New research shows that while low-performing students impact the grades of their high-performing peers, this influence fades out in the longer run.
The study, conducted by Dr Rong Zhu and Professor Bin Huang from Flinders University and the Nanjing University of Finance and Economics respectively, involved more than 10,000 students in China.
The researchers found that by Year 9 in the same group of students, the negative effect from peers had largely vanished, suggesting concerns may be misplaced in the longer term.
To find low-performing students for the study, the researchers picked children who had repeated a grade.
They say repeaters appeared to reduce their peers’ results in two ways: firstly, in Year 7, repeaters made middling students less likely to make friends with their high ability peers. Secondly, they had a negative effect on the classroom environment.
“This study shows that low-ability students exert a negative spill-over impact on peer classmates’ academic performance in China,” Dr Zhu told The Educator.
“While the education system is different in Australia, I speculate a similar negative impact among Australian students”.
Dr Zhu said that when analysing the data, the researchers were initially surprised by the finding that grade repeaters adversely their classmates in grade seven but not so in grade nine.
“Explaining the difference, we then linked it to academic stress faced by Chinese students,” he said.
“Learning pressure is generally much higher among ninth graders because of an important exam, which leads to a change in student behaviour and class learning environment”.
For example, regular students in grade seven are less likely to be friends with hardworking classmates when there are more low-ability students in the classroom.
However, this is not true in grade nine,” Dr Zhu said.
Dr Zhu said the most important implication for Australian educators is that sufficient support must be provided to struggling students.
“Academic support to them can generate what economists termed the ‘social-multiplier’ effect,” he said.
“Low-achieving pupils benefit from it and will subsequently affect the performance of their peers, which in turn will affect the achievement of the former, and so on. Targeted support to struggling students can have considerable educational benefits”.
The study, ‘Peer effects of low-ability students in the classroom: evidence from China’s middle schools’, was published in the Journal of Population Economics.