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Students’ engagement with academic work predicts their learning and academic success. However, students frequently encounter obstacles and setbacks while learning, and the extent to which they deal constructively with these challenges, and re-engage, is important. Re-engagement develops, in part, within the context of students’ relationships, notably with teachers and peers. While much work has focused on how teachers can support students’ academic re-engagement (Pitzer & Skinner, 2017), less is known regarding how students’ academic persistence takes shape within the context of their peer relationships. Moreover, this research has focused primarily on links between peer relationship quality and re-engagement (Furrer, Skinner, & Pitzer, 2014); however, peers may also socialize re-engagement through frequent interaction. This study examined exposure to peer groups’ re-engagement as a predictor of changes in students’ academic re-engagement.
Participants were an entire cohort of 366 sixth graders (48% female) in a town. Data were collected in fall and spring. At both time points, students’ academic re-engagement was assessed using self-report items capturing persistence (4 items; e.g., "When I do badly on a test, I work harder the next time") versus giving up (5 items; e.g., "When I have trouble understanding something, I give up"; Wellborn, 1992). In fall, students reported on their teachers’ involvement (11 items, Skinner & Belmont, 1993), and their experience of academic setbacks (6 items; Wellborn, 1992). In fall, teachers reported on students’ academic engagement (behavioral and emotional, 14 items; Wellborn, 1992). Socio-Cognitive Mapping (Cairns, Perrin & Cairns, 1985), using binomial z-tests, was used at both time points to identify stable peers—peers with whom students maintained affiliations across the year (kappa=.88). Peer group profiles of re-engagement were calculated at each time point by averaging re-engagement scores across a child’s group members.
On average, students were highly engaged in fall (M=3.07, SD=.57) and showed stably high re-engagement from fall (M=3.29, SD=.55) to spring (M=3.11, SD=.54; r=.61, p<.001). A typical student had roughly three stable group members who, on average, also showed high re-engagement in fall (M=3.32, SD=.37) and spring (M=3.12, SD=.39; r=.50, p<.001). Students high in re-engagement affiliated with peers who were similarly persistent in fall (r=.24, p<.001) and spring (r=.18, p<.01). SEM analyses used peer group profiles of re-engagement in fall as a predictor of changes in students’ own re-engagement, controlling for students’ baseline engagement, prior experience of academic setbacks, teacher involvement, and sex (see Figure 1). The model showed good fit, χ2(27)=66.266, p<.001; CFI=.965, RMSEA=.06, 90%CI [.004,.083]. Peer group profiles of re-engagement in fall predicted changes in students’ re-engagement from fall to spring (β=.17, p=.047).
These results suggest that peers may be part of a constellation of social partners that shape students’ re-engagement, and that their effects may be conferred through social interaction. Although this study did not explicitly examine mechanisms of influence, students’ academic re-engagement may be modeled on and reinforced by the peers with whom they frequently interact. Future work using research designs and methodologies that allow for more direct examinations of these mechanisms is needed. Limitations and implications are discussed.