What instructors have learned about a classroom-in-the-round

Classroom in the round unoccupied

Room 3204 of the Student Innovation Center is home to the only classroom-in-the-round space on the ISU campus. Photo by Christopher Gannon.

Room 3204 in the Student Innovation Center is a one-of-a-kind general university classroom, built in the style of a theater-in-the-round stage. Sixty-two seats form three circles around a central teaching station ringed overhead with 16 display monitors -- two facing in and two facing out in four directions.

Throw your hat in the ring?

Instructors interested in teaching a course in the classroom-in-the-round should contact their department-level course scheduling contact. To schedule an event in the room other than a class, faculty and staff can submit a request to facilities planning and management's room scheduling team. Students organizations also may request the space for group meetings by submitting a request to room scheduling.

Only a handful of ISU instructors have taught in the classroom-in-the-round, the Emerson Innovation Classroom, which has hosted 26 classes since it was first used in spring 2021. With at least 13 more courses scheduled for the room this fall, it's a good time to catch up with instructors who have taught in the room. Here are some of their tips and observations.

Know the purpose

A key starting point is understanding what classes and teaching styles work best in a configuration of encircled students. A course that emphasizes interactive discussion among students capitalizes on the strength of the setup, as students see their classmates' faces.

Straightforward lecturing may not work as well, as an instructor teaching from the center of the room always has their back turned to half the class. Also, the room's whiteboards are on the periphery, designed more for small-group collaboration than as focal points. Instructors who rely heavily on writing on a whiteboard while teaching may need to adjust their approach.  

The room was perfect for the course Brianna Burke teaches on literature and the environment because much of the classroom conversation is about racism and the environmental burdens placed on communities of color. Broaching those topics face-to-face makes the dialogue more honest and respectful, she said.

"When you're handling issues that are culturally, intellectually and emotionally challenging, it's good to have a super-open environment where the students all see each other all the time," said Burke, an associate professor of English, American Indian studies and environmental studies. "It's not them all looking at you. It's them looking at each other. It's not as easy to throw verbal bombs into the discussion."

Extra engagement

Kevin Kimle, who taught four course sections in 3204 SICTR last year, agrees the major benefit of a 360-degree classroom is the peer-to-peer connection it encourages. That's a big aim in the classes he teaches on agricultural entrepreneurship and small business management.

"Hopefully, students can pick up a thing or two from me, but I want to create an environment where they learn from each other. Every student knows things that are interesting to their classmates, if I can only pry it out of them," said Kimle, a teaching professor of economics. "I've learned over the years that the classroom space makes a difference."

The added attentiveness is important for class running smoothly. Burke and Kimle said students quickly realize they need to alert them when a classmate sitting behind the instructor is raising their hand.

Another difference in a classroom-in-the-round is students are never far from their instructor. Sitting in the back is no way to hide out when it's also the third row.

"Everyone was within a short distance of me, and that was helpful. It's hard for them to not be engaged," said Francis Owusu, who taught world cities and globalization in 3204 last spring.

On the move

Teaching inside a circle of students requires increased movement and awareness to connect with the whole room.

"The way I dealt with it was to continuously be turning around," said Owusu, chair of the community and regional planning department.

Kimle bought a lectern on wheels to use in 3204, which made it easier to shift his focus to different areas. He also relied on the advice he gives students about business presentations: Be intentional about movement.

"I had to listen to my own coaching on paying attention to your body," he said.  

Burke took some tips from a training video on teaching in the round, such as dividing attention between different "slices" of the circle and standing on the opposite side of the room from the students you are facing. When possible, she'd stay out of the middle all together, either to sit among students to grab their attention or to make room for their discussion.

"There were lots of times when I stepped outside the circle and just let them go," she said. "All those techniques were useful."

Using the tech

The classroom-in-the-round has level 1 audiovisual technology, which is installed in about 50 general university classrooms and includes higher-end videoconferencing gear. In combination with the bank of monitors, it's an ideal room for virtual guest lectures, Owusu said.

He typically has on-campus guests visit his global cities course to talk about places they have lived. For the section taught in 3204, guest lecturers currently living in those cities were able to join the class virtually and interact with students, including speakers from India, Palestine and Mexico.

"It allowed me to bring the globe into this classroom in a very real sense," he said. "The students loved it."

The bank of monitors can be used in a variety of ways. While there's no central whiteboard, Kimle writes on a tablet linked to the monitors to replicate drawing on a board. Burke appreciates them because she often uses videos in her instruction.

"If you teach with media and technology, it's such a good space for that," she said.

Embracing the difference

The classroom isn't just built like a stage. It often becomes one. It's a common stop for prospective students or other visitors touring the Student Innovation Center. Kimle said tour groups looking in are common enough that students become accustomed to waving at visitors.

"Whenever we give tours, everyone gushes about the unique setup,” said Kylee Mullen, communication specialist for the center.

Embracing that uniqueness, knowing that teaching in the classroom is different than in a traditional learning space, is essential to thriving, instructors said.  

"Being forced to be more dynamic took some time to prepare for mentally. But it becomes an acquired behavior, and it was a very useful experience," Owusu said.

Burke, Kimle and Owusu all said they look forward to teaching in the space again.  

"I would teach every class there, if I could," Burke said.