Academic Self Concept and Achievement

Why is it that some learners achieve and others don’t? Interestingly we all seem to have our views but, unfortunately, these views have never really solved the problem. Is it something about the learners themselves or something about us as educators? Why is it that boys don’t do as well as girls and Afro-Caribbean boys do worse still? Perhaps it’s something about ‘the system’ and the way it might favour certain groups of learners at the expense of others?

Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid (Attributed to) Albert Einstein.


I’m certainly far from convinced that Einstein is responsible for the above quote, but the sentiment is authentic enough. I would also reject the view that the system is deliberately favouring some individuals over others. I would also argue that not everybody could be a genius (at least not in the way we understand the term).

Nevertheless, I’m becoming increasingly convinced that academic achievement is at least in part due to the way in which individuals see themselves as learners. Psychologists refer to this as ‘academic self-concept’, the labels we hang around our necks (and the chips that reside on our shoulders) about how we view ourselves academically and how we think others see us. This could certainly go some way in explaining why the groups we label as underachieving (such as working class boys) continue to underachieve despite a variety of ‘interventions’. Do the interventions themselves simply reinforce the self-concept that says ‘I’m so stupid that my school has to intervene to prevent me from becoming even more stupid’?

More chickens and even more eggs.

ImageOxford University Professor Herbert Marsh has spent decades investigating this very issue. That is, to what extent does academic self-concept predict academic achievement? Problematically, the whole academic self-concept idea also throws up an annoying chicken and egg situation in the guise of the question ‘what came first, the achievement or the self-concept’? In other words, does a low academic self-concept sprout from early academic failure? It appears that the two are intricately entwined and feed off each other.

Does all this really matter anyway?

Yes it does. Each year I see students who should be achieving but are failing to do so. These are usually the ones who employ a variety of tactics to avoid damaging their self-esteem; they miss tests, don’t do homework or blame illness on getting a bad grade on one of the tests they did show up for. This so-called ‘self-handicapping’ is commonplace amongst those who don’t see themselves as academically able. These are the students who will tell you that they’re too stupid for Sixth Form or that they’re going to fail all their exams. Unfortunately, the self-fulfilling prophecy kicks in and low-and-behold they fail all their exams – usually because they saw no point in doing the work because they were going to fail anyway.

Are these learners resistant to convectional interventions?

Unfortunately I have no answer for this (yet). What I do have are many questions with only partial answers.

I’ll have to get back to you as and when this develops.


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