The role our peers play in learning

peer-learningEducation seldom happens in isolation, and sociologists have typically believed four factors influence student performance:

  1. the socioeconomic status of our family
  2. how much time we spend learning and preparing for class
  3. the university or school environment
  4. how long we spend on a hobby or job

With education an increasingly social endeavor however, a team of Russian academics has explored the role our peers play in the success we have in learning.

The role of the social environment on learning

Of course, it isn’t always easy to test the impact our peers have in a controlled environment.  It’s difficult, for instance, for a randomly controlled group to replicate the bonds and relationships of a social group.

After all, our social networks are usually anything but random, and are the outcome of a real and conscious choice.  They’re also prone to significant change over time.

The researchers used data on the social networks of over 100 students from the economics department at the Yudkevich university in Russia.  The team examined the role academic performance plays in the friends people chose, and subsequently the influence those friends had on grades.

The team used stochastic actor based modeling to explore the dynamics and nuances of how the group worked together.

Pick your friends carefully

They go on to say that the academic impact of our friendship is not typically something that enters our head when selecting our friends, but that we do tend to regress to the mean academic performance of our peer group over time.

In other words, when we have high achieving friends, our performance is likely to improve to reflect our peer group, but the reverse was also the case, with underachievers likely to drag our own performance down.

What’s more, the influence of underachievers was found to be larger, although high achievers tended to have bigger social networks, and therefore had a wider influence as a result.

All of which suggests that we should perhaps be picking our friends rather more carefully than we perhaps currently do.


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