Sunday, September 25, 2011

Beyond IQ Series #15: Academic Self-Concept

Current MACM Series Installment

This is the 15th installment in the Beyond IQ series. This installment defines academic self-cocept and lists a variety of implications for learning. [All installments in this series (and other related posts and research) can be found by clicking here].


Academic Self-Concept: Definition and Conceptual Background

“Self-concept as a construct has had a long history within psychology and education because it provides a gauge to determine the effects of academic and social functioning on the emotional well-being of the individual” (Vaughn et al., 2001, p. 54). Self-concept is generally viewed as a valued educational outcome. Self-concept is typically defined as a person’s general composite or collective view of themselves across multidimensional sets of domain specific- perceptions, based on self-knowledge and evaluation of value or worth of one’s own capabilities formed through experiences with and interpretations of the environment (Byrnes, 2003; Eccles, 2005; Snow et al., 1996).

The construct of self-concept is grounded primarily in self-worth theory (Covington, 1992; Covington, 1998; Covington, 2000; Covington & Dray, 2002; Eccles & Wigfield, 2002). Briefly, self-worth theory suggests that all individuals have a motivational “tendency to establish and maintain a positive self-image, or sense of self-worth”(Eccles & Wigfield, 2002, p. 122). Since children spend a significant portion of their lives being evaluated in school classrooms, self-worth theory postulates that a key to developing and maintaining self-worth is to develop and maintain a positive academic self-concept.

Historically, self-concept research has emphasized a general omnibus self-concept, while contemporary research focuses on a multidimensional construct with distinct facets or domains. Although the consensus is not unanimous (Harter, 1990), in general, it is believed that domain-specific self-concept perceptions (e.g., academic, physical, social) are organized in a hierarchical structure with the general omnibus self-concept at the apex of the hierarchy (Bong & Skaalvik, 2003; Bornholt & Goodnow, 1999a; Byrne, 2002; Shavelson, Hubner, & Stanton, 1976; Skaalvik & Skaalvik, 2002). The Shavelson hierarchical model (Shavelson et al., 1976), a model that splits global self-concept into academic and nonacademic branches, has received the greatest empirical scrutiny (Byrne, 2002). Eccles (2005) highlights seven primary features of self-concept--it is organized, multifaceted, hierarchical, stable, developmental, evaluative and differentiable. In the current paper, academic self-concept is defined as an individual’s perception of self-efficacy in academic subjects (Bong & Skaalvik, 2003; DiPerna & Elliott, 1999; MacMillan, Gresham & Bocian, 1998; Snow et al., 1996).

The terms self-concept and self-esteem are frequently (and incorrectly) used interchangeably (Ehrlich &DeBruhl, 1996). The cognitive or descriptive component of self-concept (“I’m good at math”) differs from the affective or evaluative self- esteem component (“I feel good about how I do my math”), with the latter emphasizing self-worth and self-respect (Snow et al., 1996). Thus, global self-worth or self-esteem is a distinct component of self-concept (Bear, Minke, Manning, & George, 2002). The literature on self-concept is voluminous and is beyond the scope of the current paper (see Byrne, 2002; Bong & Skaalvik, 2003; and Skaalvik & Skaalvik, 2002 for recent reviews). One important finding from the research literature is the significant role that different “frames of reference” play in the development of academic self- concept (Byrne, 2002; Skaalvik &Skaalvik, 2002). External frames of reference include comparisons with school/class averages or other learners. An internal frames of reference includes comparisons with the self in different academic domains at a given time, comparisons with self in the same academic domain across time, and comparisons to self-generated goals and aspirations (Byrne, 2002; Skaalvik & Skaalvik, 2002)

Academic Self-Concept: Implications

A review of the voluminous self-concept and self-esteem literature (Bong & Skaalvik, 2003; Bornholt &Goodnow, 1999b; Byrne, 2002; Cosden & McNamara, 1997; deCharms, 1968; DiPerna & Elliott, 1999; Dusek, 2000; Gresham, 1988; Guay, Marsh, & Boivin, 2003; Harter, 1990; Kaplan & Lin, 2000; Martin, Marsh, & Debus, 2003; Nurmi, Aunola, SalmelaAro, & Lindroos, 2003; Skaalvik & Skaalvik, 2002; Vaughn et al., 2001) suggests the following implications:

Self-concept is related to many other developmental accomplishments. For example, the affective component of self-concept (i.e., self-esteem) has been empirically associated with positive social development, ethnic identity development, positive peer and parent interactions and relationships, insulation against the development of a deviant identity and delinquent behaviors, less anxiety and depression, and greater satisfaction with life.

Although the size and direction of the relationships (as well as the measurements and methods used in the research studies) have sometimes been argued and criticized, in general, academic self-concept has been consistently linked to positive academic outcomes. This finding is not surprising given that the high value placed on academic competence by society typically results in positive academic competence feelings for learners who are successful in their academic endeavors.

These positive academic affective self-evaluations are believed to influence future academic motivation. Part of the disagreement with the self-concept research findings stems from the use of different “achievement” indicators. Academic self-concept is more consistently correlated with grades and less consistently correlated with test scores. It has been hypothesized that academic self-concept exerts more influence on grades (vs test scores) as grades are believed to be more influenced by motivation and volition (Snow, et al., 1996).

An important finding (across a diverse range of students—gifted and talented; disadvantaged; students with learning disabilities or mild intellectual disabilities) regarding the development of academic self-concept is the big-fish-little-pond effect. According to the big-fish-little-pond effect, “learners compare their own academic ability with that of their peers and then use this social comparison impression as one basis for the formation of their academic self-concept” (Byrne, 2002, p. 901). The big-fish-little- pond effect occurs when students compare their personal academic performance/ability with that of their peers (an external frame of reference). For example, “a negative big-fish-little-pond effect is evidenced when learners of equal ability exhibit lower academic self-concepts after comparing themselves with more able learners, albeit they exhibit higher academic self- concepts following comparison with less able learners. The big-fish-little-pond effect exemplifies external frame of reference effects and, as a consequence, lends itself well to academic environments that involve selective school placement or choice” (Byrne, 2002, p. 901). Social comparison theory is the basis for the big-fish-little-pond effect. Social comparison theory suggests that students in educational settings where the average reference group is higher in ability, often experience a decrease in academic self-concept. According to social comparison theory, this decrement in academic self-concept occurs as the less capable students (e.g., students with disabilities) judge themselves as less capable than their more competent peers.

The developmental trajectory of self-concept tends to mirror that described previously for self-efficacy. In general, young children initially develop very positive self-concepts that tend to be biased (inflated) when compared to external reference indicators. With increasing age, self-concept becomes more differentiated (i.e., multidimensional), reality- based, less positive, and more aligned with external indicators and sources of evaluation (e.g., adult evaluations of performance). Disagreement exists on the causal mechanisms of the developmental changes in academic self-concept and the resulting appropriate interventions. Research has suggested that the development of positive and healthy academic self-concepts can result from early interventions that either focus on fostering young children’s academic self-beliefs (self-enhancement methods) or interventions focused on developing academic skills (skill enhancement methods). See Guay et al. (2003) for a recent treatment of academic self-concept early intervention literature.

The reaction of significant adults (teachers and parents) to a learner can have a positive or negative impact on the development of academic self-concept. Research has demonstrated that individuals tend to perceive themselves as they are perceived by others. The reflected perceptions and appraisals of significant others play an important role in the development of a student’s academic self-concept.

Students with learning disabilities frequently (and spontaneously) compare themselves to their non-disabled peers, and as a result, often suffer negative decrements in academic self- concept. Although the research findings have, at times, been inconsistent regarding global self-concept and self-esteem, the evidence is relatively clear that students with learning disabilities, as a group, display decreases in academic self-concept over time. Interestingly, some studies have reported that students with learning disabilities may compare themselves favorably to their peers in the intellectual ability domain, but not the academic abilities domain. These findings suggest that students with learning disabilities may make relatively accurate self-evaluations of their personal strengths and weaknesses.

Some research reviews have estimated that students with learning disabilities, in general, display academic self-concepts approximately 1.3 standard deviations lower than students without disabilities. In addition, research suggests that academic self- concept may vary as a function of the specific education setting of the student with a learning disability. For example, “studies have tended to show that children with LD who receive special education services in either segregated (i.e., self-contained) or mainstreamed (i.e., resource) settings have more favorable general self-concepts and self-perceptions of academics than children with LD in regular classrooms who receive no special education or remedial services” (Bear, Minke, & Manning, 2002, p. 406). This latter finding, however, as well as other findings synthesized in integrative reviews, has not been consistently replicated. Clearly, some students with learning disabilities (and most likely students with other forms of disabilities that adversely affect school performance) pay a high emotional and social price for their poor achievement (Gresham, 1988). Further evidence for the price paid for low achievement is the finding that samples of college students with learning disabilities (who likely represent some of the higher functioning and more motivated portions of the learning disability population at this age range) report lower academic self- concepts when compared to their university peers. See Bear et al. (2002) for a recent meta-analysis of research studies on the self- concepts of students with learning disabilities and a discussion of prior research synthesis and the various methodological issues bearing on the inconsistencies reported across reviews.

The adverse impact of repeated academic failure can threaten a student’s academic self- concept and general self-worth. As a result, a student may develop a need to protect both their private and public sense of perceived academic competence or self- worth from failure. The need for self-worth protection can result in the development of maladaptive defensive strategies that include defensive pessimism (e.g., maintaining unrealistically low expectations for success, discounting the importance of success), self-handicapping (creating an impediment that serves as an excuse for possible failure—e.g., procrastination, poor health), and self-worth protection (a general approach of not expending effort so that failure can be attributed to ambiguous causes rather than personal inadequacies). As is the case with most defensive coping strategies, there may be an immediate near-term protection of feelings of self-esteem and self-concept. However, research indicates that the adoption and repeated use of failure-avoidant defensive protective strategies can produce poor and inconsistent long-term achievement, lower academic interest and motivation, negative affective consequences (e.g., increased anxiety, decreased life satisfaction), and less self-regulated learning. It has been suggested that defensive failure- avoidant strategies may be most prevalent in competitive (vs cooperative) learning environments. See Covington (2000), Martin et al. (2003), and Nurmi et al. (2003) for a contemporary overview of the defensive strategy research literature.

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