Studies have shown that students are more likely to be motivated to engage in school tasks when they feel a sense of belonging and perceive that their peers support them.
“Peer relationships can allow students to access emotional, instrumental and informational support that can improve their well-being, motivation to learn and academic performance,” Senior Research Scientist Dr Imelda Caleon explains.
The students’ peer networks, especially those formed with their close friends, can play an important role in their growth and the realization of their potential. How then can we harness students’ peer networks so that they can produce positive outcomes?
To answer this question, Imelda and her research team have embarked on a project that explores the nature of students’ peer networks, how these networks change over time and the factors that contribute to the formation of these networks.
Studying Peer Power to Inform Policy Implementation
In 2020, the Ministry of Education (MOE) started to pilot the Full Subject-Based Banding (FSBB) scheme, which entails the placement of secondary school students in mixed form classes where they can interact with peers of different strengths and interests.
One of the foci of Imelda’s study is to ascertain how policy initiatives, particularly FSBB, influence students’ social relationships and how such relationships influence the students’ academic and non-academic outcomes.
The study follows students from Secondary One to Secondary Two. These students are from 10 schools, five of which are piloting the FSBB scheme.
Although the research project is still ongoing, Imelda shares several insights that can help us better understand the influence of peer power in both traditional and mixed form classrooms.
The preliminary results of social network analysis that was conducted by the research team show that students in FSBB schools have more cross-stream friendships compared to students in non- FSBB schools. These findings suggest relatively greater social mixing among students across different streams in FSBB schools.
In both FSBB and non-FSBB schools, meanwhile, Imelda observes that, “compared to students attending the Normal (Academic) or Express courses, students from the Normal (Technical) course tend to be the most open to friendship but their efforts to make friends tend to be the least reciprocated.”
Understanding Friendship Networks in Schools
According to Imelda, “relationships with peers are crucial in the development of behaviors, attitudes, and well-being of students, particularly adolescents who experience a barrage of changes – socially, emotionally and psychologically.”
The preliminary results of the study indicate that students who have a higher number of perceived friends (i.e., more nominated friends), are more popular (i.e., received more friend nominations), or have more mutual friendships (i.e., with more nominated friends reciprocating the nomination) tend to be more motivated to study, more engaged in doing learning tasks, experience lower level of depressive symptoms and have higher level of life satisfaction.
Imelda shares another interesting insight. “Compared to the students’ popularity and reciprocated friendship, their perceived friendship has the strongest relationship with their well-being and motivational outcomes.”
“Relationships with peers are crucial in the development of behaviors, attitudes, and well-being of students, particularly adolescents who experience a barrage of changes – socially, emotionally and psychologically.”
Future Direction of the Peer Power Study
Imelda hopes to see the implementation of more programmes to better support students who are isolated in the students’ social networks. She shares, “After conducting interviews with students, I saw how important empathy, common interests, active listening, and trustworthiness were in forming and maintaining friendships.”
“I also learnt more about the different ways by which students interact and nurture their friendships; just like in their learning, they use varied approaches.”
She believes the results of this study can support and guide MOE’s efforts to take advantage of and help shape existing peer network structures to promote better academic and socio-emotional outcomes of students.
Imelda also hopes that as schools transition from academic tracking to subject-based banding schemes, insights gleaned from this study can guide the decision-making of schools in relation to group and class composition, as well as school activities that can promote inclusivity and optimal experiences for students.
“There are several lingering questions that I hope future studies may answer – one of which is the long-term effects of the nature of students’ peer relationships during their initial secondary school years. We are currently conceptualizing a new project to address these questions.”
“For now, however, we definitely need to do more to help improve students’ capacity to form supportive and reciprocal relationships for their overall well-being and school functioning,” she concludes.