In Brief

Teachers may not be the only ones noticing who is at the head of the class: Students also develop academic reputations among their peers, suggests a study in August's Journal of Educational Psychology (Vol. 97, No. 3).

The longitudinal study of 400 children in third, fourth and fifth grades finds that peers are good judges of their classmates' academic skills and may serve as an important source of feedback in school performance, say study authors and psychologists Scott D. Gest, PhD, Celene E. Domitrovich, PhD, and Janet A. Welsh, PhD.

In the study, which spanned over one year, teachers rated children's academic skills and social behavior, and peers provided nominations of classmates' academic skills, such as whether certain peers were good at reading or often or rarely knew the correct answer in class. Students also self-evaluated themselves on such factors as whether they felt they were good at their schoolwork or just as smart as their peers.

In fact, students' academic reputation among peers at the beginning of the school year appeared to correspond with changes in their academic self-concept--how they felt about their academic skills--at the end of the school year, the study found. In a follow-up study currently under review, researchers collected students' grades and report cards, and they found an apparent relationship between peer reputations and changes over time in students' grade point averages: Those with a positive academic reputation tended to earn improving grades, whereas those with negative reputations typically had worsening grades. The follow-up study included two additional co-authors, graduate students Kelly Rulison and Alice Davidson.

The researchers say more follow-up studies are needed to explain why and how peer academic reputations predict students' academic efforts and skills, but they believe this research provides the first evidence that peer and teacher perspectives on children's academic skills are each associated with changes in students' academic self-concept, skills and effort.

"Children's self-concept changes [according to] feedback from important others in their environment, such as teachers," Gest says. "But, we thought it was reasonable that peers might provide systematic feedback--such as through their comments, choosing you as a partner for an academic project, approaching you for help--all of which send pretty clear signals of how they think of your academic skills."

Academic reputations may also lead to bias in how classmates treat students, posits Gest, an assistant human development and family studies professor at Penn State University. For example, past studies have suggested that once students establish a reputation, their peers may be more apt to notice behaviors consistent with that impression and overlook behaviors that are inconsistent with that view.

"All this research taken together suggests that peers are centrally involved in [students'] academic lives," Gest says.