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Why do we sit where we do in classrooms?

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Editor’s note: “College-ology” is a series discussing the sociology behind college-related activities.

Walking into a lecture hall or classroom and deciding where to sit is a daily occurrence in the life of college students. Some like to sit in the front row, some near the exit, some near the back, and others in the middle — so what is at play when making those choices?

Aliyah Turner, a graduate student in the department of sociology, offered several reasons.

“I think there are different reasons [why] ... people might self-select where to sit in the classroom,” Turner said. “I think on a basic level, some people who have different learning needs or even different physical abilities or impairments might sit closer to the front just to have those basic needs met.”

This covers the basic reasons people sit where they do. So what else is going on? Turner drew from impression management, a theory developed by Erving Goffman that describes when people, consciously or subconsciously, act a certain way to try and control others’ perceptions of them. 

“In a classroom setting, someone might assume that sitting in the front means that they are more keen and excited to learn,” Turner said. “It gives them a closer proximity to the instructor so they can seem more engaged in the material.”

On the other hand, some students do not want to be noticed by the professor.

“I think sitting further back helps to alleviate some of that angst or anxiety about feeling pressure to always be meeting the eye of the professor or looking straight ahead,” Turner said.

This could change from space to space as well. According to Turner, in a large lecture hall, the front row may not have a very good view of the professor and the space, so more students may choose to sit toward the middle or the back. In a small classroom, there may not be as much of a choice when it comes to being noticed by the professor.

It is important to consider other factors that sway students’ seating choices as well.

“Some people really like being by the exit,” Turner said. “Some students have PTSD or trauma and need to be close by a door in case some of the material might be triggering, or a content warning is provided, or the nature of the space, if it feels too closed in.”

Some professors in smaller classes may rearrange students periodically, putting them into small groups or Socratic circles. According to Turner, this is beneficial in multiple ways.

“The effects are seemingly positive, because it allows you to really utilize the space and not feel wedded to a particular place in the classroom,” Turner said. “It allows you to see other parts of the classroom, to experience what those feel like for you, whether or not they're beneficial for your learning needs and your comfort levels.”

In addition to experiencing other spaces in the classroom, moving around may prove beneficial for the learning process as well.

“When you break off into different segments of the room, you have different visual appeals in front of you,” Turner said. “That breaks up some of the normativity that happens in the classroom with just being faced forward, and it really facilitates better conversation and better learning outcomes across students.”

As with all things, it is also essential to think about the way identities such as gender, class, race, and sexuality play a part in these choices. 

“I know that from my own experience as a first-generation college student and a woman of color, I often felt internally pressured to sit closer to the front to appear as though I was engaged, that I wasn't slacking off, that I was a good student,” Turner said. “[I did this] just to combat the preexisting stereotypes that I know might exist within that space, of my worth and deservingness of being there, being a brown person in a very white normative classroom setting.”

People of different identities may use impression management to determine where they sit in the classroom, whether that be in the front to prove their studiousness, or in the back to avoid drawing attention to themselves. 

Either way, the narratives we hear about ourselves shape us and shape even the most mundane of decisions we make, including finding the ideal seat in a classroom.

Reach columnist Samantha Ahlhorn at Twitter: @samahlhorn

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