Teens Tends To Choose Their Friends Based On Courses, Not Status
November 17, 2013

No Different Class Of Friends

Alan McStravick for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online

Who knew teenagers were complex enough creatures to choose friends based on something more than a single school social strata? A Michigan State University (MSU) led study deflates the myth, perpetuated by Hollywood, that teenage birds of a feather only flock together in tightly regulated cliques.

The research, funded by the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health, points to the fact that strong high school friendships are more directly affected by the courses students take than by their self- or group-identified status in the traditional cliques like the geeks, freaks, goths and jocks.

The research team has published their findings in the journal American Journal of Sociology. They mention the results of their study are distinctive to each high school. While in one school friendships among students may form because they have woodshop, Spanish and European history in common, another school’s students might share their agricultural business management, advanced accounting and calculus classes in common.

“People generally want to think that kids are choosing their friends from the well-known categories like jocks and nerds – that it’s like “The Breakfast Club” and the same at every school,” 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.”

To arrive at their conclusion, the team analyzed the academic transcripts and survey data of 3,000 students attending 78 high schools in the US. The results of this analysis were followed by the development of a new computer algorithm and software meant to aid in identification of the unique sets of students and courses from the transcripts in each school.

Because each school has a core curriculum required of each student, the findings indicate these classes were less influential in encouraging friendships among students. Rather, electives, (which tend to be smaller in size) were successful breeding grounds for budding friendships. The team hypothesizes the idea that students in elective courses have a shared interest which could likely be responsible for their eventual affinity for one another.

Additionally, those in like electives are more easily able to get to know one another very well while not putting so much import on social status, such as how ‘cool’ someone is. The results of the study also show there is far less judgment of fellow classmates based on visible characteristics like race and gender.

An interesting find centered on female students and their academic path through high school. The team notes girls are much more likely to take more demanding math classes if other girls in their shared classes whom they befriended took advanced math. “In other words,” Frank said, “the peer groups that formed around shared courses had implications for students’ academic effort as well as their social world.”

Frank and colleagues believe their findings in this area are particularly important for school administrators. Those schools that don’t put any effort to mixing high- and low-achieving students very likely run the risk of driving them apart socially and academically.

It is for this reason, says Frank, schools could better highlight the value of certain academic pursuits such as math. They could work to group students together in ninth grade so the low-achievers share class time with students who are high-achievers.

“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.”

Along with Frank, the study was co-authored by Chandra Miller of the University of Texas and Anna Mueller of the University of Memphis.