The importance of social networks for academic success

Social networks often get bad press as today we tend to think about Facebook & co. But when talking about more “old-fashioned” social networks – according to a new study by Maria Yudkevich, Sofia Dokuka and Dilara Valeyeva of the HSE Centre for Institutional Studies -students tend to perform better with high-performers among their friends, as some people are capable of inspiring others to try harder.

From the press release:

Most sociologists recognise four factors affecting student academic performance, namely:

  • the family’s socioeconomic status;
  • the time spent on independent learning and preparation for classes;
  • the time spent working on a job or practicing a hobby; and
  • the university or school environment.

However, recent empirical studies indicate that the role of the social environment may be underestimated, as classmates can greatly influence one another’s behaviour and academic success.

Yet the value of many such studies is limited due to serious design flaws – such as viewing a random group of classmates as one’s social network or assuming that a student’s position in his or her social network is static. Rather than being random, one’s social network is a product of conscious and dynamic choice. Social networks, particularly among college freshmen, can change considerably over time – e.g. a student can break up with an underachieving friend and seek the company of A-graders.

Using 2013-2014 data on the social networks of 117 first-year students of the Faculty of Economics at a Russian university, Yudkevich, Director of the Centre for Institutional Studies, and junior research fellows of the same Centre Dokuka and Valeyeva examined whether students consider academic success in choosing friends among their classmates and whether friends influence each other’s academic performance.

They analysed the data using stochastic actor-based modeling to address the dynamics and other nuances of social group members’ behavior and presented the findings in the paper Co-Evolution of Social Networks and Student Performance in Educational Studies, issue 3, 2015.

Friends Can Help with Studies

According to the authors, in choosing friends, students do not usually consider academic performance, but over time – often in the middle of the academic year – all members in a peer group tend to perform at about the same level.

Thus, most students who surrounded themselves with high-achievers improved their performance over time. The opposite was also true – those who befriended underachievers eventually experienced a drop in grades.

According to the authors, while underachievers have a stronger influence on their networks, high performers tend to gain popularity and expand their influence over time, particularly by helping other students with their studies.

Men were found to have larger networks than women, and all students were more likely to be friends with those whom they had known before college, classmates of the same gender, and members of their study group.

Do note where the study was performed as it can influence the results, although I do recognize this with my own students.

Abstract of the study:

Peer-effects describe the influence of social environment on individual academic achievements. Social environment is usually considered as a randomly formed group. However, it forms and develops as a result of an individual conscious dynamic choice. Students may initially choose friends among peers with similar level of academic performance, and the influence of close friends on each other’s achievements may reveal itself over time. Using stochastic actor-based models, we demarcated the boundaries between social selection and social influence evaluated through academic performance. Having analyzed the dynamics of friendship ties and academic achievements throughout the first year at university, we discovered that students were not guided by the level of academic performance when choosing friends among peers but academic achievements of the latter affected their own performance over time. This could be explained by social segregation of students based on their academic outcomes.


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