the seat three rows back against the wall. I give it an 8! I feel like I can focus in the mid-side but by the window I get distracted. 1
Anywhere inside the shaded area would be nice because my vision isn’t amazing but sometimes it’s hard from the way back. It’s not the end of the world but it will make a difference. 2
I would like to sit in the middle seat the 2nd row. I would also like to sit near Griselda and Matilda. 10: I cannot see very well, especially if tall people sit in front of me. That seat is the perfect distance. 3
I either want to sit in the 1st or 2nd row — I feel really strongly to sit in the front b/c I need to be able to see the board, and I stay more foxued when I sit closer to you and the board. I feel a 10 (really strongly). The circled places are where I wish to sit. 4

Categories: Teaching & Learning, Weston