Byline: Steven Kalinowski and Mark L. Taper
An experiment shows that sitting in the back of a lecture hall rather than the front does not have a detrimental effect on student performance on exams.
The effect of seat location on learning has received surprisingly little attention in education literature (Weinstein 1979). Classroom experience and education literature suggest that students who sit in the front of a lecture hall are more likely to get As than students in the back (Benedict and Hoag 2004; Holliman and Anderson 1986; Pedersen 1994). The explanation may seem obvious-front-row students get better grades because they are better students. Perkins and Wieman (2005) recently challenged this dogma by showing that students sitting in the front rows of a high-enrollment introductory physics class (Physics 1010, Physics of Everyday Life) received better grades than students in the back-even though seats were randomly assigned at the beginning of the course. This suggests that conventional wisdom has ignored an alternative explanation for why grades decrease toward the back. Sitting in the back may be a disadvantage. Perkins and Wieman did not identify why sitting in the front led to better grades, but they did show that students assigned to sit in the back also had poorer attendance during the course and poorer attitudes regarding physics than students in the front.
The results of Perkins and Wieman (2005) are troubling because there are at least three reasons to expect their back-row students to do well. First, Wieman is one of America's most distinguished teachers (e.g., he won a 2001 National Science Foundation Director Award for Distinguished Teaching Scholars), and his class is popular enough to require a waiting list. Second, Wieman and Perkins used active-learning exercises to engage all of their students (Ebert-May and Brewer 1997; Handelsman et al. 2004). Third, Perkins and Wieman reassigned seats halfway through the semester, so that students initially sitting in the front were moved to the back and vice versa. This switch did not compensate for the effects of the first half of the semester; students that sat in the back during the first half of the semester did poorly in the second half of the semester, even though they had been moved toward the front.
We present results from an experiment that tested the effect of seat location on student performance and attitudes in an undergraduate biology class. Like Perkins and Wieman (2005), we randomly assigned seat locations on the first day of class. However, unlike Perkins and Wieman, we did not find that students sitting in the front did any better than students sitting in the back.
We conducted our experiment with students enrolled in Biology 215, Introductory Biology: Individuals to Populations at Montana State University. Biology 215 is a sophomore-level course on ecology and evolution for biology majors. Of 45 students enrolled in the class, 43 finished the semester. All students were majoring in biology and the great majority identified themselves as preparing for medical school. In addition to teaching the basic concepts of ecology and evolution, Biology 215 emphasized four general scientific-thinking skills: quantitative reasoning, argument analysis, experimental design, and evidence evaluation. The class met three times per week for a 50-minute lecture and had a laboratory that met once a week for two and a half hours. Lectures were designed as inquiries seeking to answer a question (e.g., "How old is the earth?"). We used PowerPoint slides during lectures. PowerPoint presentations can encourage students to remain passive; we attempted to avoid this problem by encouraging active learning (Doumont 2005; Tufte 2006). Some of each class period was used for small-group discussions and Socratic dialogue, and students were frequently called on at random during these discussions.