Peer Pressures

PhD researcher considers classmates’ performance

Better classmates mean better grades and more time spent studying. That’s the mindset some parents hold, especially in this competitive age, when trying to find the best school for their child.

But does a student’s performance increase when his or her peer group possesses higher abilities? That’s the question at the heart of Krannert doctoral student Robert Lantis’ research, which examines the effect of peer quality on a student’s academic performance and effort choice, as measured by a student’s chosen hours of study each week.

Lantis, a PhD candidate in economics, examined the standardized test results for sixth-grade public school students in North Carolina. He found that the effect on the individual’s academic performance is greatest when a student is most similar to an average peer and decreases as relative ability increases or decreases from this average peer.

“If my peers are of a higher ability, defined by past performance, I will see an increase in my test scores,” Lantis says. “This could be from a combination of things, such as peer learning and interaction or that it may be easier for educators to teach higher intellectual students, which means fewer behavioral distractions in the classroom and more time spent teaching.”

Robert Lantis

Doctoral student Robert Lantis is researching the effect of peer quality on a student’s academic performance and effort choice (Photo by Mark Simons)

Though previous studies in this area looked exclusively at academic performance, Lantis also examined what he calls a student’s effort choice, or the number of hours of study each week. Students taking the standardized test in North Carolina reported their hours of study through a question on the exam.

“I also found that if a student has higher-ability peers or classmates, he or she will tend to study more or have an increase in effort toward education,” Lantis says.

“You can think of a classroom almost like a tournament, in that we are all competing to get good grades. I want to be the best in the class and looked at as smart or intelligent. If I have higher-ability classmates around me, I am more driven to increase my effort and study harder to try and do better than them.”

Lantis found one exception — a student who is at a much lower academic performance level than his or her peers may become discouraged and put in fewer hours of study, in part because he or she feels that no amount of studying can help bridge the gap with peers.

“I think a lesson for parents from this research might be that the best choice for every student is not always to put him or her in the school or classroom with the best or smartest students, especially if their child struggles with academic performance,” Lantis says. “That kind of situation could actually end up discouraging the student from putting in additional hours of study.”