Study Finds Social Connectedness in Classroom Improves Grades

When you’re in seventh grade, you may not find too many similarities between you and your teacher, but finding them could help your grade. A preliminary survey conducted by Panorama Education and Harvard’s Graduate School of Education showed that sharing similarities between teachers and students can improve academic performance in the classroom.

For the study, students and teachers were surveyed about their interests and values. Sample questions included the most important qualities in a friend, the sporting event they would most like to attend, and their views on when students learn the most.

Dr. Hunter Gehlbach, the director of the study, said he has always been interested in the social aspect of classrooms and the student-teacher relationships that lies at the center of it. “The challenge of how do you make two people like each other better and get along better and have a more productive relationship is very challenging,” said Gehlbach. “Especially when it’s an adolescent who has been assigned to the same teacher all year.”

This interest led Gehlbach and his research team to survey students and teachers. After an initial “get-to-know-you” survey, the groups received feedback on what they had in common with the other party, while the control group did not.

“By steering the teachers’ and students’ attention towards these things they have in common, as opposed to those things they don’t have in common, we thought we might actually be able to nudge the relationships in a better direction,” said Gehlbach. And it seemed to have worked. The research team gathered the grades at the end of the first quarter and found that when teachers received feedback about being similar to their students, the students earned higher grades.

They found that this grade improvement occurred the most for black and latino students. For these students the achievement gap was narrowed by approximately 60 percent. For white and Asian students the study showed no significant results. The questions this study raises is what is prompting Gehlback to continue in his research. “One of the main reasons we’re trying to do lots and lots of studies right now is to find out why both the intervention worked in general and why it worked for that particular sub population of students.”

For such a brief intervention, Gehlbach is astounded at the magnitude of effects and what this could mean for future teachers. He sees potential because the process of getting to know one another is an intrinsically interesting activity that won’t be onerous for the teachers to do. If this were to be implemented at schools, Gehlbach said it would be easy to keep track of because it’s scaleable.

Gehlbach and his team are not only looking at traditional classrooms though. With online classes, MOOCs, and hybrid courses becoming more popular, the difference in social interaction has concerned many educators. The survey was conducted for an online course and the research team is looking at the results now. “The social connectedness is such a key component of the learning experience for students that we want to maximize it,” said Gehlbach, “but that’s exactly what’s hard to capture in these online or blended learning environments.”

Gehlbach said it just makes sense to encourage schools and educational institutions to leverage the common interests or the common values with the students. “It’s hard to imagine ways in which it would not be a good idea,” he said.

Keep updated with their research at Panorama Education.

To read more about the survey, click here.

Michelle Harven

Michelle Harven

Michelle is a current graduate student at Emerson College and an intern at Boston's public radio station. She enjoys exploring the world of educational technology and writing about the ever-changing sector and its potential.