Does It Really Matter Where Students Sit?

Do better students sit in front, or does seat selection contribute to better grades? A recent study examined this question.

In this study (referenced below), 201 students enrolled in an algebra-based introductory physics course for non-majors were randomly assigned seats at the beginning of the semester. They were also assigned to a stable discussion group that included the three or four students seated near them. Halfway through the course, seat locations were reversed. Those in the back were moved up front, and those in the front were moved to the back. Some reorganization of the discussion groups also occurred.

These faculty researchers divided the class into four groups based on their distance from the front of the room. First, they looked at the attendance of each group during the first and second half of the semester. Two trends were evident:

“The further the original seating location [was] from the front of the classroom, then 1) the lower the average attendance and 2) the larger the drop-off in attendance between the first and second half of the semester.” (p. 32)
They also looked at the relationship between grades and location. The differences for all four groups were at the margin of statistical significance but the effects at the top and bottom of the grade distribution were pronounced. “The fraction of A’s decreased steadily as the groups’ original location was further from the front.” (p. 32) In fact, “students sitting in the back of the room for the first half of the term were nearly six times as likely to receive an F as students who started in the front of the room.” (p.30)

Finally, these researchers used a standardized instrument that asked students to consider statements about physics and respond on a 5-point Likert scale. They found that “a larger fraction of students who started the semester in front showed improved beliefs compared to those who started the semester in the back.” (p. 32)

Reference: Perkins, K. K., and Wieman, C. E. (2005). The surprising impact of seat location on student performance. Physics Teacher, 43 (January), 30-33.

Excerpted from The Teaching Professor, March 2005.