In The Classroom, Common Ground Can Transform GPAs

Oct 13, 2015
Originally published on September 27, 2017 3:04 pm

Many people have experienced the magic of a wonderful teacher, and we all know anecdotally that these instructors can change our lives. But what if a teacher and a student don't connect? How does that affect the education that child receives?

Is there a way to create a connection where there isn't one? And how might that change things, for teachers and students alike?

These are the sorts of questions that fascinated Hunter Gehlbach* and his colleagues at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

For the experiment he had in mind, Hunter and his team created a survey for students and teachers of a ninth-grade class. The researchers then selectively shared examples from the survey results with teachers and students to show them that they had things in common. When Hunter examined the test scores of students who had been induced to see that they had things in common with their teachers, he found something astonishing: students — especially minorities — suddenly started to perform better in class.

"When we look at academic achievement with respect to these black and Latino students, what we find is that when they're in the treatment group, their grades go up by about .4 of a letter grade," Hunter explains. While that may not sound like a lot, it "translates into over 60 percent plus reduction in the achievement gap at this school."

Stopwatch Science

On Stopwatch Science — our rapid-fire science game with author Dan Pink — Dan and host Shankar Vedantam agree on a topic, and each brings two pieces of research to share. They have 60 seconds to convey each idea.

On today's edition of Stopwatch Science, Dan and Shankar stick with the theme of ties between students and teachers, and the impact these connections — or lack thereof — can have on the classroom.

1. Katy Milkman and her colleagues looked at discrimination in academia, using emails from fictional students with names signaling race and gender. Unfortunately (but perhaps unsurprisingly), white males received many more responses. The particularly interesting thing was that professors at private institutions and in higher paying disciplines favored white male students even more frequently.

2. There's been a lot of debate in this country about the value of test scores, and whether improving students' test scores is a worthy goal. But Raj Chetty* and his colleagues found that a teacher who improves test scores can have long-term effects on students' lives. The students who had good teachers are significantly more likely to attend college, to earn more money as adults and to live in a better neighborhood.

3. In addition to students and teachers, there is a third party in this equation: parents. A study out of Brown and Harvard found that sending parents a weekly message about their children dramatically improved the students' academic outcome. Messages with constructive criticism were even more effective than those that simply conveyed positive information.

4. In a study published in the Merill-Palmer Quarterly, Katja Upadyaya and Jacquelynne S. Eccles found that teachers' expectations about whether a student is going to succeed can affect student academic outcomes. Though of course teachers' beliefs about a student's potential don't come out of thin air, Shankar says it seems to be a "chicken and egg" type of problem, where a teacher's expectations can shape a student's behavior.

The Hidden Brain Podcast is produced by Kara McGuirk-Alison and Maggie Penman. Follow us on Twitter @hiddenbrain, @karamcguirk and @maggiepenman, and listen for Hidden Brain stories every week on your local public radio station.

*Hunter Gehlbach has recently moved to the University of California, Santa Barbara. He was at the Harvard Graduate School of Education at the time of this taping. Raj Chetty has also moved since our taping. He is now at Stanford University.

If you are an educator interested in using this research in your own classroom, follow this link to an online version of the survey used in the study.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit


Thanks for listening to HIDDEN BRAIN. I'm Shankar Vedantam. Be sure to check out the All Songs Considered podcast from NPR Music, where Bob Boilen and Robin Hilton share the best of new music. Find songs you'll fall in love with on All Songs Considered every Tuesday at and on the NPR One app.

KIRSTIE PAUL: I was 20, but it was the first time I'd ever been to Boston.


VEDANTAM: Kirstie Paul and another student from England had just arrived at Logan Airport. They were about to embark on a new adventure, living in a new city, working with a very important Harvard professor.

PAUL: We stepped off the plane, still a little bit jetlagged, very disorientated, going up to this prestigious academic institute that's famous all over the world.

VEDANTAM: Kirstie could think of only one thing to keep her nervousness in check. She had corresponded with a graduate student, Maureen Brinkworth, and Maureen was to be her supervisor and her mentor. Maureen was also going to be Kirstie's lifeline, someone who would help her navigate not just the halls of Harvard but the streets of Boston.

PAUL: So we stumble to the place where she said she was going to be. So she said she would be in Harvard Square opposite a certain restaurant. And so we find it, and then, we see her, and we're just so nervous, but she just - Maureen just had this massive big smile, and she just kind of put you at ease straightaway. And she was like, I'm so excited to meet you. You know, welcome, like - and then, she took us around...

VEDANTAM: And with that, the ice was broken. Over the next few months, Maureen became more than a mentor to Kirstie. She became her friend.


VEDANTAM: But there was something else that was interesting here. This kind of friendship between student and teacher was also the subject of the research that Kirstie and Maureen were conducting along with Harvard professor Hunter Gehlbach. This is HIDDEN BRAIN. I'm Shankar Vedantam. In this episode, we're going to talk about the relationships between students and mentors. The bond that Maureen and Kirstie developed made a huge difference in Kirstie's life. Now I can relate to this. I've had wonderful mentors and teachers, and I know what a difference a great teacher can make. But what about all those students and teachers who don't have that connection? Today, we're going to tell you about new research that shows that when you don't have that natural spark of chemistry, closed relationships between teachers and students can be engineered. And when you do this, it has an incredible positive effect. Stay with us to find out what Maureen, Hunter and Kirstie learned together.

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HUNTER GEHLBACH: One lovely autumn day, I was biking along with my daughter and a friend of hers in the bike trailer, and my wife and I had had these sort of ongoing conversations - my daughter's about 3 at this point - wondering, you know, what actually goes into friendship at age 3? Why has my daughter taken a particular shine to this girl as opposed to some other kid in the class?

VEDANTAM: That's Hunter Gehlbach, Maureen and Kirstie's professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

GEHLBACH: And as I'm biking along, I feel like I have figured out the answer to this question because I hear the following conversation. So my daughter says, I like ice cream. The friend says...

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: I like ice cream.

GEHLBACH: My daughter says...

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: I like blueberries.

GEHLBACH: The friend says...


UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: I like chocolate ice cream.

GEHLBACH: You can kind of see where this is going.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: I like chocolate ice cream, too.

GEHLBACH: The friend at this point says...

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: I have a dog. I like my dog.

GEHLBACH: Now it actually gets sort of interesting. So ever since age 2, my daughter's been petrified of dogs since there was this little pug that jumped up on her and knocked her over. So my daughter kind of shifts the category from dog to pets. And so she replies...

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: I have a pet frog. I like my frog.

GEHLBACH: The friend continues...

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: I don't like pizza.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: I don't like pizza.

GEHLBACH: So now she's just plain lying. The friend says...

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: I don't like blueberries.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: I don't like blueberries any more, either.

GEHLBACH: So anyway, the point being, as I'm huffing and puffing on the bike, it seems like what goes into friendships or relationships - and obviously, I'm oversimplifying a little bit - is that they have stuff in common. So they go through all these crazy machinations to establish that they are similar to each other in all these, you know, what would seem like kind of superficial ways.

VEDANTAM: Hunter realized that the conversation he had overheard had bigger implications than just friendships between 3-year-olds.

GEHLBACH: Yeah, so let's back up a little bit. So I had had a sort of primary research interest for a long, long time in looking at social perspective taking. So how do teachers and students, in particular, kind of figure out what each other's thinking and feeling? And so I had a graduate student, who is someone I worked with very closely for a long, long time, Maureen Brinkworth, who was really interested in teacher-student relationships. And so this seemed like a really natural combination to look at this sort of how do we do this everyday mind reading and how are students and teachers doing this with each other in the classroom and how good are their relationships.

VEDANTAM: For the experiment he had in mind, Hunter created a survey for students and teachers of a ninth-grade class. The questionnaire attempted to pinpoint things that teachers and students had in common. The researchers were looking for all kinds of connections. They asked a range of questions.

GEHLBACH: Classroom relevant stuff to outside the classroom stuff, personal to subject matter-related sorts of things, several of them kind of speak to people's values. So it was a pretty broad cross section.

VEDANTAM: The researcher selectively shared examples with the teachers and students that suggested they both had things in common. So a teacher who felt she had nothing in common with a student might discover they both had the same sense of humor. Or a student who felt like his teacher was from Mars might discover they both like football. When Hunter examined the scores of students who had been induced to see that they had things in common with their teachers, he found something astonishing. The relationships between teachers and students got stronger, and as they did, students, especially minorities, suddenly started to perform better in class.

GEHLBACH: Then, when we look at academic achievement with respect to these black and Latino students, what we find is that when they're in the treatment group, their grades go up by about .4 of a letter grade, which translates into over 60 percent plus reduction in the achievement gap at this school.

VEDANTAM: That's right. This simple intervention closed 60 percent of the achievement gap. Educators had been struggling for decades to find ways to close this gap because it's one of the most persistent and disturbing disparities in American education. Now I don't want to imply that this one intervention can fix the whole problem. Hunter's experiment is going to have to be replicated at other schools with other students and other teachers. But I think the idea is really promising. It's inexpensive, it's easy, and it builds on top of a mountain of other research that finds strong relationships between students and teachers make a difference. I asked Hunter why black and Latinos might benefit the most from this kind of intervention.

GEHLBACH: So it's a hugely important question. I think my best guess at this point is that when teachers - and, you know, for the most part, these are quite European-American teachers - they walk into the classroom, they may not perceive that they would necessarily have much in common with the black and Latino students. You know, that may have implications for how they then end up teaching in the classroom. But as soon as we give them this little anchor and say, hey, you know what, you guys have this in common, or you really feel similarly around this, you share these values, it gives them a hook or an entry point to connect with these students in a productive way as they might have, you know, kind of figured out or done on their own with the white and Asian students.

VEDANTAM: There was one twist in the research that Hunter had not anticipated. Students clearly did better academically when their relationships with teachers was strengthened. But when Hunter asked students about whether those relationships were stronger, the students mostly shrugged.

GEHLBACH: And, you know, I'll be honest. I was kind of annoyed that the students didn't feel closer to their teachers as the result of, you know, this intervention that I had put together just for them.

VEDANTAM: In many ways, it was almost as if strengthening the relationships made a bigger difference to teachers than it did to students.

GEHLBACH: And I think, you know, with these sort of connections between teachers and students, there's a default to thinking about how important this is for the students and what they get out of it. But for the teachers or the mentors, you know, I think there's a lot in it, too, and I think one of the biggest things I got from my relationship with Maureen...

VEDANTAM: Remember Maureen? That's the woman we told you about earlier in this episode. She helped Hunter conceive the project, she helped design the questionnaires for the ninth-grade students, and the bond she formed with Hunter and with new research assistant, such as Kirstie Paul, informed the entire direction of the project. But as the research was wrapping up and getting ready to be published, Maureen's own relationship with the entire research team was changing because of a personal tragedy that was unfolding in her own life.

GEHLBACH: I believe it was shortly after her 30th birthday that she got the initial cancer diagnosis.

VEDANTAM: Hunter says that Maureen's strength in the face of this tragedy had a profound effect on him.

GEHLBACH: You know, the level of optimism that she maintained was just, you know, something that I think I will forever strive to emulate and to keep in perspective, that when things are going that poorly in life, you can make a really big difference to other people through your attitude.

PAUL: I sent her a letter.

VEDANTAM: That's Kirstie again, the student who Maureen mentored.

PAUL: I just kind of wrote down every good memory I have of her and just like everything that made me smile about her and how I was so thankful to have had her in my life.

VEDANTAM: Maureen made a significant and positive impact on the research, on the students she mentored, and on her teacher. What I found very powerful is that Maureen's story and her relationship with Hunter and Kirstie and the research they conducted with the ninth-grade students all point to the same thing. The relationship between students and teachers is not incidental to how education works. It's central. We were sad to learn that Maureen died in 2014. She passed away just as the research she worked on with Hunter and Kirstie was being published.


VEDANTAM: Coming up, we're going to change gears. I'm going to play Stopwatch Science with Daniel Pink. We look at more research into how relationships between students and teachers can affect education. Back in just a moment.


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VEDANTAM: Thanks for listening to HIDDEN BRAIN. I'm Shankar Vedantam. Be sure to check out the All Songs Considered podcast from NPR Music, where Bob Boilan and Robin Hilton share the best of new music. Find songs you'll fall in love with on All Songs Considered every Tuesday at and on the NPR One app. Back now for another round of Stopwatch Science. I'm Shankar Vedantam.

DANIEL PINK, BYLINE: And I'm Daniel Pink.

VEDANTAM: Dan is our Stopwatch Science correspondent. He's also the author of several books about human behavior. On Stopwatch Science, Dan and I give one another 60 seconds to summarize interesting ideas from social science research. I'll run a stopwatch as Dan speaks, and here's the buzzer Dan's going to hear if he hits up against his deadline.



VEDANTAM: All right, that's the sound of applause because Dan Pink never hits up against his deadline.

PINK: (Laughter).

VEDANTAM: Dan, what's the sound of my buzzer?

PINK: You're going to hear a little throwback sound. It's kind of like a 1970s clock radio buzzer. Take a listen.


VEDANTAM: All right, I love it. As we've just heard, the ties between teachers and students and the beliefs that teachers and students have about one another can make a big difference in the classroom. On today's edition of Stopwatch Science, we stick with this theme with ideas related to the effects that teachers have on students. Dan, if you are ready, your first 60 seconds starts now.

PINK: Well, this is a 2014 study that you actually talked about a while back on Morning Edition, Shankar. It comes from friend of the show, Katy Milkman. I - and here's what she did. She looked at 6,500 professors in 89 disciplines. She sent emails to these professors from fictitious students, asking, can I meet with you to discuss research opportunities? Now the student names were randomly assigned, so half were men, and half were women. And they also signaled ethnicity and race. So some of the students it signaled, I'm African-American, Hispanic, Indian, Chinese. Did that make a difference in whether the professor responded? And unfortunately, it did. Surprise, surprise, white males got way more responses. But here's the interesting thing. It was actually more likely to happen at private institutions than public ones and in higher-paying disciplines like engineering rather than comparative literature. And here's the other thing that I found surprising. It didn't matter whether the professor herself was a woman or a man.


PINK: It was across the board.

VEDANTAM: I find this so interesting, Dan, because, of course, there's all this other work that suggests that these unconscious biases of the professors had are really held by everyone. And I think studies like this suggest that we all need to be aware of how these biases operate in our lives.

PINK: Absolutely. Shankar, let's see what you have. Your one minute starts right now.

VEDANTAM: There has been a lot of debate in this country about test scores. If you can get teachers who boost the test scores of students, does this really tell you anything meaningful about the long-term prospects of students, or are these merely teachers who know how to teach to the test? In a recent analysis of more than a million children in a large, urban school district, the researchers Raj Chetty and John Friedman at Harvard and Jonah Rockoff at Columbia University find the answer is yes. It makes a huge difference. Chetty and his colleagues find that teachers who have a good track record of improving student test scores have long-term effects on those students' lives. Students are significantly more likely to attend college, to earn more money as young adult, and to live in better neighborhoods. The difference between having a mediocre teacher and one of the better teachers is actually enormous. Chetty and his colleagues find that having such a teacher can change your lifetime earnings earnings by $39,000. And here's the part that's amazing about that statistic, Dan, this is the effect of having one great teacher in one grade in school, one grade, one teacher, $39,000.


VEDANTAM: Think about the effect of having several great teachers throughout your schooling years.

PINK: Well, that's something we - always intuitive, but now there's some pretty good data to back that up.

VEDANTAM: I agree, Dan. So let's get to your second study. Your next 60 seconds starts right now.

PINK: We've talked about students and teachers. Let's bring a third party into the conversation - parents. We know that parents matter. How can we get parents to matter more? Great study out of Brown and Harvard about a summer program where kids who had failed courses were trying to get credits so they could pass. The researchers organized the parents into three groups. One group was the control group. Nothing happened to them. One group of parents got a weekly email or text message that had positive information about their student. Jon was an active participant in class all week. Good job. The other third of parents got what was called an improvement message, so Tina missed two homework assignments this week. I know she can do better. Now, of the families who got messages, those kids did dramatically better.


PINK: They were 41 percent less likely to fail again.


PINK: And what was really interesting is that the messages about improvement were far more effective than the messages that just conveyed positive information.

VEDANTAM: Wow, that's really interesting, Dan. The idea, of course that positive affirmation can make a big difference to people has been shown in so many other fields as well.

PINK: Yeah. I think the other thing that's cool about this is that this is an incredibly, incredibly cheap intervention, a text message every week. Not a parent-teacher conference, not any kind of big intervention. And I think what it shows is that if we really want to improve the education system, there are some light touch, small wings that we can get that make a huge difference.

VEDANTAM: I love it, Dan.

PINK: So let's go to yours, Shankar. You've got one minute. It starts now.

VEDANTAM: When you think about what teachers communicate to students, Dan, in classrooms, we often think about facts and theories and explanations. We think about information. But some of the most important things that teachers communicate to students actually happens unconsciously. It's the expectations that a teacher communicates about whether a student is going to succeed. And now these expectations are enormously powerful in shaping not just how the student behaves, but how the teacher then interacts with the student. In a study of elementary school-age children in Michigan - it was published in the Merrill-Palmer Quarterly in 2014, Jacquelynne Eccles and Katja Upadyaya find that teachers beliefs about the potential of children was a very strong predictor of the children's math test scores throughout elementary school. Now, obviously, some of the teacher's beliefs are undoubtedly shaped by how these children are actually performing in the classroom, so beliefs don't just come out of thin air. But the insidious thing about this study and other studies, Dan, is that teachers' beliefs and students' behavior are a chicken-and-egg kind of thing. It isn't just the children's behavior that shapes the beliefs of their teachers. As we saw in the research by Hunter Gehlbach...


VEDANTAM: ...The beliefs of the teachers also shapes the behavior of the children.

PINK: Go in with high expectations, you'll probably get good results.

VEDANTAM: That's exactly right, Dan. This has been another edition of Stopwatch Science. I'm Shankar Vedantam.

PINK: And I'm Daniel Pink.


VEDANTAM: For more HIDDEN BRAIN, join us on Facebook and Twitter, and listen to my NPR stories on your local public radio station. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.