Youjin Hahn (Yonsei University, Korea)
Asad Islam (Monash University)
Eleonora Pattachini (Cornel University)
Yves Zenou (Monash Universty)
Bangladesh, like many other countries in South Asia, has traditionally been characterized by low school enrollment and gender disparity in educational achievement. But over the last decade, enrollment rates in primary schools have increased rapidly, leading to gender parity in enrollment, reduction in dropout, and improvement in completion of the cycle. There has been a significant enrollment growth for poor girls during recent years supported by a range of female stipend programs. However, despite this, women and girls do not benefit from secondary education as much as men and boys do.
This paper provides experimental evidence of the effects of an alternative method that may aid learning. In particular, we investigate whether or not it is important to have friends in study groups. We randomly assigned 115 primary schools in Bangladesh to one of two settings: children studying in groups with friends and children studying in groups with peers. The experiment involved all grade-four students in these schools, in total more than 4,600 students. At the beginning of the experiment, each student took a math test to measure his or her cognitive ability. The student was then allocated to work on the math assignment in the setting assigned to his or her own school. The groups with peers and groups with friends each consisted of four students, balanced by average cognitive ability and household characteristics. After working for a week in his or her given setting, each student individually took another math test similar in content to the math assignment. Students were then given prizes based on their performance at the final testing stage. The prize structure across the treatments was the same and followed a tournament scheme based on the individual test scores.
Our analysis revealed that the effects on learning outcomes of combining friends into small study groups with common objectives depended on the gender and abilities of the children. In particular, this intervention significantly improved the individual performance of low ability females, indicating that studying with peer friends may help close the gender gap in educational performance. The topic of how to increase learning levels among primary aged children and how to close the gender gap is at the forefront of the political debate in many development countries. In Bangladesh, since the mid-1990s, the government has introduced many education policies targeting female children, including compulsory free primary education and a female stipend program in secondary schools in rural areas. These 2 policies have led to more gender parity in enrollment in both primary and lower-secondary levels, but female students still lag behind their male counterpart in learning outcomes.
Given the traditionally strong differences in the roles of males and females in Bangladesh, one could imagine that same-gender groups have different dynamics than different-gender groups. We addressed this issue by examining whether the outcomes of students allocated to study groups with same-gender peers differed from those of students who studied with same-gender friends. Similarly, we compared the outcomes of students in mixed-gender peer groups and mixed-gender friendship groups. Our evidence shows large gains for low-ability females from working with friends, regardless of the gender composition of the study group. This suggests that it is really friendship that matters and not gender composition.
Our analysis contributes to the economic development literature on the gender gap. Although the enrollment rates of girls at the primary level have increased rapidly in most developing countries, including Bangladesh, the gender gap in academic performance is still very large. The demand-side interventions in developing countries aimed at improving female educational attainment primarily involve providing conditional cash transfers to households. These cash transfer programs have a generally positive impact on female education. On the supply side, local governments have constructed more schools to reduce the distance to attend school. Our study extends this literature by showing that female education in developing countries could potentially be improved within the existing school system by grouping students based on their friendship ties. Such teaching practices require relatively little guidance or monitoring from personnel outside the school. It is also cheaper to implement than other commonly used interventions which usually require extra resources.