An instructor's observation

I believe this phenomenon, which I have observed in every class I have taught, spanning several universities and colleges, from undergraduates to PhD students, is nearly universal:  Most students pick a seat on the first day of class and stay in that seat throughout the entire semester.

Why?

I'd like to find a compelling economic explanation but I cannot.  But failing an economic explanation, I'd be interested in any explanation that is compelling.

A somewhat related observation: It seems to me students sitting near the front learn more from lecture than students sitting near the back.

Comments

  1. Well, I always found that in trying to remember course material, I would visualize the process of learning it. Even now, for the undergrad classes I remember best, I can still picture the room and the prof and where I was sitting.

    So for me, at least, it was a memory tool.

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  2. Oh, and as a follow-up comment. Now that I'm teaching, I've noticed that same phenomenon, except for a handful of students. Maybe people just like routine? Knowing where their place is in the world?

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  3. When I was in high school we had assigned seats in each class all the way through senior year. Maybe that habit is kept up by college freshman.

    Once the pattern of sitting in the same seats is established it becomes self sustaining. If a student doesn't want to be rude and take the seat someone else has been sitting in all semester, the seat they can most safely sit in in their own.

    But I'm completely speculating here.

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  4. Interesting observations! My very long history in the classroom has evidenced the same phenomena. To encourage the students that seemed to hug the walls and back of the room I used to tell my students that “Research actually shows “A” students tend to sit in the front.” Such cajoling had some positive results – both for me and my students. But I did find it fascinating that over 30 years, students who sat in or near the front consistently performed better overall than students who sat in the back. While the research appears inconclusive, there are some interesting findings. One study indicated that seat location does not affect achievement. The differences in performance in this study were related to the finding that more highly motivated students are more likely to sit in front, resulting in an uneven distribution of scores. Another study looked at the how the professor’s perception of students who sat in front affected student performance in the class. And still another published in the Journal of Economic Education (Volume 35, Number 3/Summer 2004) found that students who prefer to sit in the front of the room have a higher probability of receiving A’s whereas those who prefer the back have a higher probability of receiving D’s and F’s.

    I also found it fascinating how students “claimed” their seat the first day of class and were loyal to it throughout the semester. I did a little experiment once and had the students move to a different seat for one class period - they were not very happy. Their discomfort lasted the entire class session and they pleaded to return to “their seat” the next class session. Some scientist have indicated that this is an expression of situational territoriality in humans – how fortunate are we who have the opportunity to work with students – they are vitamins for our mind, will keep us humble and always seeking answers.

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  5. My strategy is to generally pick the seat closest to the part of the class with the densest proportion of attractive women.

    However, a basic principle of human cognition is that there are costs to everything, and picking a seat the first day of class makes it easy to pick the same seat the next day: your experience in with that particular location is now a known variable, and sitting in a different location now involves some additional cognitive effort. So sitting in the same seat the second day is the low cost alternative. In this sense the concept of path-dependence is the meaningful framework for understand seat selection over time.

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  6. Great comments. I need to post observations like this more often!

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  7. I have preferences for how close I am to the door, to windows, the heat vent; there isn't a lot of the room that's equally good by my standards.

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  8. The endowment effect could be at play, but I think I generally sat in the same seat mostly because I assumed others treated their seats as property, so that I would be infringing on their property or otherwise signaling something I did not want to signal by switching seats.

    As for learning more, I suspect the students who sit near the front are already more motivated to learn and avoid distractions. So with motivation plus less distractions (since they have to look past fewer people), it makes sense that they would learn more. You should do an informal test and post it to the blog!

    (P.S. - My girlfriend is in your micro class right now and I started reading your blog because of what she told me about your teaching philosophy. I wish I had you while I was at State!)

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