It’s a common perception portrayed in
movies from “The Breakfast Club” to “Mean Girls". Teenage friendships are
formed by joining cliques such as jocks, geeks and Goths.
But a national study led by a Michigan
State University scholar finds that the courses students take have powerful
effects on the friendships they make. The study was funded by the National
Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health.
The findings, published in the American
Journal of Sociology, indicate the pattern of course-taking is distinctive to
each high school. In one school, for example, friendships may form among
students taking woodshop, Spanish and European history, while in another it may
be among students taking agricultural business management, advanced accounting
“People generally want to think that kids
are choosing their friends from the well-known categories like jocks and nerds
– like 'The Breakfast Club',” said
Kenneth Frank, professor in MSU’s College of Education.
“But our argument is that the opportunities
an adolescent has to choose friends are guided by the courses the adolescent
takes and the other students who take the courses with them. Moreover, the
pattern of opportunities differs from school to school.”
Frank and colleagues analysed survey data
and academic transcripts from some 3 000 students at 78 high schools across the
United States. The researchers developed a new computer algorithm and software
to identify the unique sets of students and courses from the transcripts in
Students were more likely to make friends
in small classes, often electives, which set them apart from the general student
Friendships were more likely to be created
in Latin 4 and woodshop, for example, than in a large physical education class
that is required of everyone in a particular grade.
Students who take the same set of courses
tend to get to know each another very well and focus less on social status,
such as how “cool” someone is. They’re also less likely to judge classmates on
visible characteristics like race and gender.
In addition, Frank said girls are more
likely to take more demanding math classes if other girls in their shared sets
of courses took advanced math. “In other words,” he said, “the peer groups that
formed around shared courses had implications for students’ academic effort as
well as their social world.”
The findings have implications for school
administrators as well. Schools that simply offer classes without thought to
mixing up high- and low-achieving students run the risk of driving them apart
socially and academically, Frank said.
Value of academic pursuits
To combat this, he said schools could
better highlight the value of certain academic pursuits such as math and
also group students together in ninth grade so the low-achievers have
high-achievers in their classes potentially throughout high school.
“This would give the students in the lower
group a ‘beacon’ of sorts – or others who could be there as a marker to help
them move along.”
Frank’s co-authors were Chandra Muller from
the University of Texas and Anna Mueller from the University of Memphis.