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Developmental psychology

Taking one’s cue from the others

Munich, 02/20/2013

Whether pupils come to school well prepared partly depends on the class they find themselves in. A new study conducted by LMU psychologist Mechthild Schäfer shows how individual pupils influence the learning environment in schools.

The overall make-up of a school class has a measurable effect on a child’s personal attitude and approach to learning. Indeed, it accounts for about 10% of the variability in educational achievement, according to a new study carried out by a research team led by developmental psychologist Mechthild Schäfer of the Faculty of Psychology and Educational Sciences at LMU.

The study is based on a survey of 1159 high-school (Gymnasium) pupils of both sexes between the ages of 12 and 16, who were asked to characterize their personal approaches to learning. They also responded to queries about their classmates, which were designed to assess the social strategies they used and their relative popularity in the class. Among the questions put to them were “Which of your classmates is always nice to others just because he or she wants something from them?” or “Who likes to boss others around and always wants to get his own way?”

The results demonstrate that the learning environment in the class as a whole is determined by those boys and girls whom the others regard as dominant and influential. In other words, individual pupils can have a considerable impact on the educational success of their classmates.

Machiavellians in the classroom
So-called bistrategics are the most influential personalities in school classes. These individuals behave in a demonstratively friendly way towards particular individuals, but force others to do their bidding, in order to attain a dominant position within the group as a whole. The study found that, on average, around 15% of the pupils in a class strive to dominate others, and about a quarter of these fall into the bistrategic category. Bistrategics may be regarded as “Macchiavellians”, because they employ both positive and negative behavioral traits to attain and maintain dominance over their fellows.

The new study is part of a research project devised to elucidate the interplay between social dynamics and learning habits in the classroom. One goal of the project is to develop training modules that provide schoolteachers with a better understanding of the links between group dynamics and attitudes to learning. Mechthild Schäfer and her team now plan to continue their exploration of this issue in the context of a project funded by the European Union and the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft.

Wer ist der Boss? Zum Zusammenhang zwischen der sozialen Dynamik im Klassenzimmer und Einstellungen zum Lernen (Who’s the boss? On the link between social dynamics and the learning environment in the classroom)
Sebastian Schwanke and Mechthild Schäfer
Praxis der Kinderpsychologie und Kinderpsychiatrie 2013, Special Issue Peerbeziehungen, 3/2013

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