High School Students Forge Stronger, More Positive Friendships in Shared Classes, Study Shows

Nov. 19, 2013

AUSTIN, Texas — Teenagers continue to roam in cliques in high school, as they have for generations. Yet according to a new study from The University of Texas at Austin and Michigan State University, high school students are not choosing friends from certain categories, such as  “jocks,” “goths” or “A-listers.” Instead, they are forging friendships in the types of courses they’re taking.

The findings, published online this month in the American Journal of Sociology, show that the courses students take have powerful effects on the friendships they make.

The study, co-authored by Chandra Muller, professor of sociology at The University of Texas at Austin, indicates that schools should mix courses with high- and low-achieving students in order to avoid driving them apart socially and academically.

“Results from this study show how niches are formed through the unique pattern of course taking that emerges in each school,” Muller says. “The friends that students make through their courses may positively or negatively reinforce academic progress through high school and into young adulthood.”

As part of the study, the researchers analyzed survey data and academic transcripts from more than 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 each school.

The results indicate course-taking patterns are unique to each high school. In one school, for example, friendships may form among students taking woodshop, Spanish and European history, while in another that may occur among students taking agricultural business management, advanced accounting and calculus. Students were more likely to make friends in small classes, often electives, that set them apart from the general student population.

A previous study by these same authors and other colleagues also shows that 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, the peer groups that formed around shared courses had implications for students’ academic effort as well as their social world, says Kenneth Frank, Michigan State University professor and lead author of the study.

The researchers suggest that 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.

The research was supported by the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health.

For more information, contact: Jessica Sinn, College of Liberal Arts, 512-471-2404;  Chandra Muller, Department of Sociology, College of Liberal Arts, 512-471-8377.