A big choice for college students: Front, middle, or back row?

Greg Markley

By Greg Markley

By the time students transition from high school to a college or university, their classroom seating preferences are fully inculcated. But suddenly they are in a room with 150 or more seats, and that’s as shocking as SEC teams having a 10-game regular season. Well, not THAT shocking, but close.

What if you come from Akron in Hale County, AL? When the classroom is full, you will be with the equivalent of half of the residents of your hometown. (Akron had 356 people as of the 2010 Census.) Don’t let it stop you from making good choices for seats in classes that do not observe assigned seating.

This column is about what are thought to be the promises and the faults of sitting at certain places in classrooms. Many of my childhood friends, including one who was in jail and another a successful engineer, sat in the back row. I sat up front as I had near-sightedness—but didn’t have any eyeglasses.

I don’t remember if I was afraid to wear glasses, as it was a stigma then. It could have been that my parents could not afford an ophthalmologist or the glasses, as we were a middle-class family with four kids. I got glasses when I received my driving license in 1974. It was nice  to see more vivid colors and details.

According to Paul Adams, Ph.D, a dean at Wilkes University in Wilkes-Barre, PA, students who sit in the front row have made an excellent choice. “It’s clear that students tend to do much better in class when they sit close to the front (the closer, the better) because they become more engaged in the class,” Adams explained.

Since my undergraduate days, I almost always found myself sitting up front. One reason is that I usually read up for the class. Students who are unprepared for class tend to seek shelter in the farthest back rows. Another reason is that you can hear the professor better and take accurate notes. You participate more in class discussions and develop better study habits. This invariably leads to higher grades.

Still another reason I prefer the front row, no matter how small or large the class, is that it is a “political” choice.” I know—people in the U.S. Army often told me they like being “away from the flagpole.” That is, away from a headquarters building where the colonels and sergeants major work. If you are in a class of 60-plus students, you interact with your professor much less.

However, if you are sitting in front and a professor notices you and how dedicated you are, it doesn’t hurt that you have consistently high grades. My undergraduate major is in political science, so I broadly conceive the term “politics”. It is “…a set of activities associated with making group decisions, or other forms of power relations between individuals.”  When you sit up front, “what you know” and “who you know” are a good recipe for success.

“The middle of the classroom is one of the worst places to sit,” wrote Robert Wallace, Ed. D. in 2017 for Creators Syndicate. “In a classroom, a speaker’s eyes tend to go to the front of the room and the back. They don’t look at the center of a room as often or with the same amount of attention. Students who are shy and retiring, timid or have problems paying attention should avoid the middle of a room.”

People who sit in the back of a classroom are stereotyped as trying to avoid attention or as sneaking a peek at their phones. But that does not tell the whole story. Some students prefer the back because they have a job to be at 20 minutes after class and exiting the room from up front would take them longer. Others might sit in the back so they can discreetly discuss the lecture with friends nearby. That would draw too much attention up front.

“When you sit in the back of the classroom, you have a tendency to get distracted and watch other kids instead of the teacher,” offered Tina Parks, an education major at Susquehanna University in Selinsgrove, PA, in 2017. “There’s also better eye contact with the teacher when you sit in the front row.”

People like me, who sit in the front row in classes, are sometimes called “nerds” or “professor’s favorites.” That’s true in many cases. But I did get plenty of As. There are also oversimplified images of students who elect to sit in the middle or back of a classroom. After all, it’s your choice that counts, not mine.

Greg Markley has lived in Lee County for 20 of the past 24 years. An award-winning journalist, he has master’s degrees in education and history. He taught political science as an adjunct in Georgia and Alabama.


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