Tag Archives: self handicapping

Motivated To Fail?

We tend to view motivation from a positive perspective; motivated pupils work harder than unmotivated ones, display higher levels of persistence (or ‘grit’, if we insist on using the current preferred terminology) and are more likely to meet or even exceed their achievement goals.

Unfortunately, some types of motivation can also have negative consequences. Self-handicapping is one way – those pre-emptive excuses people use to explain away their failure (I’ve discussed self-handicapping at length in the past). In this post I want to discuss another consequence of students’ fear of failure and the two related motivational strategies that arise from it: Defensive Pessimism and Defensive Optimism.

Why would students want to fail anyway?

Students don’t want to fail; however many are more worried about safeguarding their self-esteem and self-worth than they are with achieving academically. Young people (especially teenagers and young adults) are fearful of looking unintelligent in front of their peers (and their teachers) leading to attempts to ensure that a situation never arises when others might think them ‘stupid’.

In a very rudimentary way, we can view these choices in the form of a Failure Matrix (below). As can be seen, the most effective way to safeguard self-esteem is to withhold effort, hence, some students might be motivated to fail rather than motivated to succeed.


Defensive Pessimism: Aiming Low

Defensive pessimism involves the holding of unrealistically low expectations of tasks involving formal evaluation, such as an exam or a homework that will be given a grade. If we hold low expectations of our own performance then these beliefs cushion us against anxiety by creating unrealistic targets for ourselves – it’s not as far to fall when we fail (and a cause celebration when we do well). We turn a failure into a success in our own minds.

Defensive pessimism can manifest itself in several ways, such as telling yourself and others that you are going to fail the test even though past experience suggests that failure is far from inevitable. While some may think of this as reasonable strategy, unconsciously there is a real danger that this type of behaviour will reduce motivation and engagement due to the complex relationship between our thoughts and our behaviours, in other words, we end up convincing ourselves that failure is the most likely outcome even though we have displayed a history of success. If we lower the bar, we make failure less likely (in our own eyes at least) which in turn lifts some of the anxiety associated with the fear of failure.

Aiming for failure allows us to revel in success, even if that success is below expectations. Students aim lower than their academic history suggests, for example aiming for a grade C when all indications suggest that an A or a B is a more likely outcome.

Defensive Optimism: Aiming Too High.

While defensive pessimism leads to students pitching themselves below their ability, defensive optimism exists at the other end of this continuum.

Defensive optimists set unrealistically high goals and expectations for themselves even though past experience and evidence suggests that they are unlikely to reach these levels. Students who are predicted D’s and E’s, for example, might set their sites on an A despite having only achieved D’s in tests and other assessed work. They may also choose to embark on subjects at higher levels despite only mediocre success at lower levels. We often find this during the transition from GCSE’s to A-levels and, although many schools will discourage or bar some students from taking certain subjects at a higher level, others have more flexible entry requirements. A student who has only managed D’s in science subjects might then wish to take A-levels in Physics and Chemistry even though prior attainment in these subjects has been low. This often leads to students struggling and eventually leaving the course.

Schools, therefore, need to be careful in assessing students in terms of prior attainment and ensuring that minimum standards are upheld. Teachers want students to remain optimistic about their chances of success and realistic optimism should be encouraged, however, defensive optimism doesn’t represent a realistic approach due to the evidence for success being absent.

Defensive optimists display certain behaviours that betray their thoughts. These might include:

  • Striving towards an A grade when previous assessments have placed them closer to a D.
  • Choosing books, texts of other information that are far beyond their capabilities in terms of their previous attainment. For example, our struggling Physics student might select a textbook aimed at first year undergraduate students.

The problem here is not the optimism but the unrealistic nature of the optimism. Certainly, students should be encouraged to aim high but also encouraged to aim within realistic parameters. Rather than aiming for an A (when the current level is closer to a D) students should be encouraged to aim for the mid-range and rise in increments once evidence is able to support higher expectations.

It seems logical that students might downplay their ability in an attempt to feel good about a lower grade (Defensive Pessimism), but why would a student over-estimate their ability?

This is indeed a curious thing, after all, isn’t the defensive optimist simply setting themselves up for a fall? The most probable explanation for such a destructive strategy involves our thinking about short and long-term goals and the perception of time, as well as failure and academic insecurity. The fear of failure problem can easily be resolved – simply refuse to accept failure as a possibility, even when evidence suggests that our belief in success is so far removed from the evidence. If students refuse to accept the evidence of failure as a possible outcome, then the beliefs created by such a refusal protects them from the anxiety and fear associated with failure – at least in the short-term.

Defensive optimism can also be used as a way of excusing poor performance by blaming their high expectations rather than accepting that it was down to ability or effort. Explaining away poor performance by accepting that your expectations were too high doesn’t necessarily represent an attack on self-worth.

An awareness of the motives behind withholding effort is as important as the awareness of motives related to the desire to succeed. As educators we have tendency to view motivation as positive while assuming some students are unmotivated rather than motivated to fail.


5 Ways emotions impact on learning.

Oddly, we often neglect the impact of emotions on the learning process. Humans are emotion driven animals and our emotional behaviour has developed at part of the evolutionary process, so why would we overlook such a vital part of the jigsaw. Here are five ways that emotions might help or hinder learning in our students – and some of them might surprise you.

1. Anxiety lowers mean GCSE scores.

Dave Putwain (Putwain et al., 2015) and colleagues investigated the role of test anxiety on GCSE scores and academic buoyancy (daily resilience). They recruited a sample 705 year 11 students and compared self-report data for academic buoyancy and test anxiety with scores in English, Maths and Science. They found that the worry component of test anxiety predicted lower mean GCSE scores while academic buoyancy predicted a higher mean GCSE score.

2. Fear of Failure results in self-handicapping.

While the relationship between fear of failure, self-handicapping and academic achievement is complex; research does tend to agree that those students with higher levels of fear of failure are more likely to employ self-handicapping strategies. Academic self-handicapping (or academic self-sabotage) relates to pre-emptive strategies used by students to avoid failure and safeguard self-esteem. For example, a student might say they were ill so they couldn’t revise for the test – this makes any failure the results of ‘being ill’ rather than not being ‘clever enough’.

3. Boredom can increase creativity.

Sandi Mann and Rebekah Cadman at the University of Central Lancashire (Mann & Cadman, 2014) conducted a study where participants were given either a boring or interesting activity (independently validated) and then asked to complete a creative task. They found that those who completed the boring activity produced more creative responses on the task than those who carried out the interesting activity.


4. Some ‘types’ of boredom mimic the symptoms of learned helplessness.

Thomas Goetz and colleagues (Goetz et al., 2013) used experience sampling to collect data on participant’s level of boredom.

(From my previous post, outlining the study in more detail)

Goetz and his team supplied each participant with Personal Digital Assistant (PDA) loaded with specially designed software. The PDA’s would then emit a number of audible sounds throughout the day and participants would complete a questionnaire that appeared on the screen (the procedure was slightly different between the two group – university or high school students). The questionnaires required likert-responses to identify levels of boredom, wellbeing, satisfaction, enjoyment, anger and anxiety. If they identified themselves as being bored, they were asked a second set of questions on arousal and valence (the extent to which they were attracted or repelled by the task).

Results suggested the existence of a fifth type of boredom – apathetic boredom, which appeared widely prevalent amongst both groups of students. The interesting point here is that the team identified apathetic boredom as possessing characterises related to learned-helplessness (a condition associated with depression), making apathetic boredom a very unpleasant experience indeed.

5. Test Anxiety can impair working memory function.

Eelynn Ng and Kerry Lee examined the impact of testing on working memory function (Ng & Lee, 2015). 128 11-year-old children completed mental arithmetic tasks at varying levels of working memory load under high and low stress conditions. Performance effectiveness was measured using accuracy of the answers and completion time.

They found that trait test anxiety had ‘a direct and detrimental effect of working memory’.


Goetz, T., Frenzel, A.C., Hall, N.C., Nett, U.E., Pekrun, R. & Lipnevich, A. a. (2013). Types of boredom: An experience sampling approach. Motivation and Emotion. [Online]. Available from: http://link.springer.com/10.1007/s11031-013-9385-y. [Accessed: 1 April 2014].

Mann, S. & Cadman, R. (2014). Does Being Bored Make Us More Creative? Creativity Research Journal. [Online]. 26 (2). p.pp. 165–173. Available from: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/10400419.2014.901073.

Ng, E. & Lee, K. (2015). Effects of trait test anxiety and state anxiety on children’s working memory task performance. Learning and Individual Differences. [Online]. Available from: http://linkinghub.elsevier.com/retrieve/pii/S1041608015000941.

Putwain, D.W., Daly, A.L., Chamberlain, S. & Sadreddini, S. (2015). Academically buoyant students are less anxious about and perform better in high-stakes examinations. British Journal of Educational Psychology. [Online]. p.p. n/a–n/a. Available from: http://doi.wiley.com/10.1111/bjep.12068.

How to create a helpless student

Roo Stenning (@therealmrroo) recently directed me to a 2014 blog post from John Tomsett (@johntomsett), relating to the psychological phenomenon known as ‘learned helplessness’. Interestingly, I’d been thinking about this particular concept for a while and had even swapped a couple of tweets concerning its nature with John’s partner in crime Alex Quigley (@HuntingEnglish).LH1

John suggested that teachers might be responsible for instilling feelings of helplessness in students by inundating them revision sessions, catch-up lessons and other interventions. My own interpretation is similar (although primarily related to day-to-day resilience) in that we often create an environment of over-dependence where our students become unable to consider ways in which they can contribute to their own learning in the absence of outside assistance.

So what is learned helplessness?

The term ‘learned helplessness’ was coined by American psychologist Martin Seligman in the late 1960’s. Seligman discovered that dogs that had been subjected to inescapable pain (administered through electric shocks) would later accept their fate even when given a means of escape. Seligman’s work, although ethically questionable, went on to inform much of our current understanding of the nature of depression – when bad things keep happening to us, we eventually give up searching for the good and, instead, accept our ‘fate’.

Are our students helpless?

It might seem like a bit of leap from depression to the classroom, but such behaviourist assumptions can be applied to student motivation. Take, for example, the student who consistently performs badly on tests – bad results become the norm and no end of interventions will alter these negative attributions – they were a failure yesterday, they are a failure today and they will still be failure tomorrow. In such circumstances, the student learns that nothing they do can change the situation; there is little point in engaging in interventions and little point in revising for exams. There are, of course, many complex variables at play here and we can’t reject the influence of other factors such as poverty, gender and an individuals propensity towards self-handicapping.

Tied up within the learned helplessness construct is the issue of dependency. As teachers we have a tendency to claim that we are in the business of creating ‘independent learners’ yet in reality we appear to practice the opposite. Take, for example, my recent conversation with a year 13 student attending a revision session for AS re-sits.

Student: “Sir, can you do us a list of all the studies that we need to know for the exam?”

Me: “Couldn’t you do that yourself as part of your revision?”

Student: “Oh yes, never thought of that”.

By the time our students begin their A-levels they have become dependent on us as teachers – they no longer know how to be independent learners and no end of badgering will make a difference – dependency is something they have learned and learned well. Take away the interventions, the revision classes and, dare I say, the ‘spoon feeding’ and they become lost in an unknown wilderness with no map to guide them home.

So what can be done?

This is a very difficult question. In the mad scramble to ensure exam success, there is a tendency to increase dependency. I currently run several ‘interventions’ each week, the contents of which involve coaching students on how to answer exam questions. Those who fail to attend are the most likely to harbour feelings of helplessness (‘what’s the point of attending if I’m just going to fail anyway’) and there is always the faint whiff of the self-fulfilling prophecy.

Behavioural psychology and the principles underlying behavioural economics might have a role to play here (as might some of the principles from positive psychology – Seligman’s more recent endeavour). There is also certainly a role for established models of motivation and self-regulation (think Self-Determination Theory).

What is evident is that there can be no quick fix. Dependency and learned helplessness form over time and alter an individual’s cognitive set. The trick is to ensure that the school environment promotes independence and self-regulation rather than stifling it. How we do this is the big question. The question really needs to be asked and the answer thoroughly investigated.

Perceptions of Failure: Is there a role for Positive Psychological Capital?

Consider the following two scenarios:

Matilda has just been given an essay back from her teacher and it’s not the result she hoped for. The teacher has given her lots of feedback and advice on how to improve on her essay and she reads it thoroughly and pledges to correct her errors and re-submit it in a few days time. She is disappointed but understands that if she acts on the feedback her grade should increase.

Matty has completed the same essay and, just like Matilda, didn’t get the result he wanted. With Matty this always seems to be the case and constant poor grades have left him demoralised. Again, there is lots of feedback and advice on how to improve but Matty doesn’t read it – he’s a failure, he always fails and there seems to be very little he can do to fix the problem.

There are several psychological factors at play here. We could say that Matilda is displaying a Growth Mindset while Matty is surely a Fixed Mindset. We could also suggest that Matty is displaying a certain degree of learned helplessness (he has become so fixated on failure that he can’t see a way out) as well as showing self-handicapping tendencies. These can be viewed as both cognitive and emotional responses to failure – I see it all the time in my Sixth Form students.

As well as the established reasons for Matty’s behaviour explained above, we could also view Matilda’s and Matty’s responses in terms of Positive Psychological Capital (or PsyCap). Although PsyCap is a concept rarely applied to education, its related components of high self-efficacy, optimism, hope and resiliency have been found to be important motivational components in academic success and, although these components might need revising in terms of education, the general framework seems suitably relevant.

The Role of Academic Buoyancy.

It’s highly likely that Matilda would test higher for levels of academic buoyancy than Matty as, on the surface, it would appear that she is more able to ‘bounce back’ from minor (yet personally significant) setbacks such as a disappointing grade on an essay. From his own research, Dave Putwain at Edge Hill University has speculated that buoyant individuals may not view academic failure as threatening to either personal aspirations or self-worth due to their belief in the ability to bounce back from failure. (Putwain et al., 2012) Putwain further suggests that buoyant individuals do not hold an expectation of failure because of a belief in their ability to respond positively to the challenge of evaluative-performance events, suggesting further that academic buoyancy is based on positive ways of approaching academic setbacks rather than attempting to cope with them. Another way to put this would be to say that Matilda has accumulated more positive psychological capital while Matty views failure as an end result due to his lack of positive psychological capital.

For teachers, this creates interesting opportunities. In a society so obsessed with success and failure how do we promote a more positive view to failure within our students? Boys appear particularly prone to this (although the evidence is mostly anecdotal) which would explain why my male students are less likely to hand in homework than my female students – they fear failure, partly due to their difficulties in dealing with it.

Putwain, D.W., Connors, L., Symes, W. & Douglas-Osborn, E. (2012). Is academic buoyancy anything more than adaptive coping? Anxiety, stress, and coping. [Online]. 25 (3). p.pp. 349–58. Available from: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21644112. [Accessed: 10 December 2013].

Thinking about… Feedback

If feedback is one of the most effective routes to academic achievement then why do so many teachers do it so badly?

I’ve been teaching 6th Form students for a decade now and I’ve tried many different methods of written feedback. Early in my career I quickly realised two things:

  • Most students don’t read feedback
  • All students read the grade they have been awarded for the task

This in itself is an interesting observation seeing as research (Harks, Rakoczy, Hattie, Besser, & Klieme, 2014) has discovered that so-called ‘grade orientated feedback’ is far less effective than ‘process orientated feedback’ (the latter emphasising the type of feedback that aims to improve outcomes by giving specific targeted and goal-orientated advice). Furthermore, process orientated feedback not only has a positive effect on achievement, it also positively impacts on emotionally–based processes such as interest.

In an attempt to curb this I have, over the years, omitted the grade and given process-orientated feedback only, but because students often appear to be more concerned with how well they have done rather than how they can improve this tended to lead to criticism from students, parents and (on one occasion some years ago) school management. More recently I instructed students that they could have their grade only if they came to me to discuss the feedback – needless to say, few were motivated enough to follow up on this. I’m assuming that the unwillingness to discuss the feedback was as much to do with a fear of failure (they actually didn’t want to know the grade) so that their actions constituted a method of self-handicapping rather than genuine laziness.

The purpose of process-orientated feedback.

Feedback should be elaborated sufficiently to help the learner change erroneous knowledge components and, thus, improve achievement (Harks et al., 2014)

Feedback should offer information that contributes to the satisfaction of the student’s basic need to feel competent (Ryan & Deci, 2000)

Feedback, therefore, has both meta-cognitive and motivational components so content should reflect both of these. Hattie has suggested that process orientated feedback should ask the following questions:

Where am I going (learning intentions/goals/success criteria)?

How am I going (self-assessment/self-evaluation)?

Where next (progression/new goals)?

(Hattie, 2009)


A Model of Feedback (Hattie, 2009)

These questions then feed into the other growth components I have discussed previously:

Growth Goals (Personal Bests)


Implicit Theories of Intelligence (Mindset)

Academic Buoyancy (day-to-day resilience)

Feedback needs to be ‘active’.

Effective marking and detailed feedback can be time-consuming, especially with A-level students who are often required to produce extended pieces of writing. I encourage my students to word-process essays so that I can add comments in the margin as well as general comments/targets at the end (and a grade when appropriate). This can sometimes mean that each essay can take up to 30-45 minutes to mark, comment on, set targets and grade and with class numbers ranging from 20 to 25 students… well you can do the maths. All this, of course, with the probability that most students won’t read any of the comments.

Microsoft Word allows the insertion of comments

Microsoft Word allows the insertion of comments – but will anyone read them?

Making feedback ‘active’ can both reduce the time taken to mark each piece of work and ensure that (most) students read the feedback. I recently came across this wonderful resource on Tom Sherrington’s blog (@headguruteacher) – I’m especially interested in test-driving the first suggestion.


When feedback is executed effectively it can have a major impact on achievement. The EEF Toolkit suggests an increase of around 8 months but offers the following considerations.


Bringing it all together.

For me, feedback is one of suite of tools that combine to produce increases in achievement, motivation and study skills. No strategy exists in isolation and feedback is only one component of a larger whole. Effective feedback encourages a growth mindset by being explicit about ways to improve while those students who adopt a fixed mindset appear to be less responsive to feedback (especially when it calls into question their ability) and less resilience (buoyant). Meta-cognitive strategies aid active feedback while the explicit use of growth goals motivate the learner to exceed their personal best by acting on the feedback.


Harks, B., Rakoczy, K., Hattie, J., Besser, M., & Klieme, E. (2014). The effects of feedback on achievement, interest and self-evaluation: the role of feedback’s perceived usefulness. Educational Psychology, 34(3), 269–290. doi:10.1080/01443410.2013.785384
Hattie, J. (2009). Visible Learning. Routledge.
Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2000). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. The American Psychologist, 55(1), 68–78. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11392867

Growth Goals: One Path to a Growth Mindset.

Top athletes use both competitive & growth goals

Top athletes use both competitive & growth goals

Goals come in many shapes and sizes. Generally, when we talk of goals in an educational context they usually involve mastery goals, our pursuit of mastery over a skill or particular learning
task (e.g. “My goal is to master algebra”). Other goals might be less productive, for example avoidance goals whose purpose to is to avoid failure or negative outcomes which may lead to success but often lead to self-handicapping, allowing us to survive rather than thrive.

A third kind of goal is a Growth Goal. Martin uses the term Personal Best (PB) to describe the managed attempt to exceed oneself rather than to be “top of the class”. Personal Bests centre on a specific personal challenge (e.g. “I want an A in my next essay because I got a B in my last one”) and the specific steps required to reach the goal – so PB’s are competitively self-referenced – doing better than you did before.

PB’s have been found to increase engagement and academic achievement (Martin & Liem, 2010) as well as promote other skills including self-efficacy, intrinsic motivation and ‘flow’. Studies have also found that PB’s are just one way to encourage and promote an incremental (growth) mindset (Martin, 2014).

Mindset theory continues to gain ground over other motivational and engagement strategies primarily due to its rapidly growing and significant evidence base. The problem of implementation often centres around the actual process by which the fixed mindset (entity based self theory) is transformed into a growth mindset (incremental based self theory). PB’s work by drawing on this incremental philosophy and using a series of small steps to go from one personal best to the next, in the same way an Olympic sprinter aims to shave a second here and second there off his or her fastest time.

Furthermore, PB’s aren’t confined to specific cultural groups, with PB’s being generalised to non-western (Chinese) contexts (Yu & Martin, 2014).

PB’s encourage students to examine feedback constructively and set out a plan by which they either maintain their current level or exceed it, ensuring that they take on board teacher comments and identify gaps in either subject knowledge or study skills. In many ways PB’s are similar to the SMART-type objects used in employee appraisal systems and coaching in that they provide specific time-bound criteria by which progress can be made without relying on extrinsic factors.


PB Worksheet and Worked Example

Martin, A. J. (2014). Implicit theories about intelligence and growth (personal best) goals: Exploring reciprocal relationships. The British Journal of Educational Psychology, 1–17. doi:10.1111/bjep.12038
Martin, A. J., & Liem, G. A. D. (2010). Academic personal bests (PBs), engagement, and achievement: A cross-lagged panel analysis. Learning and Individual Differences, 20(3), 265–270. doi:10.1016/j.lindif.2010.01.001
Yu, K., & Martin, a. J. (2014). Personal best (PB) and “classic” achievement goals in the Chinese context: their role in predicting academic motivation, engagement and buoyancy. Educational Psychology, (May), 1–24. doi:10.1080/01443410.2014.895297




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.