Sunday, March 15, 2009

The relationship between social networking and academic performance: a correlative quantitative study

Introduction Section
Citing the importance of social networking on academic performance and professional success, Hwang, Kessler and Francesco (2004) investigate the relationships between social networking and academic performance in both Asian and North American business students. All of the authors are affiliated with university business schools, and the end of the article reviewed here notes the professional affiliations of each author, providing clarity on any institutional biases that may exist. Both the authors and subjects are from three business schools, indicating that while these findings may apply outside the context of an academic business research setting, they may not be representative of or generalize to the wider population of students outside this context. The authors note this limitation in their discussion section, and did not appear to be biased toward their subjects or to a particular outcome.
In keeping with the business-centric focus of the study, the literature review in the introduction section cites other management journals, most of which are rated by the ISI Web of Science, Journal Citation Reports as having impact factors in the mid to high range, indicating a higher degree of influence and citation, relative to the journals in their category. The literature review is used to establish the claim that there is a relationship between student networking behavior and academic performance, networking strategies and styles are culturally influenced, and that social networking contributes to success.
All of the articles cited in the literature review are peer reviewed, based on descriptions of their editorial boards. Every article and chapter citation was also relevant to the study, contributing to its relevance or validity, building up a clear case for engaging in this line of research. Each citation lends support to the following hypotheses:

  1. Definition of self varies, with emphasis on independence and personal aspects for individualists versus interdependence and group aspects for collectivists.
  2. Goal priority varies such that personal goals are more important for individualists, whereas group goals take precedence for collectivists.
  3. Determinants for social behavior vary such that individualistic behavior is dominated by self-focused attitudes, personal rights, and contracts, whereas collectivistic behavior is guided by norms, obligations, and duties.
  4. The nature of relationships varies such that individualists rationally consider the exchange, whereas collectivists emphasize the communality of the relationship, even when this represents a disadvantage.
-- Hwang Kessler and Francesco (2004)

Both the questions and the hypotheses are clearly stated in the article and labeled as such. The introduction itself ends with the following questions:

  1. How does culture predict learning-oriented networking behaviors?
  2. How do these learning-oriented networking behaviors impact performance?
-- Hwang Kessler and Francesco (2004)
Click graph to view source

Methods Section

Each variable considered in the study is defined in the methods section by how participants respond to various questionnaires. First, eastern and western cultures are classified as more collectivist or individualist respectively, relative to the other. Participants in the study completed a questionnaire assessing just how individual or collectivist (referred to by the authors as IC orientation) they are. The questionnaire assessed five factors: (1) “Stand Alone” in which respondents value independence, (2) “Win above All” corresponding to placing a value on winning in a competitive situation, (3) “Individual Thinking” corresponding to the degree to which an individual performs according to their own, versus group norms, (4) “Sacrifice” in which individuals forfeit their own needs to the needs of the group and (5) “Group Preference” which signals a preference for working in groups rather than alone. High scores in the first three factors are considered individualistic, while high scores in the last two are considered collectivist. Additionally, two types of networking behavior are examined: (1) “Vertical,” in which social contact is sought from professors, bosses or others considered higher in influence within the social network and (2) “Horizontal,” in which social contact is sought from peers within the social network. Both the I-C and Networking factors are clearly displayed in a table identifying which questions in the questionnaire relate to each, and what the factor loadings Each question is provided in a table, complete with factor loadings, providing a measure of correlation between the factor being investigated and the actual scores given in the questionnaire.
The sample itself is fairly large, with 253 participants in the US, 266 from Hong Kong and 131 from Singapore, for a total of 650 participants. If we consider the population to be undergraduate business students in the US, Hong Kong and Singapore, then the sample is representative. However, as the authors state, this sample may not be representative of the larger population of all students or all people, suggesting the need for further research to investigate this in other contexts. Almost two thirds of the participants were female, and most were around the mean age of 20.8 years.
The sub-groups of eastern and western students were valuable in exploring differences between these cultures, which were found when examining differences in scores for the two networking orientations, with eastern participants engaging in more horizontal networking behavior and western participants engaging in more vertical networking. This suggests that more collectivist cultures engage in more peer networking while individualist cultures engage in more ‘ladder climbing’ networking. Interestingly, horizontal networking can be thought of as directionless, in that it applies to any peer, while vertical networking tends to be more directional, with an orientation toward those of higher social status than the seeker.
Variables were operationalized as responses to questions, and these questions identified I-C and networking orientation reliably. Reliability measures are presented with a Cronbach alpha coefficient between 0.77 and 0.84. The reliability of horizontal networking behavior measures are .92 and vertical measures are .89, thus all measures were high enough to be considered reliable instruments. The assessment of academic performance was normalized for each country and was based on the four highest final grades in each participant’s previous semester. The resulting normalized grade measure had a reliability of .92, creating a reliable instrument for the evaluation of academic performance.
Because the entire procedure involves simply issuing a well-defined questionnaire and gathering grades from the previous semester, this study would be very straight-forward to replicate. Every question is identified, every construct is explained and the method itself is clearly described. This was not an experiment, so there was no control group, no random assignment and no pre-post procedures.
The authors do not describe the format of the questionnaire (electronic, oral or paper), nor do they describe the conditions under which the questionnaire was carried out, but I do not believe that the format or the conditions of the questionnaire would have a large impact on the responses given. Because of the relatively large sample sizes, and the diverse cultures in which they were administered, any influences of the test environment or prior exposure would be minimized.

Click graph to view source
Results Section
It appears that the appropriate statistics were used to determine reliability and factor loadings for each variable. Analysis of variance was used to determine post hoc differences in networking behavior by country, and standard error was used to determine post hoc networking means within each country within standard confidence intervals. Interestingly, a comparison between horizontal and vertical networking within each country showed significant differences in Hong Kong and Singapore and no difference in the US.
Discussion Section
The discussion notes the surprising result that the “Stand Alone” variable was the only reliable predictor of both social networking behaviors. Those scoring high on the “Stand Alone” scale also seek out others – both horizontally and vertically – for information, which sounds counter-intuitive to the way this variable was operationalized. While the researchers show a relationship between networking and academic performance, they make the fundamental error of seeing causation in correlation. In other words, while it seems to be the case intuitively, networking may not lead to higher academic performance. Students who perform better academically may be better at networking because they are more confident, more socially intelligent or more reliant on others.
This study suggests that experimental research needs to be carried out in order to uncover actual causation. Researchers could, for example, have four groups of students – one that engages in frequent vertical networking (with tutors or professors during office hours) but not horizontal, one that engages in frequent horizontal networking (in peer study groups) but not vertical, one that engages in both types of networking and one that does not engage in any networking. By looking at past networking behavior, changes resulting from the intervention and tracking academic performance over time, these issues may be resolved.
The authors provide explanations for the results, stating that the contradictory relationship between “Stand Alone” and networking may be related to “Stand Alone” students being self-reliant in the way that they actively seek out information from others. Unfortunately, the survey did not include questions that might reveal an orientation toward active, self-directed behavior and passive group following. Seen in this light, networking takes on a dimension that is missing from this study. Assuming that there is a causative relationship between networking and academic performance, the authors recommend ways in which networking might be facilitated in academic contexts.
The limitations of the study, particularly its lack of generalizability are discussed and recommendations for future research are offered, but not those that would seek to expose an actual causative relationship.

Click diagram to view source

Hwang, A., Kessler, E., & Francesco, A. (2004). Student Networking Behavior, Culture, and Grade Performance: An Empirical Study and Pedagogical Recommendations. Academy of Management Learning and Education, 3(2), 139-150.


  1. What an interesting study. I agree with your critique that correlation does not equal causation. I also wonder whether cultures can be categorized so easily as individualistic or collectivist. I always thought Canada was an individualistic culture, until I lived in the US...where Canadian policies are considered collectivist (even socialist!!). I guess that the important thing is that the researcher adequately defines what is meant by individualist and collectivism. In this case, a description is given, but I wonder if business students see collectivism in the same way as education students.

  2. I am asking the authors of this paper to please tell me how I can access the questionnaire used for this study..I want to use it for my thesis. Please grant permission.