There are many reasons for academic failure, however the underlying cause appears to be related to self-esteem or ego-protection. Here I’ve identified five possible reasons why our students might underachieve.
1. They would rather be thought of as lazy than stupid
Safeguarding self-esteem is often the most important priority for many adolescents. Students hate to be viewed as less intelligent than their classmates and will often go to extreme lengths to ensure that they are not seen as stupid. One way of ensuring that this doesn’t happen is to be seen as lazy by not studying, not preparing for exams or excessive procrastination. Then, if they fail, they can simply say it’s because they didn’t work hard enough, rather than believing that others think they’re less intelligent.
2. They see intelligence as fixed
Harvard psychologist Carol Dweck suggests that people generally fall into two groups when it comes to thinking about intelligence (so called implicit theories of intelligence). The first group see intelligence as a fixed entity, that is, they view intelligence as wholly innate, hard-wired and impervious to change. Dweck calls this a ‘fixed mindset’ because those who hold such a view are prevented from succeeding by their very narrow and restricted view of their capabilities. When fixed ‘mindsetters’ experience failure or get stuck on a particular problem, they blame their lack of intelligence for their inability to progress and simply give up. The second group view intelligence as flexible, malleable and incremental. Success to these so-called ‘growth mindsetters’ is about hard work, learning from failure and not being restricted by a view that intelligence is innate and unchangeable.
3. They set their goals too high
It might seem odd that students could set their goals too high but for goals to be achievable they need to be realistic. Students might be tempted to set their goals too high (such as aiming for an A when all indicators suggest that they are a solid C student) as a way of defending themselves. When they don’t achieve the standard they set for themselves they can explain it in terms of setting their standards too high – so-called ‘defensive optimism’. While optimism of this kind is counter-productive, ‘realistic optimism’ can be beneficial. By examining the evidence (such as past marks on essays, tests and so on) the student can approach goal setting from an informed perspective. So, rather than a C student aiming for an A, they might decide that a B is more realistic and in-line with past achievement.
4. They set their goals too low
While some students aim too high, others are likely to aim too low. Again, this is a form of ego-defence (or a way of protecting their self-esteem). Defensive pessimism leads the student to set their goals lower than the evidence suggests, so a grade B student might say, “I’ll be lucky if I get a C”, or even “I’ll be lucky if I pass.” By doing this the student is almost guaranteeing a positive outcome – if they under-perform they can claim that they were right all along; if they get their predicted grade B (or exceed this) they can revel in the success.
5. They don’t follow advice
It’s not that students always think that their way of doing something is better than yours – it’s just that many students are always safeguarding themselves from possible failure. By not following advice they manage to ensure that it was the strategies they employed rather than anything to do with their intelligence that led to failure (see also my previous post on self-handicapping). For example, they might insist on listening to music while preparing for an exam even though they know that all the evidence suggests that most music is a distraction. A more obvious attempt at safeguarding self-esteem is to refrain from self-testing. Even though research has found that self-testing is one the most effective forms of preparation, many students avoid it because they don’t like to experience the feelings that arise when they get things wrong – self-testing, therefore, acts as a direct assault on self-esteem.