It’s your first psych class of the term, and you enter the lecture hall early, looking around nervously for a place to sit. There are empty seats in the front, middle and back – what are you going to choose? If you sit under your lecturer’s nose, your chances of going onto Facebook when you get bored are slim. But if you sit at the back you might be distracted and miss out on important stuff. So, you take the conservative route and find a chair in the middle. Seems like a good compromise? Actually, not really.
Several studies indicate that where you sit can have an effect on your marks, and make a difference to how your lecturer perceives you. This is because sitting closer to your lecturer makes it easier to establish eye contact with her or him, leading to a greater sense of rapport. There is also a better chance than that you will be spoken to when you sit upfront – which, of course, is why some students prefer the back row.
Stuck in the middle
But the problem with the middle row, as researchers have discovered, is that lecturers tend to look at the front and the back rows, which means the middle-row students become invisible, in a sense. This means they are less likely to be asked questions and called on to participate, both of which increase student-lecturer engagement and help facilitate learning.
In addition, research (published by Brown, 1988, and Kierwa, 2000) shows that, in all subject areas, the majority of test questions on university exams come from the professor’s lectures, and that students who take better class notes get better grades. Naturally, if you sit upfront you can see and hear better, and are less inclined to allow your attention to drift. All of this contributes to the fact that students who sit in the front and centre of the class get higher- than-average exam scores.
That said, while your undergrad teacher might look more favourably on the students he/she can easily see and talk to, this might not necessarily be the case for post-graduate studies. Dr Justin Fox who teaches creative writing to masters students at UCT, says, ‘I don’t attribute diligence to students who sit in the front, certainly not at masters level. I suppose the keen beans are up front, but that’s not diligence. And those currying favour are up =front. The independent thinkers and rebels are at the back.’
But, until you get to that level, it’s probably a wiser tactic to be in a place where your view of the whiteboard is good, you can easily ask questions and where your lecturer is able to see and talk to you. The people who sit upfront do tend to fare better as students because, while it won’t break your academic performance, where you choose to sit does have an effect on your level of engagement. So, leave that middle seat and go make yourself known in the front. You’ll thank yourself at the end of the year.