Samples, Surveys, & Statistics: Inside Research and Social Justice

Bernice Hightower ’21 initiated her Research and Social Justice project with the intention of debunking rumors surrounding Lawrenceville’s disciplinary process.

Bernice Hightower ’21 initiated her Research and Social Justice project with the intention of debunking rumors surrounding Lawrenceville’s disciplinary process. Without prior affirmations of the rumors she had heard, Hightower became interested in identifying a possible association between disciplinary outcomes and other factors. She ultimately settled on the following research question for her study: “Is there a relationship between socioeconomic status and the degree of disciplinary action received after a rule violation at Lawrenceville?”

Inspired by the transparency of Makayla Boxley’s ’20 work as a Student Council Honor Representative, as well as her own efforts on the Honor Council, Hightower recognized that her research was a natural extension of her personal interests and inspirations. Her enthusiasm for the project led her to persevere through the numerous highs and lows of a strenuous research process. Hightower’s advice to those who hope to take this class in the future would be to “choose a topic [related to] one of your passions or curiosities because it makes the work much more fun and rewarding.”

She began her research by collecting data from those who have faced the Disciplinary Committee (DC) and from non-participants who have heard about the process second-hand. She hoped to collect data on three factors: whether the participant was on financial aid (a measure of socioeconomic status), the outcome, and the degree of discipline.

After being notified of an external audit collecting information on Lawrenceville’s disciplinary process, thereby restricting her freedom to collect this data, Hightower faced the challenge of adjusting her research design. She ultimately decided to create an anonymous survey through which students could recount prior disciplinary experiences and if they had none, to reveal their perceptions about the disciplinary process.

Upon analysis of the results, Hightower reached a surprising albeit noteworthy conclusion. She found that “people who [sat before] a DC tended to feel that they were being treated very fairly” even though the general perception of the DC process from an outsider’s perspective demonstrated the contrary. Based on this result, Hightower believes that this perception signals a strong need for greater transparency about disciplinary outcomes.

Hightower learned from both the class and her individual study that “research is an ongoing process in which you will be reworking each step along the way up until the final result.” It is for this reason that she hopes to continue her research by widening her sample of participants and exploring other factors, in addition to socioeconomic status, that may correlate with disciplinary outcomes.

Hightower is optimistic that her research, in conjunction with the data collected from the external audit, will shed light on important aspects of the disciplinary process at Lawrenceville. If this data indeed finds a relationship between disciplinary measures and students’ socioeconomic status, Hightower hopes that this “information is made public and that the School takes action based on those results.”

Since he arrived at Lawrenceville, Arata Fujii ’21 has been fascinated by the Harkness method and specifically, its emphasis on collaboration over lecture. The lecturing method in Japanese schools led him to consider how Harkness would be perceived and implemented in this traditional educational system. His next thought, “Would Harkness even work in Japan, in such a homogenous setting?” prompted him to further his study—which he initially began after receiving a Welles Grant Award—in his Research and Social Justice course this past fall.

Having done prior research about the benefits of diversity on educational systems, Fujii used this foundational knowledge as a launchpad for his project, ultimately settling on the following research questions: Does Lawrenceville have varying levels of diversity in classrooms, to begin with? If so, what level of diversity, in a Harkness class, is the most effective? Is a homogenous Harkness class ineffective? What correlations do we see with diversity and success around the Harkness table?

Fujii decided to focus his study on Honors U.S. History and Themes in U.S. History classes, allowing him to account for certain confounding variables such as course curriculum and student grade levels. He noted the racial and gender breakdown of all sections for these two courses, after which he chose sections with varying levels of diversity and asked teachers to record their Harkness discussions. Fujii decided that he would “collect multiple metrics such as the number of times a student spoke, when the teacher spoke, and the number of questions asked,” and “compare results between high and low diversity groups.”

Fujii faced his first obstacle when certain teachers hesitated to record their classes’ Harkness discussions or send him the Zoom clip. To his surprise, numerous teachers expressed that a recording might limit the effectiveness of their classroom discussions and opted out of the study. Thus, Fujii was only able to use three to four classes for his research, an obstacle he attempted to overcome by “reassuring the students with a consent form that the recording was private” and that “what is said in Harkness stays in Harkness.”

To quantitatively measure the diversity of each class, Fujii used the Simpson Diversity Index, which shows the probability of two people being in the same racial category; a result closer to one indicates a low diversity group, while a result closer to zero indicates a high diversity group.

He came to several interesting conclusions such as that “classrooms with the most participation were that of a high diversity index” and that “the most number of agreements between students averaged 14 times for a highly diverse group and two times for low racial diversity.” An abundance of agreements signifies several connections among students’ ideas, resulting in a more productive and fruitful learning experience.

In the future, he hopes to expand upon his research by considering different forms of diversity, aside from race and gender, and conduct this study in “multiple courses across different academic departments, which [he] hopes will yield interesting correlations and insights.”


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