The Surprising Impact of Seat Location on Student Performance [chapter]

Katherine K. Perkins, Carl E. Wieman
2008 Collected Papers of Carl Wieman  
This study was done in the "Physics of Everyday Life" course we taught at the University of Colorado in Boulder. This is an algebra-based introductory physics course for nonscience, nonengineering majors and uses the textbook by L. Bloomfield with a similar name. 2 Our 201 students were a diverse mix of majors and ages, with 43% being first-term freshmen. The class included two 75-minute lectures per week, regular pre-class reading assignments, extensive weekly homework assignments, three
more » ... nments, three evening hourly exams, and a comprehensive final. The Lecture The lectures were designed to be highly interactive and engaging for the students via a number of methods. Peer instruction techniques 3 and a personal electronic response system (PERS) 4 were used extensively during every class to stimulate student discussion and to provide feedback to both the instructor and the student. During a typical class, students were asked to consider numerous questions (7 to 10). These questions were designed to, for example, elicit/reveal students' misconceptions, test for conceptual understanding, predict or reflect on demonstration outcomes, or draw on intuition from everyday life. We emphasized student-student discussions that focused on sense-making and reasoning. In order to E very physics instructor knows that the most engaged and successful students tend to sit at the front of the class and the weakest students tend to sit at the back. However, it is normally assumed that this is merely an indication of the respective seat location preferences of weaker and stronger students. Here we present evidence suggesting that in fact this may be mixing up the cause and effect. It may be that the seat selection itself contributes to whether the student does well or poorly, rather than the other way around. While a number of studies have looked at the effect of seat location on students, the results are often inconclusive, and few, if any, have studied the effects in college classrooms with randomly assigned seats. 1 In this paper, we report on our observations of a large introductory physics course in which we randomly assigned students to particular seat locations at the beginning of the semester. Seat location during the first half of the semester had a noticeable impact on student success in the course, particularly in the top and bottom parts of the grade distribution. Students sitting in the back of the room for the first half of the term were nearly six times as likely to receive an F as students who started in the front of the room. A corresponding but less dramatic reversal was evident in the fractions of students receiving As. These effects were in spite of many unusual efforts to engage students at the back of the class and a front-to-back reversal of seat location halfway through the term. These results suggest there may be inherent detrimental effects
doi:10.1142/9789812813787_0099 fatcat:zwgwf32iorhl7kyikwswv6cave