UW–Madison’s Liu publishes new paper on effect of ability rankings on students’ mental health, wins award for study on STEM aspirations

By Laurel White 

Students who are ranked as less capable than their peers in a classroom setting are more likely to develop symptoms of depression than their highly-ranked peers, according to a new study co-authored by a UW–Madison School of Education faculty member. 

The study used data about student mental health gathered by the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health and compared it to scores of a standardized Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test, which measures verbal intelligence and scholastic aptitude. It found that, controlling for absolute ability, students with lower ability ranks are more likely to develop depressive symptoms. It also found the effect is more pronounced at the top and bottom of the ability distribution and that social relations, particularly care from teachers, partly mediate the rank effect at the top of the ability distribution.

Ran Liu, who is an assistant professor in the School of Education’s Department of Educational Policy Studies, and her co-author on the study say the research may illuminate more targeted ways to address adolescent depression.

Ran Liu

“Since adolescent depression is a major public health concern and can impact outcomes of individuals throughout their life course, identifying potential risks and protective factors could help to develop effective strategies to address this problem,” the authors wrote.

Liu’s co-author was Jinho Kim, an assistant professor at Korea University. 

Another paper co-authored by Liu about the effect of ability rankings on girls’ and boys’ STEM career aspirations, published late last year in the European Sociological Review, was recently awarded the 2023 Comparative and International Education Society (CIES) East Asia SIG Best Paper Award. That paper analyzed boys and girls in middle schools in China, where it is common for students to be publicly ranked among their peers, based on academic performance. The analysis took into account those public rankings and students’ self-reported STEM career aspirations.

The award committee noted that while gender stereotyping in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math have been well-documented, social comparison as a key variable is less investigated. The committee said the paper made an outstanding contribution to expanding previous literature on gender norms and equity issues in East Asian education.

Liu says she is truly honored by the recognition, and hopes her work can help educators create better environments for girls who may be interested in STEM careers. 

“We hope our findings can inform future efforts to address potential disparities and prevent gender stereotypes in the educational environment,” she says.

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