Who Students Go to School with Really Matters

Parents know that where children go to school matters. The quality of teaching, the curriculum, and the school’s facilities all have a big influence on learning outcomes. But there are many other factors that influence a student’s success. And ones that are often overlooked are the attitudes and aptitudes of other students attending the school.  

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In their article titled “From Parents to Peers: Trajectories in Sources of Academic Influence Grades 4 to 8” in Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, Lucy Sorensen from the University of Albany/SUNY along with Philip Cook and Kenneth Dodge from Duke University report on their study of thousands of students. The study found that classroom peers are one of the most important influences on student achievement, and this influence increased as students progressed from the fourth to the eighth grades.  

Why is this the case? The researchers found students’ academic effort is influenced by peers’ attitudes toward learning “through observation of peers’ effort or through reinforcement by peers of a student’s studying and performance.” They also noted that “teachers may differentially tailor their pacing and instructional style to the abilities of each group of students they encounter.”  

Sorensen’s, Cook’s, and Dodge’s findings have direct implications on how schools create optimal learning environments, and in particular, on the way students are grouped during the school day.  In other words, who students learn with has a profound impact on what they learn. Though there are certain advantages to mixed groupings of students, particularly in younger grades, Sorensen’s, Cook’s, and Dodge’s research points toward significant advantages in grouping students with similar abilities and aptitudes as they reach the older elementary grades, particularly in math.  

This noteworthy finding highlights the importance of allowing students to accelerate in math so they can learn with students who are ready for similar challenges. But regardless of the subject, teachers and administrators should also give careful thought when grouping children to optimize learning for the greatest number of students, especially as they prepare for learning in high school and beyond.                


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