A study published last week in the online journal PLOS One—and conducted by a team of high school students partnering with researchers through a National Science Foundation outreach program—suggests the grades of friends can rise or fall toward the average of their social circle over time.
The study is described as the first to attempt to use social-contagion theory—the idea that concepts and behaviors can spread through a social network much like the way a cold spreads through a school—to analyze changes in students’ grades.
The authors asked 160 juniors at Maine-Endwell High School in Endwell, N.Y., to identify, on a list of the rest of the class, the students considered close friends, friends, acquaintances, relatives, or unknown. The authors then linked the social circles with administrative data, including grade point average (as translated into class ranking), attendance, and disciplinary actions, for the 2010-11 and 2011-12 school years.
They found that students whose friends’ average GPA was higher than their own at the start of the study were more likely to improve their grades, and that students with a higher GPA than their friends’ were more likely to drop in grades. The study also offers some evidence that this isn’t just a matter of birds of a feather flocking together: Close friendships—the ones most likely to be formed on the basis of personality similarities—were less strongly related to changes in a student’s GPA than were the relationships of students considered friends, but not as close.
The study was part of NetSci High, a pilot NSF project intended to teach students and educators about emerging science methods. When the study was conducted, four of its authors were themselves high school students.
A version of this article appeared in the February 20, 2013 edition of Education Week as Researchers Want to Know: Are Good Grades Contagious?