Same seats!

Feb 17 2011 Published by under [Education&Careers], [Et Al]

I've been noticing a peculiar feature of my classes this year that may be more wide spread and I just haven't noticed until now, but the students are territorial. I've attended a lot of lectures as a student in my time and can honestly say that I have never used one particular seat in a classroom over an extended period of time, on purpose. There may have been a part of certain rooms I preferred to sit in for one reason or another, but never have I been wedded to a particular seat. Oddly, I am observing exactly that in my classes, particularly the larger one.

There seems to be some sort of unwritten rule that you are bound to the chair you select on the first day. Particularly strange are the students who sit in seats that restrict their view of the screen because of where I set up the podium. I can see on the first day sitting there by happenstance, but repeatedly? For weeks?

What was casual observation until recently was confirmed today when one student who arrived just before class asked another if the seated student could move over one spot so that she could sit in "her" seat. Honestly, I don't even have a point to this post other than to wonder what the hell this is all about. Unless you are working on some master graffiti project on a particular desk and need the time to work it like Andy needed time to tunnel out of Shawshank, what's the difference? Perhaps I am just not attuned to the comforting feeling of a cramped and uncomfortable desk that you have a special bond with.

24 responses so far

  • Bashir says:

    For medium to small classes I often sat in the same general area. I guess the idea being that I'd somehow determined the best place from which to take in the lecture/discussion. I'm a creature of habit, it made sense at the time. Though I never asked anyone to vacate my seat. If it was taken, tough luck.

  • studyzone says:

    I'm a creature of habit, first and foremost, so I would always sit in the same seat (since I have a hearing impairment, it was always front row center). In the classes I've taught (all small to med. size), I ask students to stay in the same seat during the first week, since it helps me learn their names. After that, they're free to sit anywhere, but usually don't. Once, I had students spend a week sitting in their project groups since it was more convenient for the in-class activities I'd planned. The following week, they all reverted to their original seating preferences.

  • NatC says:

    and yet, imagine the outcry if you assigned seats!

  • JaneB says:

    I always had preferred seats. I get to departmental committees and seminars 5 minutes early to be in my preferred corner (near the door, good view of screen). Its', like, one less thing to think about?

  • BMEGradStudent says:

    In my experience at least, this has largely depended on the type of lecture hall I'm in. If it's a normal sort of classroom, with no set desks, and just movable chairs with lap desks, it's far more a free for all. In a more auditorium like setup, or in a class where there are physical desks, I always try to sit in the same seat every day.

    A few reasons: 1) Friends tend to sit together. If you need to save a seat for someone, or if you'd like to chat with them for a while before class begins, then sitting in the same place every week is an efficient way to do this. 2) Seating preferences. Everyone prefers a different seat location. As a front-and-center kind of guy, I always scoped out the lecture halls before class began, so that I could get the most comfortable seat, based on my seat-calculus. Once you've done that, transition costs to find another suitable seat are high. 3) Routine. When you're frazzled, sleep-deprived, and trying to juggle everything happening around you, being able to just not think about where to sit is nice. 4) Memory aids. At least for me, sitting in the same place every day helped me visualize lecture to a far greater extent afterwards, and helped me remember things I might not have otherwise remembered.

  • Dr. O says:

    I had preferred seats, too, but I never would've asked someone else to move. I just arrived early enough to ensure I got *my* seat.

  • thehermitage says:

    "My" seat has been a pretty ubiquitous thing since my childhood, so you've had like a million years to realize this PLS XD. I've gotten some angry glares, but never someone asking me to move.

  • Mordecai says:

    I find that my impression of a room depends to a large extent on where I'm sitting; if I sit in different parts of the room, all my spacial intuition is off during the lecture, which is mildly exciting but quite disorienting. Unless the lecture requires no effort on my part to absorb, the distraction would be unwelcome.

    If there were a room with chalkboards (or whatever) along each wall, such that it really made no difference where you stood, wouldn't you stick roughly to the same wall each day?

  • Miss MSE says:

    As an undergrad, I had four courses in the same room. I definitely had "my seat", but so did most people. Part of it was that it was a lecture hall where the chairs are mounted to the table and rotate in various ways. Due to a knee injury, clockwise mounted chairs were more comfortable. But eventually, the chair was practically molded to my seat.

    On the other hand, there was one student who not only was adamant about *her* seat, but was bothered when anyone in her line of sight was not sitting in their usual spot.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    I understand the part about having a favored location, but I have students sitting in seats that are decidedly unfavorable. If you were in a ballpark and could choose your seat, would you pick an obstructed view one and then spend every lecture craning your neck? Me neither.

  • jc says:

    The students who are auditory learners sit close to the speaker which may be in places that the screen view isn't optimal. If you provide the ppts to them before class, then they don't need to be looking at the screen if they have the printouts in hand. I always had students sitting directly in front of my podium, and they were the ones scribbling notes in margins and nodding along. I use them as a gauge for if I am going too fast because I know they are hanging on every word.

  • GMP says:

    Totally true. Most students definitely sit in specific seats in nearly all of my classes. If the class is completely full there may be a bit of a seating fluctuation, but never in the first few rows. That's how I first remember them -- e.g. the guy from the second row, middle, with a red baseball hat.

    I have seen some "student diffusion" in my class this semester -- a couple of students, who started as quiet and in the back of the classroom, have since turned out to be fairly active and seem to enjoy the class and have diffused closer to the board --I say diffused because they honestly took several weeks to move, one row at a time, to where they are now. Maybe it's the poor acoustics in the back but I doubt it [I am very very loud :), and there are still plenty of people in the back]. I think the diffusion towards the front does correlate with increased engagment.

  • Jim Thomerson says:

    Back in 1957, I was a student worker in the Department of Geology, University of Texas. Part of my job was to view the 350 seat lecture hall (seat backs numbered, and seats were assigned) and record which seats were unoccupied. If a student missed three classes they received a written invitation to visit the Dean of Students. Seats were assigned alphabetically, so I was always near the back of the lecture hall.

  • pyrope says:

    I'm still laughing about your Shawshank idea - I think they might actually be doing that in my classes. I teach a computer lab and one of the computers in the lab has been broken since the semester started. But, the same student keeps sitting there anyway. I guess it's not an issue when I'm lecturing, but he still goes and sits there on lab days when he'll actually need the computer too. It's not like he's late for class and it's the only one left either. Maybe he's just eternally optimistic?

  • Karen says:

    I've pondered this question even as I'm one of those students who tends to sit in the same seat at every lecture. I'm studying in a field far different than the one I took my bachelor's degree in, so even though I'm a Master's student I've taken many upper-division as well as graduate classes in my specialty. My department is small and tends to hold all of these classes in the same four small classrooms.

    I found that I, and most other people, would choose a seat in classroom X for a semester, for all the classes attended in that room. The seat might change the following semester, but it pretty much stayed the same for the entire semester, even if the seat was non-optimal. These classrooms had no areas where viewing the screen or whiteboard was difficult, but they DID have chairs that were loose and squeaky; this was a problem for me since I tend to adjust my position frequently during the course of a lecture. But I'd swap chairs rather than change seating position.

    So, I'm guilty of the habit... I've contemplated it... and I still don't understand it!

  • antipodean says:

    You can't stay in the same seat lecture after lecture. The graffitti gets boring.

    You've got some weird little squirrels in your class, dude.

  • State-conditioned learning?

    I know this applies to things like intoxication - if you study while drunk ahem, buzzed, you are better off taking the exam also buzzed than sober. (What? NO, it was friend of mine.) I imagine this would also apply to classroom learning. If the perspective accorded from a specific seat helps you sort the subject matter into the appropriate category in your little pea-brain, it makes sense to sit in the same spot all the time. Not sure if this is a conscious decision-making process tho.

    I'm pretty sure I was a same-region sitter in college, but definitely not "hey man, get outta *my* seat".

  • I did the same thing as an undergrad. You get into the routine. But, there's good evidence that this isn't a terrible idea: it is easier to recall information learned if you are in the same environment as you were when the information was encoded. What better way to do this than to be in the exact same seat when taking an exam as you were in each day of lecture?

  • I also usually sat in the same seat (but would never go as
    far as asking someone to move if they were in my usual seat). I
    think sitting in the same area actually helped me during exams.
    Sometimes I would be trying to remember something from a lecture
    and I found I could actually visualize the prof or the slides as if
    I was sitting in the exact same seat. This works the same way as
    picturing a complete page of notes remembering the detail by
    "visualizing" the setting of the fact on the page.

  • Pharm Sci Grad says:

    I definately did this. Most of my classmates (in my major) did as well. The one class I know I didn't do this, I HATED the prof (and it seems the feeling was mutual). I'm a on the side and to the back person. I actually did this in grad school too, come to think about it. It's a habit, definitely. Usually if it was more difficult to see/hear where I was sitting that was because doing so wasn't criticial for me. I'm surprised you've just now noticed it tho...

  • Raven says:

    I recently returned to college after a 10-year hiatus, and the "Same Seats" phenomenon was pretty striking! People get somewhat uncomfortable when you change seats mid-semester. This pattern does not appear in other settings, such as my volunteer board that meets once a month. Is this a holdover from having assigned seats in grade school?

  • KJHaxton says:

    My students do this too although they start to drift forward a bit once they realise they can't see the screen properly from the back. Some staff meetings are the same when I think about it - people tend to sit in the same place with respect to the chair person.

  • anon says:

    I struck up a great new friendship one day by 'stealing'
    someone else's seat. I noticed that someone in my class ALWAYS sat
    in the same seat, and decided one day to get there early and sit in
    'his'seat, which I did, to see what would happen (must have been
    the budding scientist in me. . . ). He was terribly polite, but
    kept looking at me sideways out of the corner of his eye.
    Eventually we started chatting and became good friends. We didn't
    bring up the topic of seat stealing for a few months. . . there is
    a whole PhD in Pyschology on territoriality in lecture theatres, I
    swear.

  • Rick says:

    Most of you are wrong. However, you seem to know the correct answer...you just don't know that you know it. Your conscious mind doesn't know the answer, but your subconscious mind does. A person will tend to sit in the same seat, even feel intruded upon if someone else sits in that seat (like in the example above), due to territorial conditioning from over thousands of years human evolution. The territorial behavior observed in public settings may originate from the reducing influence that territoriality exercises on conflict behavior. The ability to link a person or a group with a particular location seems to help in predicting both other people's behavior in that space and interaction patterns. Territorial functioning in public territories, therefore, helps individuals to control the environment to achieve goals with minimal interference, thereby reducing stress and anxiety.
    So, statements such as "I sit there because I learn better" or "I sit there because I'm a creature of habit" or "I sit there because my friends sit there" are what your conscious mind is telling you. Think about when your ancestors would hunt down a saber tooth tiger for dinner. Where would your ancestor sit and wait? Would they sit and wait somewhere unknown to them? Somewhere the saber tooth tiger has the advantage? Somewhere their fellow siblings could not protect them? No. They would sit somewhere they knew the saber tooth tiger would not be able to see them. They would sit somewhere they were comfortable with and had protection and an escape route. They would sit somewhere their friends could also sit nearby and wait with them to help hunt down the saber tooth tiger. By sitting in that same spot, stress and anxiety were controlled, allowing your ancestors to more effectively hunt down that saber tooth tiger.
    As humans have evolved over the years, obviously our need to hunt saber tooth tigers has diminished. But our need to control anxiety and stress has not. Whether we are with family, in a meeting at work, or in a classroom, we perform our best when we can control as much of our surroundings as possible, leaving more space in our brain for reacting to the multitude of circumstances that could happen. Claiming that seat is the easiest thing to control from the start, creating a platform from which we can use perform at our highest evolutionary levels.

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