Emphasis on Teaching
by Marshall Brain

Eliminate the "Elevator Effect"

If you have even ridden in an elevator, you are familiar with the "Elevator Effect." You get in with perhaps five other people, and you push the button for your destination floor. The doors slide shut. And now that you are riding with these five people, something very peculiar happens. No one on the elevator looks at each other. No one talks. Everyone stares at the display that indicates the current floor.

This phenomenon - this strange transformation in human behavior that occurs when strangers are confined together in a limited amount of space - is the elevator effect. It occurs in a variety situations - on buses, in doctor's waiting rooms, in laundromats, at the check out line of the grocery store, etc.

The elevator effect is very important to you as a teacher. What, after all, is a classroom? A classroom is a giant elevator, and you are its attendant. Students board the elevator at the beginning of class, walking into a room full of strangers. The door to the room shuts. They sit through a 50 minute ride, staring at you, or the board, or the ceiling the entire time. The elevator "rises" (hopefully), taking the students to a slightly higher intellectual plain, with you announcing each floor as it goes by. At the end of 50 minutes, the door opens and the students get off the elevator.

Viewing the classroom as a giant elevator explains a number of rather curious things about student behavior in the classroom. For example, why are so few questions asked or comments offered during class? Why do students stare blankly at the board or the ceiling the entire time? Why do students generally not know each other (even by first name) at the end of a semester, after they have spent 40 hours together? This behavior is controlled by the elevator effect. Students don't ask questions, or look around, or get to know each other in the classroom for the same reasons these activities don't occur in elevators and buses and waiting rooms.

Eliminating the Elevator Effect

The elevator effect can have an extremely harmful effect on your classroom environment. The last thing you want as a teacher is a room full of silent, staring, isolated zombies. I would much rather have a room full of interacting, interested, curious, creative human beings. There is only one way to remove the elevator effect - everyone in the room must know each other, as depicted in the following diagram:

The first step toward eliminating the elevator effect is getting students to know each other. There are a number of ways to do this. For example, when you go to church the minister/priest/rabbi etc. will often ask you to introduce yourself to the other people around you. This technique works very well in a classroom setting, even though people look at you like you are stupid the first time you try it. Try doing it for three or four class periods. Here are some other techniques:

In his keynote address the Teaching Effectiveness Workshop, Rich Felder introduced attendees to the concept of "small group brainstorming." This is another technique that encourages people to interact with and get to know each other. In small group brainstorming, students break into groups of three or four to answer a question. For example, in one of my classes I gave the groups a poorly written piece of code, and asked the groups to list all of the problems and mistakes they could find. Since many of the mistakes were easy to detect, everyone felt comfortable participating, and it was a great way to review the topic.

The second step that must be taken to eliminate the elevator effect is to learn about your students. This means you must meet students, get to know them, and work with them to understand their problems. You can meet students the same way that students meet each other - have a "mixer," look at name tags, go down the line of students once they've alphabetized themselves and ask each their name, etc. You can also try the technique outlined below in "Something to Try."

Finally, students must know you as a human being, and as a professional. What sort of research are you doing? Why do you find it interesting and exciting? How is it relevant to your students? Tell them. You can also let students know about your private life to a certain degree. For example, I have seen a teacher use his own experiences and frustrations with building a new house to create a set of extremely funny and personal stories about project management and problem solving.


The bottom line on the elevator effect is that people who don't know or trust each other will normally not interact with each other. This seems to be a natural part of human behavior. In order to eliminate the elevator effect, you have to give students a chance to get to know and trust each other. You must also know and trust the students, and they must know and trust you. Once this trusting environment has been established, you will find that there is a great deal more questioning and interacting and thinking taking place in the classroom.

Something to Try

One of the best ways to get to know students, and to find out where they are having questions and problems, is to help them with their homework. If your class has a lab, this is simple - just go down to the lab, even for ten minutes. Walk up to a student and ask, "How's it going?", or "What are you working on?" Whenever I do this I am amazed by two things:

  1. I find that students have thousands of extremely good, well-focused and detailed questions - questions that I never get asked in class. Students can't show me what they are questioning unless I am in the lab with them.
  2. I discover exactly where students are having problems and misunderstandings, so I can go over the appropriate material in the next class. Having taught a particular class several times, I tend to forget what students don't know - "I've taught this eight times - don't you know it yet!" But I've taught it eight times to other students. It always amazes me that I forget that.

It is common to "let the TAs handle the lab", but this cuts off a valuable form of communication between you and your students. Even ten minutes of time once a week can make a difference.

If you don't have a lab associated with your class, there are several things you might try. Is there a student lounge in your department, or a section of the library, or some other place (e.g. - a room full of word processing equipment?) where students in your class naturally congregate? If not, can you artificially create such a place by having "evening homework conference hours", or a problem session, or something similar? Could you begin having a lab with your class? Be creative; the results are worth it.

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