Identification with Academics
Identification with academics is related to the notion of domain identification introduced by William James (James, 1890/1981). James argued that every person has an almost infinite number of possible selves, but that individuals focus on a few core domains in defining the self. These core selves that a person identifies with can have a profound influence on everything from self-esteem and motivation to behavior. Other selves are regarded as unimportant. This process of placing more or less importance on certain aspects of the self is called “selective valuing.” While there has been debate on whether these ideas can be empirically validated, many researchers accept them because of their intuitive appeal.
Identification with academics is a special case of domain identification and selective valuing. It refers to the extent to which an individual defines the self through a role or performance in a particular domain, in this case schooling and academics. The concept of domain identification is rooted in the Symbolic Interactionist perspective on self-esteem, which is presented graphically in Figure 1. In general, this model states that 1) individuals get lots of feedback in many different ways almost constantly and 2) if this feedback is received and viewed as accurate/valid, it is incorporated into an individual's domain-specific self-concept. If this part of self-concept is important, the feedback will affect self-esteem.
According to this model, outcomes in a domain will only affect an individual's self-esteem to the extent that the individual is identified with that domain. Another characteristic of this perspective is that there are not only individual differences in identification with a specific domain, but also changes within an individual over time in domain identification (e.g., Tesser, 1988). In other words, one person may view proficiency at tennis as a huge aspect of the self, while another could not care less about how well he or she plays tennis. Over time, as circumstances change, one's view of how important tennis is to the self might become less or more important.
If having a positive self-view feels good and a negative self-view feels bad (psychologists differ on this point), it follows that healthy individuals are motivated to maintain a positive self view. They are strategic and will value those domains that are most likely to produce positive feedback for the self, and will alter their domain valuing as conditions change, all with the goal of maximizing how positive the self-view is (Steele, 1988; Tesser, 1988).
From a simple reinforcement/punishment perspective, stronger identification should be related to more positive outcomes in that domain. Individuals should be motivated to behave in ways that maximize the probability of positive outcomes (and minimize the negative outcomes) in domains they strongly identify with. For students strongly identified with academics, good academic performance should be rewarding (leading to a more positive self-view, which feels good) whereas poor academic performance should be punishing (leading to a more negative self-view, which feels bad). Similarly, students not identified with academics should have little motivation to succeed in academics because there is no link between academic outcomes and
self-esteem—good performance is not intrinsically rewarding, and poor performance is not intrinsically punishing. For these students, motivation comes from other domains outside academics.
Research supports the notion that identification with academics increases the odds of success in academics (Osborne, Kellow, & Jones, 2007). Figure 2 shows the theoretical relationships between identification with academics and motivation to succeed as well as outcomes in that domain. (Other literatures, such as management and parenting literatures, have noted similar effects.)
Identification with academics predicts academic achievement (Osborne, 1997a; Osborne & Rausch, 2001; Voelkl, 1997), receiving academic honors or being put on academic probation (Osborne, 1997a), engagement in learning/classroom activities (Osborne & Rausch, 2001; Voelkl, 1997; Walker, Greene, & Mansell, 2006), stronger academic self-efficacy (Walker et al., 2006), and even academic dishonesty (K. V. Finn & Frone, 2004). These studies show that stronger identification with academics increases motivation to succeed and the amount of effort students put into learning. Given this, it should not be surprising that these students are also more likely to achieve better outcomes in academics. Importantly, identification with academics has been linked to decreased likelihood of undesirable behaviors, such as cutting class, absenteeism, and dropping out (Osborne et al., 2007).
There is no consensus on how to measure identification with academics. Valuing, belonging, positive predispositions toward school, and behaviors that signal engagement in learning/schooling are theoretically linked to identification with academics, but do not capture the essence of it. Some researchers (Spencer, Steele, & Quinn, 1999) have argued that students who enroll in challenging academic courses and who possess well above average standardized scores are de facto classified as identified, but there are also gifted students who do exceedingly well and then drop out as soon as they can. Additionally, this perspective ignores extrinsic motivations for doing well in school. True identification with academics is a purely intrinsic process (although it can be influenced by external forces). Others (e.g., Aronson et al., 1999) have supplemented these indicators with items that assess the relevance of the domain (“Mathematics is important to me”) to students. Other researchers (Morgan & Mehta, 2004; Osborne, 1995, 1997b; Verkuyten & Thijs, 2004) have operationalized this as the relationship between measures of self-concept and academic outcomes. Referring to Figure 1, it is obvious that among students with strong identification, there should be a strong relationship between self-concept and academic outcomes. Yet this approach is severely limited in that it can only speak to large groups, although it may be important for initially establishing the validity of the general concept.
Researchers have published scales intended to measure identification with academics from the perspective presented above (Osborne, 1997a; Osborne & Walker, 2006, Voelkl, 1996, 1997, Finn,1989). These scales are designed to assess student feelings of belonging (i.e., acceptance of and respect for the self by others in the school, feelings of inclusion) and valuing (i.e., the extent to which the student views schooling as an important institution in society, and the material being learned as important and useful).
As James and many later theorists have argued, individuals differ not only in what domains they identify with,
but also how complex the self is (i.e., how many domains they identify with. (For a review of self-complexity, see (Rafaeli-Mor & Steinberg, 2002.) Research strongly suggests that identification with academics is changeable, and as Finn (1989) and others argue, changes long before bad things happen academically (e.g., withdrawal from school). Therefore, there is significant hope that should students begin to disidentify, and if this change is diagnosed early enough, intervention can prevent serious consequences.
Identification with academics is also implicated in important social trends, such as the long-standing achievement gap between Caucasian students and students from disadvantaged/stigmatized groups (e.g., African American, Native American, Latino). Claude Steele's Stereotype Threat hypothesis (Steele, 1992, 1997, 1999; Steele & Aronson, 1995), for example, argues that members of academically stigmatized groups should show higher anxiety in school, and ultimately defensively disidentify with academics (see also Major & Schmader, 1998; Major, Spencer, Schmader, Wolfe, & Crocker, 1998). Research from several cultures and across many years has shown this disidentification effect predicted by Steele at the group level when comparing stigmatized and non-stigmatized groups (Cokley, 2002; Demo & Parker, 1987; Hansford & Hattie, 1982; Morgan & Mehta, 2004; Osborne, 1995, 1997b; Osborne, Major, & Crocker, 1992; Rosenberg & Simmons, 1972; Verkuyten & Thijs, 2004). Interestingly, when stigmatized individuals (such as African American students) answer questionnaires about identification (valuing of) academics, there is often either no difference between the two groups or the African American students score higher than Caucasian Americans (e.g., Major & Schmader, 1998). On an individual level, parents, teachers, and others in power can reduce stereotype threat and/or enhance identification with academics. The literature gives many options, including (a) increasing positive outcomes, (b) promoting the importance of academic domains, (c) fostering a sense of belonging, and (d) lifting the situational threat. Those interested in this process should consult Osborne et al. (2007) for more on these strategies or Steele (1997) for other ideas specific to stereotype threat.
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