Students' academic successes are largely influenced by the people around them – friends and high-achieving classmates, they consult about their studies; the latter tend to have a positive effect on others’ academic performance. Director of the HSE Centre for International Studies Maria Yudkevich and researchers at the International Laboratory for Institutional Analysis of Economic Reforms Diliara Valeeva and Oleg Poldin looked at a recipe for student motivation in their article Connections of Friendship and Help in Study at University published in Issue 4 of the HSE Journal for Educational Studies in 2013.
An important element of the study was to determine how and in what ways students' social connections influence their academic performance. The authors found that leaders of groups of friends and popular students are not necessarily high academic achievers, and they tend to transmit their attitudes to learning to those around them.
The authors also examined students' talent for communication and their social intelligence and found both to be major factors of success in life beyond school.
The study data were obtained by surveying 94 second-year undergraduates (35 male and 59 female) at the HSE Faculty of Economics in Nizhny Novgorod.
The peer effect in the classroom means that A-grade students lead their immediate networks by setting an example of academic achievement, and the higher the leader's performance the better other peers perform, a finding supported by numerous studies (Lyle D. The Effects of Peer Group Heterogeneity on the Production of Human Capital at West Point // American Economic Journal: Applied Economics. Vol.1, no 4, 2009, pp.69-84; Sacerdote B. Peer Effects with Random Assignment : Results from Dartmouth Roommates // Quarterly Journal of Economics. Vol. 116, no 2, 2001, pp.681-704).
High performers may transmit their influence to classmates and dorm roommates with whom they spend time and/or discuss academic matters.
However, Valeeva, Poldin, and Yudkevich distinguish between friendships and relationships based on academic assistance. Friends are classmates one socialises with the most, while academic assistants are classmates one turns to more pragmatically for advice in studies. A friendship network is personal, while an assistance network is instrumental and often involves differences in academic ability, the authors explain.
This distinction emphasises the different types of peer relationships and allows the authors to examine A-grade students' socialization more closely. The authors found academic success to be inversely related to popularity among classmates. Academically successful students are in demand in assistance networks but they are rarely popular in friendship networks, according to the authors. In other words, students seek academic advice from high performers, but prefer to make friends with average performers.
Peers who are personal friends as well as academic assistants contribute particularly to the peer effect by combining the proximity of friendship and the ability to offer academic assistance, the authors suggest.
Such dual-purpose relationships tend to form between students of the same sex who are members of the same study group. Moreover, the smaller the difference between their average academic scores the greater the likelihood of such a relationship. The authors also note the role of leaders of groups of friends. "Every small group of students tends to have one or more leaders with a strong influence on their peers' academic performance," they say.
Valeeva, Poldin, and Yudkevich also note different socialization patterns between fee-paying students and those on government grants.
Students who pay for their studies tend to form friendship networks, while those whose tuition is paid for by the state are more likely to form assistance networks.
Whether or not a student gets a grant may depend either on their abilities or on their income. The authors suggest that fee-paying students and students on grants approach social networking differently and may therefore experience the peer effect in different ways.
The authors note that social intelligence largely determines career success while friendships made at school can be a long-term investment.
Studies confirm that socially active students tend to achieve better outcomes at school and beyond. (Calvo-Armengol A., Patacchini E., Zenou Y. Peers Effects and Social Networks in Education // Review of Economic Studies. No 76, 2009, pp. 1239-1267; Babcock P. From Ties to Gains? Evidence on Connectedness and Human Capital Acquisition // Journal of Human Capital. No 2, 2008, pp.379-409.) Thus, Calvo-Armengol et al found that centrality in a social network (i.e. being connected to a large number of nodes) significantly increases one's academic performance.
Researchers in other countries also suggest that social networks can have a long-term effect; thus, being popular and active in general at school can increase one's chances of being enrolled in a university or earning a higher salary in the future.
The authors note that certain areas merit further research, such as the mechanisms whereby students build social networks and the way the peer effect works between classmates.