How should I approach my education? Part 1, by Dr Sam Fairlamb

How should I approach my education? Part 1, by Dr Sam Fairlamb

We can often ask ourselves about how we can improve our work or obtain a better mark. In fact, there are some blogs on THESIS right now that provide useful tools to thinking about improving your academic skills (see Dr. Nuno Nodin’s excellent advice on writing essays for example). Sometimes though, we also need to take a step back and think about how we approach education ourselves, and what it means to us, to get a better understanding of how to pursue our goals. Sometimes, our individual needs can prevent us from effectively striving towards our goals.

Let’s take exams as an example. They are fast approaching, and for many students, these exams will be important towards their final degree outcomes. Many will be hoping to savour the sweet taste of success, others will be hoping to avoid the sting of failure. Unfortunately, this inclination to want to experience success and avoid failure can often produce outcomes that are counter-intuitive to effective learning, and in turn, the pursuit of experiencing success.

How is this possible? Psychologists have argued that the desire to experience the positive emotions that accompany success, and avoid the negative emotions that accompany failure, can reflect a level of ego involvement in our academic studies. Succeeding, or doing well, is good for our self-esteem. Studies show that when we pass a test that our sense of self-esteem temporarily increases (e.g., Brown & Dutton, 1995). In contrast, failure is accompanied by dips in our self-esteem (e.g., Brown & Dutton, 1995). Because the need for self-esteem is argued to be a vital motive to humans, we often strive to attain (and maintain) high levels of self-esteem. As such, whilst we are motivated to succeed to experience the positive emotions that accompany success, we are also motivated to avoid the harsh emotions that accompany failure.

One implication of this, is that when we are faced with scenarios where our self-esteem is challenged, we often engage in behaviours that seek to maintain our levels of self-esteem. One way in which this can be achieved is by externalising failure (e.g., attributing it to bad luck, rather than our own ability). By externalising failure, we minimise the effect it can have on our self-worth, but unfortunately this can be counter-productive to effective learning and future success. Let’s look at an example.

In one study, students were told they would be taking part in an intelligence test (Greenberg et al., 1982). After taking the test, students were informed they had scored 12 out of 20 on this test and were also provided information that the average performance score on this test was either 8 (e.g., they had performed better than average) or 16 (e.g., they had performed worse than average). They were then subsequently asked to complete a short questionnaire regarding the extent to which their result was due to their ability and luck. They were also asked to indicate how fair the test was, how valid the test was, and how clear the instructions were.

The findings demonstrated that when participants were provided with information that suggested they performed worse than average, they were more likely to attribute the test result to luck, and less likely to attribute the result to ability. Additionally, they were also less likely to rate the instructions as clear, and the test as fair and valid.

This study neatly demonstrates that when our self-esteem is challenged, we are likely to minimise the effect of failure on our self-esteem by engaging in behaviours that aim to externalise it, whether by attributing things to luck, or by derogating the test itself. Importantly, this sort of reaction minimises our ability to learn. By rejecting feedback, derogating the test, or blaming luck, we likely increase the chance of not learning from these experiences. In turn, this likely increases our chance of experiencing failure again.

Whilst we can all feel that the experience of failure is a threat to our self-worth, how we respond to this failure often depends on how much self-esteem we view ourselves to have in the first place. Generally speaking, our evaluations of ourselves across time and space are relatively stable (trait self-esteem), although we do experience moment-to-moment fluctuations around this level (state self-esteem), such as when we do well or poorly on a test. As such, people can often be classified into having either relatively low or high levels of trait self-esteem, and that this can influence our response to coping with self-esteem threat.

For example, a meta-analysis of 103 studies suggests that those with high self-esteem often exhibit compensatory behaviours to threat, whilst those low in self-esteem exhibit breaking behaviours (vanDellen et al., 2011). That is, those high in self-esteem are more likely to externally attribute failure, and hold more negative evaluations of the assessment process, but show increased levels of persistence after experiencing failure. In contrast, those low in self-esteem are more likely to internally attribute failure, and hold more positive evaluations of the assessment process, but show decreased levels of persistence after experiencing failure.

Our responses to self-esteem threat therefore can be markedly different. However, despite this difference, both these sets of responses have in common the fact that they are potentially problematic for future development and success. For example, whilst individuals with low self-esteem are more willing to accept feedback as valid (which in theory should be beneficial for future development), the decreased persistence and motivation that accompanies failure is unlikely a recipe for experiencing future success. In contrast, whilst individuals with high self-esteem show positive responses to failure by increasing motivation and persistence (which in theory should help bring about future success), this persistence may often be misguided as they are more likely to be unwilling to accept criticism about their work that would be relevant to their future development.

Read Part 2 of this blog here: PART 2