Research

Student Worries about Social Image Affect School Behavior

High school students are willing to ignore educational opportunities when they're concerned about how they'll be viewed by their classmates, according to a new study by researchers from three universities. "Cool To Be Smart or Smart To Be Cool? Understanding Peer Pressure in Education" was a project undertaken by researchers at the Universities of Chicago and Pennsylvania and Northwestern University and published by the National Bureau of Economic Research.

The project extended work published in 2015 that found that pick up of a free SAT preparation course and effort used to practice for a high school exit exam by students are influenced by how observable those activities are by their peers.

The new work identified two peer cultures, one that stigmatizes effort and the other that rewards ability, both of which may lower the take-up of educational activities by young people when others can see what's going on. Understanding the motivations of the students in both cultures, the researchers suggested, could offer "important insights" for understanding "the root causes of educational underachievement."

The experiment was undertaken in three Los Angeles public high schools. One had a lower-achieving, lower income, higher minority share. There, about 54 percent of seniors take the SAT, and the average score is about 1,200. The other two schools had higher-achieving, higher income, lower minority shares. About 60 percent of seniors at those campuses take the SAT, and the average score is around 1,500. The project focused on 11th graders because they're typically at an age where they begin preparing to take the SAT.

Students were invited to sign up for complimentary access to an SAT preparation package. They were handed a form at their desks explaining that they could win an SAT prep package that included access to the software for a year, as well as a diagnostic test and personalized assessment of their performance and areas of strength and weakness and an hour-long session with an SAT prep tutor. The value of the package was given as "over $100."

The researchers added two variables. Some students were told on the form that their chance of winning the prep package was 25 percent; others were told the chance was 75 percent. Likewise, some students' forms stated that their decision to sign up for the "lottery" and that the results of their diagnostic test score would be kept private; the others were told those items would be made public to other students in the room. The first form was collected, then the researchers handed out an additional survey with questions related to intentions related to higher education, how good their grades were in general, how important they considered it to be popular in school, and how hard they had been studying for the SAT.

The expectation was twofold: 1) that "effort stigmatization" would be more influential at the lower-achieving school, dampening interest in the SAT help; and 2) signaling high ability or "ability rewarding" would be more important at the higher achieving schools. That's what happened. As the researchers reported, "We identify two potentially important peer cultures: one that stigmatizes effort (thus, where it is 'smart to be cool') and one that rewards ability (where it is 'cool to be smart')."

According to the results of the secondary survey, students did report greater concerns about whether people think they are smart in the higher-achieving schools, compared to the former.

The same survey also revealed that the students believed the package could have a major impact on their test scores — a median gain of 100 points at the lower-income school and 123 at the higher-income schools.

Despite the possible benefits, the report noted, "High school students are willing to forgo educational investment opportunities due to concerns about how they will be perceived by their classmates."

Armed with an understanding of motives, the researchers added, schools can tailor information or marketing campaigns with the right kinds of messaging for school improvement. For example, they explained, "trying to change attitudes so that doing well in school is rewarded rather than stigmatized ... may actually increase the stigma associated with not doing well," thereby morphing one form of negative peer pressure into another form without changing the outcomes. Or schools may want to label or market various programs differently depending on peer culture. The report offers the example of teachers making themselves available after class for additional work with students. "When such programs are labeled as extra help, attending will be perceived as a sign of low ability," they wrote. "Calling such programs advanced material or enrichment might reverse some of that stigma. But in schools where effort is stigmatized, the exact opposite may hold."

The same kind of thinking can be applied, the report suggested, by schools in their treatment of grades. In schools where the biggest concern is about revealing low economic status, privacy of grades is likely to be important. Otherwise, low ability students might reduce their efforts to signal that they're cool. In schools where the "main worry" is to broadcast a high social type, keeping grades private could, in fact, "be detrimental to performance."

The report is available on the NBER website here.

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