In The Classroom, Common Ground Can Transform GPAs



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Researcher Hunter Gehlbach found that helping students and teachers find things in common improved academic outcomes. (iStockphoto)
Researcher Hunter Gehlbach found that helping students and teachers find things in common improved academic outcomes. (iStockphoto)

Many people have experienced the magic of a wonderful teacher, and we all know anecdotally that these instructors can change our lives. But what if a teacher and a student don't connect? How does that affect the education that child receives?

Is there a way to create a connection where there isn't one? And how might that change things, for teachers and students alike?

These are the sorts of questions that fascinated Hunter Gehlbach and his colleagues at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

For the experiment he had in mind, Hunter and his team created a survey for students and teachers of a ninth-grade class. The researchers then selectively shared examples from the survey results with teachers and students to show them that they had things in common. When Hunter examined the test scores of students who had been induced to see that they had things in common with their teachers, he found something astonishing: students — especially minorities — suddenly started to perform better in class.

"When we look at academic achievement with respect to these black and Latino students, what we find is that when they're in the treatment group, their grades go up by about .4 of a letter grade," Hunter explains. While that may not sound like a lot, it "translates into over 60 percent plus reduction in the achievement gap at this school."

Click on the audio link above to hear more.

Stopwatch Science

On Stopwatch Science — our rapid-fire science game with author Dan Pink — Dan and host Shankar Vedantam agree on a topic, and each brings two pieces of research to share. They have 60 seconds to convey each idea.

On today's edition of Stopwatch Science, Dan and Shankar stick with the theme of ties between students and teachers, and the impact these connections — or lack thereof — can have on the classroom.

1. Katy Milkman and her colleagues looked at discrimination in academia, using emails from fictional students with names signaling race and gender. Unfortunately (but perhaps unsurprisingly), white males received many more responses. The particularly interesting thing was that professors at private institutions and in higher paying disciplines favored white male students even more frequently.

2. There's been a lot of debate in this country about the value of test scores, and whether improving students' test scores is a worthy goal. But Raj Chetty* and his colleagues found that a teacher who improves test scores can have long-term effects on students' lives. The students who had good teachers are significantly more likely to attend college, to earn more money as adults and to live in a better neighborhood.

3. In addition to students and teachers, there is a third party in this equation: parents. A study out of Brown and Harvard found that sending parents a weekly message about their children dramatically improved the students' academic outcome. Messages with constructive criticism were even more effective than those that simply conveyed positive information.

4. In a study published in the Merill-Palmer Quarterly, Katja Upadyaya and Jacquelynne S. Eccles found that teachers' expectations about whether a student is going to succeed can affect student academic outcomes. Though of course teachers' beliefs about a student's potential don't come out of thin air, Shankar says it seems to be a "chicken and egg" type of problem, where a teacher's expectations can shape a student's behavior.

The Hidden Brain Podcast is produced by Kara McGuirk-Alison and Maggie Penman. Follow us on Twitter @hiddenbrain, @karamcguirk and @maggiepenman, and listen for Hidden Brain stories every week on your local public radio station.

*Raj Chetty is cited as being at Harvard in the audio version, which he was at the time of this research. He has since moved to Stanford University.

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