Birds of a Feather

How much does similarity matter in high school environments? When it comes to teachers and students, it's more than you think

December 1, 2014
teacher flying with students behind him

With a focus on improving educational outcomes in classrooms across the country, what role could a survey play in determining the similarities between teachers and their students?

The answer is one of potential significance.

In a recent blog post, Associate Professor Hunter Gehlbach discussed his findings from his latest research study, “Creating birds of similar feathers: Leveraging similarity to improve teacher-student relationships and academic achievement.” As described in the post, Gehlbach and his research team surveyed 315 ninth graders and 25 of their teachers with questions on “personal preferences such as favorite hobbies, charities they would support, and characteristics of a good friend.” The research team followed up this get-to-know-you survey by providing different types of feedback to students and teachers. They randomly assigned some students and teachers to learn five things that they had in common; while other teachers and students did not learn about any similarities with the other party. Among the results:

  • Teachers and students who learned what they had in common with the other party perceived themselves as being more similar.
  • When teachers learned that they shared commonalities with their students, they rated their relationships as more positive. (By contrast, the intervention did not significantly affect students’ perceptions of their relationship with their teachers).
  • Finally, when teachers received similarity reports about what they had in common with a randomly selected group of students, those randomly selected students earned higher grades in the class.

As Gehlbach notes, “Additional analyses led to an interesting, albeit, more speculative finding.” When looking at students who are often well-served in schools (White and Asian) in comparison to historically underserved students (Black and Latino), the “analyses suggest that the intervention was most effective in helping teachers connect with the historically underserved students. On average, the achievement gap between the well-served and underserved students at this school is reduced by over 60 percent, as measured by course grades.”

In the conclusion of the full “Creating birds of similar feathers” report, Gehlbach writes that “although it is premature to make broad recommendations from a single study, we do think that this study underscores how important teacher-student relationships can be. Furthermore, the study provides an important illustration of how similarities might be leveraged to improve these relationships in secondary schools. We hope that this study will contribute to a growing literature that helps practitioners think of effective ways to bolster their social connections with their students.”

Further reading

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