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This Simple Survey Could Help Close The Achievement Gap

The Huffington Post The Huffington Post 16/10/2015 Rebecca Klein
ATHENA IMAGE © Sean Justice via Getty Images ATHENA IMAGE

Teachers, do you want your students to perform better in school?

Then take the survey below, have your students take the survey and compare the answers you have in common. 

(Full survey can be found here.)

A recent study from Harvard University researchers found that a simple survey could help students foster better relationships with their teachers and subsequently achieve better grades in school. In the study, researchers had a group of 315 ninth-grade students and 25 teachers take a survey at the beginning of the school year about their lives, habits and personal interests. Researchers shared responses with a select group of students and teachers, focusing specifically on the answers both groups had in common. By the end of the year, this group of students -- particularly ones who identify as racial minorities -- saw a bump in their grades when compared with the other students.  

The idea is this: If a teacher and student discover they have traits in common, they are more likely to foster a personal relationship. When a teacher and student feel connected, student performance improves, the study found.

"If you look through the social psych literature on similarity, it's really bordering on the absurd. Small, silly, superficial little similarities seem to produce real differences and real outcomes," said Hunter Gehlbach, previously at Harvard but currently a professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara. "I figured, gosh, if it's so powerful, we've got to be able to see if it applies in schools and this could make a difference for teachers and students -- particularly if they don’t have that much in common on the surface."

Black and Latino students who participated in the study saw their grades go up 0.4 of a letter grade, which "translates into over 60 percent-plus reduction in the achievement gap at this school," Gehlbach told NPR. 

It is unclear why minority students might specifically benefit from learning that they have traits in common with their teachers, but the study offers potential explanations.

"For a group of predominantly white teachers, learning what they have in common with their underserved students may be critically important. Indeed, we find that teachers report interacting with these students more frequently," the study says. "From this knowledge and the increased interactions, teachers may connect better with students at an interpersonal level and may be better equipped to connect their subject matter to students’ interests. If this scenario transpires, greater learning seems a likely consequence."

Gehlbach said he has realized that while you cannot make people similar to each other, you can certainly steer them into believing that they are. 

"Similarities are a little bit like beauty: They're in the eye of the beholder. In the same way that you can think one person is beautiful at one point in time and another person not so much, we could actually draw people's attention to things they had in common and change their perception in that same way," he said. 

Now, researchers are hoping to make this intervention available to teachers around the world. Surveys for teachers and students are available for free on a site called Panorama Education, which uses data and analytics to help districts improve. The online survey tool -- which was rolled out in August -- has so far been used by over 2,000 teachers. Gehlbach is the director of research for Panorama Education.

Gehlbach hopes teachers take advantage of the survey as a means to decrease the achievement gap between white and black students and to greater connect with their students.

"It's so cheap and so easy," Gehlbach said. "It takes a grand total of 20 minutes of a teacher's time ... I'm cautiously optimistic that it is the type of thing that can work for lots and lots of people."

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