Smart kids at the front, troublemakers at the back!
This is perhaps a commonly held perception of lecture theatres, especially in the earlier years of a university course. And we've all been there; either sitting near the front so as to pay our utmost attention to what's going on, or sitting at the back, not caring about the lecture and what's being taught.
However, this idea that underachievers will sit at the back, whilst successful students sit at the front is perhaps a misconception as recent research suggests that this is mixing up the cause and effect.

The Argument
The literature argues that it is in fact because students sit at the front in lectures that they receive higher grades, and by sitting at the back, students are forfeiting themselves to lower grades. Therefore, it is actually seat location which predicts students performance and not student performance predicting seat location. However, there is some evidence to suggest that people who sit in different seats throughout the lecture theatre have different personality traits and that this might also predict students performance.

The Evidence
Three recent articles have sought to explore this idea of seat location predicting student performance by each randomly assigning students to be seated either towards the front of the class, or towards the back of the class.

Firstly, Perkins and Wieman (2005) found that students who were randomly assigned to sit towards the front were more likely to get As than were those students who were assigned to sit at the back, and that this difference occurred despite the fact that all students in the class received similar grade point averages (GPAs). Furthermore, students assigned to sit at the back of the lecture theatre were more likely to receive F grades than were those at the front.

An interesting observation in this study is that students assigned to sit at the front who were performing well, continued to perform well even when they were moved to the back of the classroom. This suggests that there is more to this than merely the seating locations.

In line with these findings, Benedict and Hoag (2004), found that students who usually prefer to sit at the front of the lecture theatre have a higher probability of receiving an A grade, than those who prefer to sit at the back, who again, have a higher probability of receiving Ds and Fs.
However, contrary to Perkin and Wiemans (2005) findings, it was found that students who preferred to sit at the back of the lecture theatre, still had an increased probability of receiving a D or F grade when they did not sit there.

The final article, by Kalinowski and Taper (2007), found no evidence that seating location affected students grades, opposing those results described above. One reason for this is that there were only 43 students who took part in this final study compared with 197 in the Benedict and Hoag (2004) study, and 201 in the Perkins and Wieman (2005) study and therefore the results differ because the theory may not translate to such a small lecture.

Discussing the Evidence
Whilst these articles have provided evidence that students who sit towards the front of a lecture theatre will out perform those who sit towards the back of a lecture theatre, there are numerous reservations to be made before this research can be used to alter teaching techniques and lecture theatre layouts.
Firstly, the effect sizes described can be very small. This is particularly obvious in the study by Perkins and Wieman (2005), who state their results are on the edge of significance - and thus are not significant at all, casting doubt over the conclusions made.
Furthermore, the designs put in place are not well controlled. As these are university lectures, and in particular first year lectures, it is not definite that all students turned up to every lecture, thus having an affect on the results. Moreover, in the Benedict and Hoag (2004) study, their definition of being forced to sit forward of a preferred position is that students are moved forward one row. This, however, is a very small move and I would assume is unlikely to have any affect what so ever on students learning.
Also, the article by Benedict and Hoag (2004) describes very contradictory results. On the one hand it tells us that preferring to sit at the back, but sitting forward will still increase the probability of receiving a D or F grade. But in virtually the next sentence they claim those who prefer to sit at the back but sit forward tend to receive higher grades! This clearly shows some confusion in the results, which certainly needs clearing up.

The original argument to this research was that seating location would affect students performance as opposed to students performance affecting seating location. The research described above does mostly appear to confirm that this theory is in fact true, particularly for larger lectures, however there are numerous issues which would need to be resolved before it can be applied.

Furthermore, there is evidence to suggest that seating preference might play a large part in how students learn in large lecture theatres.

Key Reference
Benedict, M.E., and Hoag, J. (2004). Seating location in large lectures: Are seating preferences or location related to course performance? Journal of Economic Education, 35(3), 215-231.
This article provides a very interesting and in depth review of the preceding literature, and whilst the methods and results may be a little confusing to read, it still provides an interesting insight into the field.

Kalinowski, S., and Taper, M.L. (2007). The Effect of Seat Location on Exam Grades and Student Perceptions in an Introductory Biology Class. Journal of College Science Teaching, 36(4), 54-57.
Available at: /2007_Seat_location_JCST.pdf

Perkins, K.K., and C. Wieman. (2005). The surprising impact of seat location on student performance. The Physics Teacher, 43(1), 30–33.