How to See All Your Students More Easily

eyeEach fall, as I prepare for my classes, I often think back to my first semester teaching, now 20 years ago. As a graduate student, I was fortunate to receive some excellent pedagogical training as part of my preparation to teach introductory writing classes. Although much of the week-long training was focused on the methods and content we were expected to use, some of the lessons that still stand out in my mind were about the basic elements of teaching that transcend discipline and subject matter: how to use your posture, movement, and voice most effectively as an instructor.

One of the key lessons that George Gopen taught us was to be aware of our natural eye dominance and how it could affect our work in the classroom.

Understanding Eye Dominance
Because of the distance between our eyes, they don’t see the same thing. Yet, when your binocular vision is working correctly, you see only one image, rather than two. That’s because your brain chooses the images from one eye as the lead. In most people, your brain will have a tendency to follow one eye most of the time in processing visual information. (If you are sighted in only one eye, you already know how to adjust your body position accordingly.)

Eye dominance does not always match up with right- or left-handedness, and just as with handedness, a small proportion of people do not have a strong tendency to follow one eye over the other. Athletes in one-sided sports like golf, baseball, or target sports pay attention to eye dominance as it affects stance and performance when you are focusing on an object in the distance.

Discover Your Eye Dominance
Here’s a simple test for eye dominance:

  1. hold both hands out at arm’s length from you and form a triangle between your index fingers and overlapped thumbs
  2. look through the triangle at an object far away from you (i.e. across the room)
  3. While looking at the object, close one eye and then the other. If the object seems to move away from the frame of your fingers, you are looking with your non-dominant eye. If the object looks the same with one eye as it did with two, you are looking with your dominant eye.


Eye Dominance in the Classroom
So what does this have to do with teaching? If you have strong eye dominance, you will tend to look at some parts of the classroom more than others. Being aware of your eye dominance can help you adjust your position and turn to look at the corner or edge of the room you might otherwise overlook.

In addition to your natural ocular tendency, the size and shape of your classroom will also determine how much of an effect you notice. It’s easier to see all the students in a large auditorium-style classroom than it is in a small rectangular room where they are spread out to either side of the instructor.

For example, I’m strongly right eye dominant, which means that if I’m seated at a seminar table, I have to consciously remind myself to turn to look at the person seated immediately to my right. In fact, if there’s enough room at the table, I’ll often put my books down in that space to my right to prevent a student from sitting there, because I know it’s more comfortable for me to look at people seated in all of the other seats around the table. In a larger classroom, I try to stand a bit to the right-hand side of the whiteboard, so as to angle myself to see the whole room more easily. Of course, I also walk around a lot while teaching a larger class, which not only allows me to shift the energy of the room as needed, but also to be sure I’m looking at everyone.

Learning to sweep your gaze from side to side in a large class is part of connecting with all of your students, yet many of us will naturally favor one side. Becoming aware of your ocular dominance and working with it, rather than against it, can help you teach with greater ease and effectiveness.

[Creative Commons licensed image from flickr user neuroticcamel]

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