One of the most important aspects of teaching is the relationships formed with the students. The saying “students don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care” certainly rings true. Even now, as I think back to the teachers who most impacted my life, I don’t think about a great lesson or that Mrs. Williams was great at her transitions from one activity to the next. It’s the relationships. Sure, Mrs. Hughes was a great teacher. It is because of her that I can diagram a sentence. But she also let us be. Just be. She was great at playing on our personalities and bringing out the best in all of us while also requiring the work be completed successfully. She not only wanted us to know English, but she also cared enough to want us to be good human beings.
A central tenant of being a teacher that cares is getting to know your students; finding out their likes and dislikes, their hobbies and passions. That can certainly take time or possibly be expedited by ice breakers at the beginning of term. I believe the really good teachers find those student to student or teacher to student similarities and use them to enhance lessons. Knowing I have a class full of athletes, I’m going to try and use as many sports anecdotes as possible to explain key concepts and theories in my AP Psychology classes. But are there academic gains associated with these similarities? If I continually reference similarities between myself and my students or if these similarities are just known by the two parties, does that have any effect on the student’s grade? Gehlbach et al. (2016) conducted research to answer this very question and more.
In their research, Gehlbach et al. assessed the similarities among 315 ninth graders and their 25 teachers over a five week period. In the student experimental group, students were told five actual similarities they had with their teachers. Teachers in the experimental group were told five similarities they had with about half of the ninth graders in their classes. Both students and teachers were blind to the purpose of the study.
The researchers formulated the following hypotheses:
- Students in the treatment group would perceive himself/herself as being more similar to the teacher.
- Students in the treatment group would associate a more positive relationship with their teacher.
- Teachers in the treatment group would perceive himself/herself as being more similar to the student.
- Teachers in the treatment group would associate a more positive relationship with the student.
- Students in the teacher treatment group would earn higher midterm and end of quarter grades.
At the end of five weeks, a scale was administered to measure the effects of similarities on the teacher-student relationship. Also, midterm and final quarter grades were collected for use with hypothesis five. Most of their findings were as you’d suppose: both teachers and students perceived themselves as more similar to either the teacher or student (hypotheses one and three) and teachers associated a more positive relationship with the student with whom they perceived as more similar (hypothesis four). However, Gehlbach et al. did not find compelling evidence in support of hypothesis two; as students in the treatment group did not perceive a better relationship with their teacher simply because they were provided similarities. Perhaps the most compelling results, at least to me, are the findings associated with hypothesis five. Students’ academic achievement appeared to be affected by the intervention of similarities. While there were no noticeable differences in grades halfway through the marking period, there was a positive effect on grades at the end of the quarter; equivalent to about one-fifth of a letter grade. Maybe that doesn’t sound too significant through one quarter, but imagine if the results continued throughout an entire school year.
With their findings, Gehlbach et al. also decided to conduct exploratory analyses of the data. The most striking analysis pertains to well-served (Asian and caucasian) vs. underserved (Latino and African-American) students within the similarities experiment. When crunching the numbers, the researchers found the intervention had little effect on the well-served student. However, the underserved student perceived themselves as being much more similar to their teacher; and, in turn, the teachers generally reported greater levels of similarity with those students. Finally, Gehlbach et al. estimated the achievement gap between well-served and underserved 9th graders at this school to be about .6 of a letter grade. When teachers learned of their similarities with these students, the achievement gap dropped to .2 of a letter grade.
I would like to point out that Gehlbach et al. state that, at time of publication, this was the first experiment of its kind. While these findings are very interesting and thought provoking, more testing is needed before any concrete conclusions can be reached.
As an educator, these results are a little eye-opening. It is certainly ingrained via administration and literature to get to know your students, know their likes and dislikes, and take a vested interest in their interests. While I still believe that finding commonalities with my students is a worthwhile task that only creates a more intellectually and emotionally safe environment, I do wonder how those found similarities effect my biases in the classroom. Am I unconsciously grading those students with whom I share interests easier? From the standpoint of equality and equity in the classroom, I sure hope not. But, if those similarities are potentially narrowing the achievement gap, well perhaps that’s a good thing. In the end, more research is needed to solidify the findings of this study, but it does make me take a thoughtful look at my classroom and search for improvement…and that’s always a good thing.
Gehlbach, Hunter, Maureen E. Brinkworth, Aaron M. King, Laura M. Hsu, Joseph Mcintyre, and Todd Rogers. “Creating Birds of Similar Feathers: Leveraging Similarity to Improve Teacher-Student Relationships and Academic Achievement.” Journal of Educational Psychology 108.3 (2016): 342-52.