Call me by my name

While in graduate school at West Virginia University, I was a teaching assistant for college algebra. The course coordinator gave me some of the best teaching advice I was ever given. It boils down to two magic words: seating chart. Given that most freshmen classes are held in large auditoriums, the coordinator thought it was important that the students felt like individuals in our small classes of 30. She was confident that the easiest way for us to learn their names was by using a seating chart.

My initial reaction was, “What is this – elementary school?”, but she quickly won me over by saying we would let them choose their seat for the duration of the semester. I took her advice as a graduate student, and I continued the practice for the rest of my teaching career. I taught at a community college for 15 years, where our class sizes never exceeded 36 students. Every single semester, I gave the students one week to decide where they wanted to sit, and then on a previously-announced day of Week 2, I created the seating chart.

It was always funny to see some students show up 20-30 minutes before class started that day so they could lock down their preferred seats. One semester, a very conscientious student missed class on the day I created the seating chart. When he showed up for the next class and realized that the only remaining seats were at the back of the room, he offered $100 to any student in the first two rows who would give up his or her seat for one in the back. To my utter surprise, only one person volunteered to swap seats!

Seating charts serve a myriad of purposes for both the professor and the students. First, it allows the instructor to take attendance very quickly. Instead of calling roll, you simply look for empty seats. Since you know who is supposed to be in each seat, you immediately know who is absent. “Taking attendance” takes about 10 seconds. Second, it gives students the stability of knowing who will be sitting around them for the entire semester.

After I create the seating chart, I usually say something like “OK, now it’s time to meet your new best friends! The people sitting next to you might help you study or let you copy their notes if you miss class. The least you can do is learn their names!” The classroom immediately began buzzing as students introduced themselves. They could refer to the person next to them by name instead of “that girl who sits on my left”.

Lastly, the seating chart made it very easy for me to learn my students’ names. I referred to it when returning assignments, so I was typically able to learn all my students’ names within the first 3 weeks of the semester. I can’t tell you the number of times I would return tests around the 4th week of class and the students would say “How do you know my name? None of my teachers know my name!” They were delighted to not be anonymous in my classes.

Originally, I created a “seat template” for each classroom I taught in and wrote down each student’s preferred name on his or her chosen “seat”. Eventually, my college adopted Canvas, which has an awesome feature called Roll Call Attendance. With Roll Call, you can bring up a blank, grid-like seating chart, then you drag and drop the student name from a list on the left to the appropriate “seat” on the right. It really sped things up on seating-chart-creation day!

Once the seating chart is created, you can then take attendance every day by logging into Canvas on a computer or using their phone app. I always told my students “If you see me using my phone during class, I’m not texting! I’m just taking attendance.” If you are fortunate enough to teach relatively small classes, I hope you will consider implementing a seating chart. I think you will find it to be a huge benefit to yourself and your students.

About the author:
Brooke Quinlan

Brooke Quinlan

With Master’s Degrees in both Mathematics and Engineering and nearly two decades of experience in Higher Education and Technology, Brooke Quinlan is uniquely positioned to identify and address challenges in education. Focused on employing educational technology to improve student learning, engagement, and retention, Brooke has been instrumental in the planning and execution of STEM grants totaling more than $10 million dollars.

Wearing a variety of hats in her career, in addition to teaching, Brooke has also been a systems analyst, paid presenter, technical writer, course designer, and educational technology ambassador. She is a tireless worker and problem solver who is organized, efficient, and responsive.