Tag Archives: self concept

Questioning the stability of academic buoyancy.

Back in October I conducted a small-scale exploratory study into three constructs (academic self-concept, academic buoyancy and implicit theories of intelligence). You can read the details here. A few weeks ago I asked the same students toStressed-Student complete the questionnaires again to confirm that these constructs remain stable over time. I was particularly interested in academic buoyancy (day-to-day resilience) due to the forthcoming AS exams. What I wanted to confirm was that those students who considered themselves resilient at time 1 (October 2013) still considered themselves resilient at time 2 (May 2014). This would be measured using the Academic Buoyancy Scale (Martin and Marsh, 2007), a four-item measure of academic buoyancy (AB) that has proved reliable over time and within different settings.

Let’s get some of the problems with the ‘study’ out of the way now.

At time 1, the sample consisted of 41 year 12 students. At time 2, and due to a number of factors (including subject/school drop-out and a lower volunteer rate) this had dropped to 27. The final sample is therefore very low and is far from representative.

The sample is small and unrepresentative – predominantly white, middle-class and with a higher percentage of female participants.

However, as this was an exploratory study, I was looking for general patterns needed to establish possible further avenues of investigation.

Ethical Issues.

The study was conducted in line with ethical procedures of the University of York. Participants were volunteers and gave informed written consent (all participants were over the age of 16). They had the right to withdraw from the study as any time (including the withdrawal of their data).

What did the data show?

Data analysis was conducted using the R statistical package. The results of the t-test found a significant difference between AB at time 1 and AB at time 2 (p<0.01). Further analysis found an effect size of 0.675. If we apply Cohen’s (1988) conventions for effect size, we also find a highly significant difference between time 1 and time 2 (so we can be pretty confident that timing was a major factor).

What does all this mean?

Results would suggest that AB isn’t stable and is mitigated by other factors. The timing of the second data collection activity (a week before the start of AS exams) could play a role in the difference between the two sets of scores, begging the question “Do students feel less confident about their abilities at different times?” Outcome measures (in the form of AS results) can be examined in August and could (but only ‘could’) yield more information.

Where now?

The plan now is to use experience-sampling methods (ESM) to collect data on a number of factors ‘as they happen’. The problem with much of the research into academic buoyancy is that participants are asked to complete measures in isolation (i.e. “I am good at dealing with setbacks”). ESM allows for participants to think about these measures in a more realistic and moment-by-moment way via electronic ‘prompts’ sent to mobile devices. ESM tends to result in large data sets, dependent upon the number of prompts and length of the study, so sample sizes can be smaller (and, for practical reasons, need to be). An additional possibility would be to supplement the ESM data with a end of day/end of week questionnaire to investigate the difference between immediate and retrospective self-assessments.

What’s the point?

Emotion appears to impact on learning. Research has suggested that factors such as self-concept, boredom, anxiety and resilience can have both positive and negative effects on academic outcomes, as well as cognitive functions like attention. Understanding the nature of these factors could help to develop interventions to stabilise some of them. Emotion impacts on cognition, for example, stress can heighten recall to a point but too much anxiety leads to inaccurate recall. The so-called Yerkes-Dodson suggests that performance increases as physiological and mental arousal increases to an optimum level, at which point cognitive functions begin to decline. Although the Yerkes-Dodson law in somewhat dated, more recent research appears to support its validity.

In a system where more and more of our young people are suffering from heightened levels of anxiety (the reason for which is highly debatable), examining their daily classroom lives can be provide rich data into how, when and why they do and do not learn.


When fear fails to motivate

It’s becoming increasingly clear that the ways in which teachers communicate with young learners can have a significant impact on academic outcomes. For some years now, studies have supported the assertions made by Carol Dweck that the way in which we praise young learners dictates (or at least influences) the mindset those young learners later adopt – effort praise encourages a growth mindset while ability praise is more likely to result in a fixed mindset (see, for example, Lam, Yim and Ng, 2008; Halmovitz and Henderlong Corpus, 2011).


Recent research has also suggested that certain motivational strategies may be backfiring due to the manner in which such strategies are communicated. David Putwain (Edge Hill) and Richard Remedios (Durham) have discovered that so-called ‘fear appeals’ might be having the opposite effect on motivation than the one intended. Fear appeals are messages that in some way elicit fear in the student with the purpose of motivation. Fear appeals tend to concentrate on the consequences of success and failure, the importance of academic credentials (that is, qualifications) and the threat that lack of motivation will ultimately jeopardise future aspirations and limit choices (Putwain & Remedios, 2014)

Putwain and Remedios invite the reader to consider the following messages:

“If you fail GCSE maths, you will never be able to get a good job or go to college. You need to work hard in order to avoid failure”

“GCSE maths is really important as most jobs that pay well require GCSE maths, and if you want to go to college you will need a pass in GCSE maths. It’s really important to try your hardest”.

The first message constitutes a fear appeal because it’s based on avoiding failure. The second message, on the other hand, is based on success – it isn’t a fear appeal.

In their study (involving 347 year 11 pupils) Putwain and Remedios found that a higher frequency of fear appeals that were seen as threatening resulted in lower self-determined behaviour (so-called intrinsic motivation, of which I have written previously) and, consequently, lower examination performance. These negative consequences appear to be related to the ‘failure’ emphasis of the fear appeal.

What struck me the most from this study was the realisation that I was prone to fear appeals. Certainly, during this time of year when my sixth form students are heavily engaged in revision, I find myself using the terms ‘fail’ and ‘failure’ far more often than I would like (especially with ‘certain’ pupils). It also brought home the importance of communication and the way in which I communicate attempts at motivation – which is perhaps more symptomatic of my own anxiety over their possible failure than anything else.

Putwain and Remedios conclude by appealing to teachers to have a greater awareness of how those statements we so often use to motivate ‘can unwittingly promote lower self-determined motivation’.

Lam, Shui-fong, Yim, Pui-shan, Ng, Yee_lam (2008) Is effort praise motivational? The role of beliefs in the effort–ability relationship Contemporary Educational Psychology 33 4 p.694-710
Halmovitz, K and Hederlong Corpus, J (2011) Effects of person versus process praise on student motivation: stability and change in emerging adulthood Educational Psychology 31 5 p.595-609
Putwain, D., & Remedios, R. (2014). The scare tactic: Do fear appeals predict motivation and exam scores? School Psychology Quarterly: The Official Journal of the Division of School Psychology, American Psychological Association. doi:10.1037/spq0000048


I want to tell you a story…

jackanoryI’m rapidly realising that research with young people is more fraught with problems than I originally surmised. Ironically, the very area of my research should have highlighted this possibility, in that young people will go to often extraordinary lengths to safe-guard their self esteem and provide an answer that they believe the researcher will judge at ‘right’. Unfortunately, as researchers, we are rarely interested in the right answer – usually because there isn’t one.

As a result, it can become difficult for us to confirm that any answer provided by young people is honestly given as opposed to an attempt to ‘get it right’. Furthermore, understanding the reasoning behind their answer could actually provide a more accurate indication of factors such as self-esteem and resilience than the very measure itself. This calls into question the reliability of measuring, say, academic resilience using psychometric methods such as scales.

What if we could make these questions more objective and still use the answers as a means to providing subjective measures?

One area I have decided to explore is the use of scenarios (or vignettes). The basic premise is fairly simple: Rather than presenting participants with questionnaires that prompt a subjective response  using a likert-type scale like this:




…the questions are presented once the participant has read a fictional vignette.

For example:

Frank is studying A-level maths and his teacher has just given him the results of his latest test. Frank’s target grade is B but the grade he has achieved for the test is a D.

On a scale of 1 to 10, decide how this bad result would have affected Frank’s confidence in maths (where 1 is ‘a great deal’ and 10 is ‘not much at all’).

Vignette methodology is widely used in the social sciences, including sociology and education. Vignettes provide a way for the participant to distance himself or herself from the question by ensuring that on the surface the questions aren’t necessarily about them. The assumption from the researchers point of view, however, is that the participant will provide an answer that is more in keeping with their views but limits the desire to safe-guard self-esteem.

Conducting educational research – are teens more problematic?

I recently conducted a small-scale exploratory study with some year 12 students. I wasn’t totally sure of what I really wanted to accomplish with the study or what to expect but I hoped that I could at least try to establish relationships between a number of different measures.

There were two main points I was particularly interested in:

1. If students could choose their own target grade, how close would this be to their actual target grade?

2. How do the constructs of Academic Self Concept (ASC), Academic Buoyancy (AB) and Implicit theories of Intelligence (Mindset) relate both to each other and the accuracy of target grade predictions?

The three constructs were measured using established and validated likert-scale questionnaires and were administered to 41 year 12 students following the completion of consent procedures.

There was an anticipation that the three constructs would correlate significantly and that those who scored highly on all three constructs would be more accurate with their target prediction. However, while there was a small positive correlation between ASC and Mindset (i.e. those participants who scored highly on the measure of ASC were more likely to have ‘growth mindsets’), none of the other measures appeared to correlate. Furthermore, the majority of target predictions formed a cluster around the “C” grade.

As I’ve already mentioned, this was very much an exploratory study using a small unrepresentative sample. Nevertheless, the results did get me thinking about a number of problems related to carrying out studies with teenagers and their self-concepts, and while this might not be directly related to the task in hand (and certainly won’t explain the results) I began to look back on a previous, half-abandoned project on teenage self concept.

As most parents of teenagers will confirm, adolescence brings with it a period of heightened self-consciousness unseen in younger children. Teenagers become overly, at times almost pathologically, preoccupied with the way in which others interpret their actions and behaviour. In developmental psychology terms this is known as egocentrism and is considered a normal healthy stage of development.

The American developmental psychologist and writer David Elkind expanded on this idea in the 1960’s in a manner that allows us to at least attempt an explanation for the seemingly egocentric nature of teenagers. Once children are able to distinguish between their own thoughts and the thoughts of others (often referred to as mentalizing) they become preoccupied with the fear that the thoughts of other people are focussed on their own behaviour and appearance – what Eldkind calls the imaginary audience. The imaginary audience is seen by the teenager as scrutinising their every move, being critical of their behaviour – the way they dress or their haircut and so on. This fear leads to increase in self-consciousness in terms of the ways in which others (especially their peers) see them. Of course the view held by the teenager is more likely to be imagined than having any existence within reality, nevertheless, it is real for them and no amount of persuasion will convince them otherwise.  A related concept, according to Elkind, is that of the personal fable. Personal Fable describes the teenagers obsession with their own uniqueness and the belief that they are in some way special, leading to the view that ‘nobody understands me’. While Elkinds’ theory has been expanded and developed since the 1960’s we can already see how the way in which teenagers behave is closely linked to the way in which they are developing socially and emotionally.

More recently, researchers have suggested that the these twin concepts of imaginary audience and personal fable represent the teenagers search for identity in the midst of a rapidly changing set of social circumstances – greater independence, the move from primary to secondary education and the increase in pressure from parents and peers. When the young teenager begins to development close relationships outside the family she finds herself torn between her new social life and the desire to remain connected to the family, leading perhaps to anxiety and fixation on one to the detriment of the other. While we can attempt to support the teenager and suggest that she divide her time equally between the two, there is a real possibility that her egocentrism and centration prevents her from dealing with, what is to her, a major all-consuming dilemma. In order to resolve this dilemma our teen is likely to engage in daydreaming as way of placing herself within a number of different social contexts and interactions involving various groups of others, simultaneously she may also employ the concept of personal fable (the emphasis on her uniqueness) as means to separate herself from her family. Indeed this complex and often agonising search for identity may lead to periods where the teenager separates himself from both his family and his own social groups, and while such behaviour may seem unusual, it is rarely detrimental.

So what impact (if any) does this have on the researcher who has chosen teenagers at their focus? My concern is that the objectivity of any self-completed questionnaire is compromised even if basic criteria regarding anonymity and confidentiality are adhered to. There might be a danger that teenagers will attempt to safeguard their self-esteem even with the guarantee that no other person will have access to their personal results. High achieving teenagers might be reluctant, therefore, to accurately reflect their ability for fear of being seen as arrogant while others might not want to underestimate their ability for fear of being seen as stupid. As many researchers in the areas of ASC and related concepts rely heavily on the use of such measures, do we need to question the validity of any results.

8 Habits of Highly Successful Learners

The study of student motivation and engagement has uncovered a great deal about the particular habits and traits of those learners who are more likely to succeed. Listed here are the 8 of these habits which appear to be the best predictors.

1. Effort: If you don’t put the work in, you’re not going to get much out. Those learners who literally put in the hours beyond the classroom, reap higher rewards.


2. Engagement: Staying focused and on-task. Not getting distracted by things that are going on around you of by disruptive peers.

engage3. Skill development: Just like playing the guitar or becoming an expert batsman, you need to develop your skills as a learner. This might include note-taking, essay writing or honing your listening skills.

4. Participation: Being involved in what’s going on in class. Ask and answer questions and help others who might be struggling. Being fully involved in what’s going on is an important part of the learning process.

5. Attendance: Turning up for lessons – there is a causal relationship between attendance and exam success.

6. Self-concept: How you see yourself as a learner. A positive self-concept is positively correlated with achievement. However, self-concept needs to be realistic and goals achievable – over-estimation can be an equally damaging as under-estimation.

7. Persistence: Not giving up, even when it gets difficult! We quite often use the terms resilience and buoyancy  for this ability to bounce back after failure.

8. Enjoyment of learning: Not seeing learning as something you a forced to do, but rather something that can be enjoyable and personally fulfilling. Although some will use the term ‘Enjoyment of School’ I would argue that school isn’t necessarily a prerequisite for success (after all, many successful learners don’t go to school). I’m reminded of a year 12 pupil who (after completing her AS exams)  once commented that she couldn’t wait to start the A2 work, ‘I know it sounds sad,” she said, ‘I just love learning’.


5 Reasons Why Students Fail

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.

Nurturing habits for successful learning

Why is it that some pupils achieve and others don’t? I have briefly touched on some of these both in this blog and elsewhere and I remain a fervent believer that the handicapping of academic achievement is as much caused by external (social) factors as it by internal (e.g. genetics/personality) factors. I have discussed issues such as social class and cultural capital before, so I want now to turn to more psychological factors that might impact on success and failure within a school setting.

The contributions of psychologists Andrew Martin and Herbert Marsh have been somewhat neglected by educators, especially in the UK. Even though Herb Marsh is director of the Self-concept Enhancement and Learning Facilitation (SELF) Research Centre at Oxford University and is probably one of the most prolific researchers into the study of academic self-concept, his theories (supported by a wealth of empirical data) have generally failed to permeate down into the classroom. Similarly, while Martin has become highly influential in the area of student motivation in his native Australia, few UK teachers are aware of his contribution.

Martin views academic achievement in evolutionary terms – achievement and success is something that evolves through our constant attempts to learn. During this process students will encounter both success and failure and future achievement is, in part, influenced by how we react to this. Such success includes things like marks, literacy, numeracy, effort, persistence, engagement, participation, cooperation, etc. and a students’ mastery of all or some of these have a cumulative effect on future success. Therefore, those students who make gains early on continue to sustain and increase those gains while those students who are slow to master them have a harder time catching up – essentially, the stronger get ever stronger while the weaker only get weaker. This phenomenon in education has been described as the ‘Matthew Effect’ by psychologist Keith Stanovich, specifically in relation to reading where Stanovich states:

“Slow reading acquisition has cognitive, behavioral, and motivational consequences that slow the development of other cognitive skills and inhibit performance on many academic tasks. In short, as reading develops, other cognitive processes linked to it track the level of reading skill. Knowledge bases that are in reciprocal relationships with reading are also inhibited from further development. The longer this developmental sequence is allowed to continue, the more generalized the deficits will become, seeping into more and more areas of cognition and behavior. Or to put it more simply – and sadly – in the words of a tearful nine-year-old, already falling frustratingly behind his peers in reading progress, “Reading affects everything you do”
(in Adams, Marilyn J. (1990). Beginning to Read: Thinking and Learning about Print. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press)

So how do students succeed and why do some fail?

Martin’s research suggests that success can be seen in terms of ‘product’ and ‘process’ outcomes.

In the same way, failure can also be seen in terms of ‘product’ and ‘process’


Furthermore, Martin has developed what he described at the ‘The Motivation and Engagement Wheel’, an attempt to integrate the psychological influences on success and failure. Positive thoughts and positive behaviours logically lead to a higher degree of success as well as increased resilience and buoyancy (the ability to bounce back following set-backs and the ability to see failure more positively). Negative thoughts (such as anxiety and uncertain control) and negative behaviours (such as self-handicapping) not only lead to academic underachievement, they also sustain it.



Motivation and Engagement Wheel (Martin, 2003)

Although Martin never explicitly relates his work to Dweck’s Mindset theory, integrating Dweck’s view of implicit theories of intelligence would certainly complement and extend the work of both Martin and Dweck. For those unfamiliar with implicit theories of intelligence, Carol Dweck has suggested that individuals tend to hold specific views concerning the nature of intelligence. These implicit theories of intelligence are described as either entity theories (where individuals view intelligence as innate and academic ability as fixed and beyond their control) or incremental (where individuals view academic ability as malleable and based on effort rather than innate ability). If we view entity theories as maladaptive cognitions and incremental theories as adaptive cognitions, we can assume an evolutionary path from the former to the latter (and sticking to the principle that thoughts influence behaviour) we can attempt to move our students away from destructive negative self-concepts towards more adaptive ways of thinking.

Part of our roles as teachers should be to identify and attempt to correct these maladaptive views of self in relation to learning. Unfortunately, due to the evolutionary and cumulative nature of motivation, engagement and self-concept, for many teachers (especially at secondary level) the damage becomes more difficult to repair as learners have already established fairly concrete views of themselves and have fallen so far behind their peers that ‘catching up’ seems impossible.

Within a culture obsessed with ranking children against their peers and schools against each other, we perhaps begin to lose sight of the individuals in our classrooms. Martin suggests that pupils should be measured against themselves, in terms of ‘personal bests’ (PB) in the same that athletes not only rank themselves against others but also rank their current performance against their previous performance.

Allowing pupils (especially the ones more vulnerable to negative self belief) to view their own progress far from the spotlight of others’ success could provide the first step on the road to overcoming the negative consequences of failure.