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Getting To Know You: Teacher-Student Similarities Can Impact Grades

Can the simple technique of finding common characteristics between a teacher and a student help generate better outcomes for the learner? In some cases, according to a new study by Harvard University and Panorama Education, that's exactly what happens.

Panorama works with schools to use data analysis and feedback surveys among teachers, students and parents to effect improvements. The company, which claims 5,000 schools as customers, worked with a research team from Harvard's Graduate School of Education on an experiment to understand how to improve teacher-student relationships in middle school and high school classes.

The experiment was conducted in fall 2013 at an unnamed high school in the southwest involving 315 students and 25 teachers. The research team surveyed students and teachers about their interests and values. They asked each person about topics such as the most important qualities in a friend, the sporting event they'd most like to attend and their views on when students learn the most. A week after this initial "get-to-know-you" survey, students and teachers were divided into four groups. In three of the groups, students, teachers or both sets of participants received feedback on five things they had in common with each other; a control group didn't receive feedback on any similarities. Five weeks after that, both students and teachers completed a longer survey to gauge the impact of receiving the "similarity" feedback. The researchers also collected grades at the end of that quarter.

The study found that when teachers received feedback about similarities they shared with their students, they rated their relationships with the students as more positive. (Not so for the students.) However, more importantly, the students also earned higher grades — at least that was primarily true for black and Latino students; there were no significant effects for white or Asian students... As measured by course grades, the "achievement gap" closed up by about 60 percent. This gap was defined as the difference in grades that "underserved" students and "well-served" students received. In the ninth grade, for example, the gap before the experiment was about 0.6 of a letter grade; afterwards the gap was only 0.2 of a letter grade.

"These analyses," wrote the researchers in a blog entry about the project, "suggest that the intervention was most effective in helping teachers connect with the historically underserved students."

"We plan to conduct further studies to explore why these improved relationships seem to have downstream benefits for students' academic performance," said Hunter Gehlbach, director of research at Panorama and associate professor at Harvard. "Our findings suggest that there might be a lot of benefit to helping teachers and students see common points of overlap in their interests, values and beliefs."

"This is a great example of a small intervention that can have a big impact on the relational climate in the classroom and on academic performance," noted Aaron Feuer, co-founder of Panorama. "There's so much focus on test preparation and Common Core initiatives right now. I think people often forget the importance of that human connection in the classroom. That's one reason why we're excited to continue further studies like this at Panorama"

The full results of the project are available on a Panorama research site.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal and Campus Technology. She can be reached at dian@dischaffhauser.com or on Twitter @schaffhauser.

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