There is perhaps no better time to observe college classroom behavior than at the start of a quarter. This is when self-selected student seating can be witnessed most noticeably. Each student, while standing in the door frame of their new class, silently deliberates their quarter-long seat.
More often than not, the student settles in the back. Even for courses with the maximum number of students, classrooms fill up from back to front. Students will rarely select the front row. True, front rowers volunteer to be the designated emphatic laughers, especially at professors who believe that the blackboard behind them is actually a brick wall.
But professors’ humorless drollery aside, the front row has unacknowledged perks. The first and foremost: it is virtually impossible to ignore the first row. The professor is obliged to look at the first rower. The professor is forced to constantly regard the student’s presence since the eager face is in his immediate vicinity. This continual attention makes it more likely the professor will put a face to a name and interminably recognize the student. Accurate student identification is step one in securing a glowing recommendation letter, which many students, unrecognizable to their professors, fail to consider. It is easier to pay no heed to the students in back when seated in the first row, which will prompt the first rower to participate more often and fall asleep less often. Consequently, overall class performance should improve.
Two physics professors at the University of Colorado at Boulder conducted a study. In their introductory physics class that was held in a lecture hall, they found seat location and student performance were inherently linked. In this study, during the first half of the semester, the professors randomly assigned seats to students and ensured that average GPA for both the rear and front sections of the lecture hall were equivalent. The results were startling. Those seated in the back of the lecture hall were “nearly six times as likely” to receive a failing grade than the students seated in the front. The fraction of F’s in the group closest to the professors was 2 percent, in contrast to the rear-most group with a fraction of F’s at 12 percent. Similarly, student success was also heightened with front seating. Twenty-seven percent of this front-seated group received A’s, while 18 percent of the rear-seated group received A’s. Although these findings applied specifically to a lecture hall course, I believe that the correlation between student location and student performance has some truth in it for all classrooms.
There are some venues where the front row should be avoided; a stand-up comedy theater, where callous comedians prey on the front row, high-speed roller coasters where first rowers have to wipe their faces of the remains of unsuspecting bugs who were pummeled along the way or a Siegfried and Roy show. But a classroom is not one of them. An empty first row is a source of chagrin for professors that will have students nervously checking their body odor for pungency. I speculate that the professor will be both relieved and thankful for the brave soul who decides to take the plunge—a good position for the student to be in. As students beleaguered with full course loads, jobs and campus organizations, it behooves us to do any small thing that may make our lives less burdensome. In the next class we set foot in, let us incline ourselves to first row.