Relevance of Self-Evaluations to Classroom Learning
There has been controversy in the psychological and educational literature about the role of self-concept and global self-esteem in the classroom. How are these constructs best defined, and distinguished from each other, as well as from self-efficacy? Is an understanding of students' perceptions of their scholastic ability related to their motivation to perform in the classroom room? How does the accuracy of students' perceptions of their academic performance impact their preference for intellectual challenge? What are the implications for educators, in terms of possible interventions in the classroom? Here there is also controversy. Should educators focus on the enhancement of scholastic skills themselves or should attention be directed toward impacting self-concept as the primary target? How is global self-esteem relevant to students in the classroom, as well as to interventions?
Before addressing these substantive issues, it is important to untangle the often confusing terminology. For example, among the many terms are self-concept, self-efficacy, and self-esteem, to name three that are a source of confusion. The definitions offered here are those that appear to be the most useful, in terms of clarity. Self-concept refers to one's perceptions of competence or adequacy across specific domains, for example, scholastic competence, athletic competence, and social competence, as well as feelings of adequacy in such domains as perceptions of appearance and the evaluations of one's behavioral conduct or morality (see Harter, 1999). Thus, the concept of domain-specific self-concepts is particularly useful in discriminating differences between the various arenas in which one has self-perceptions of competence and/or adequacy.
This approach is particularly useful in identifying a profile of self-perceptions across the various domains that are included on any given instrument adopting this framework. That is, the vast majority of children and adolescents do not feel equally competent and/or adequate in every domain assessed. Their scores on domain-specific measures vary across domains, leading to different profiles for individuals. Summing or averaging such scores can mask the incredible differences that individuals report across domains. From an educator's perspective, perceptions of competence in the domain of scholastics may be particularly critical to discriminate from other domains, although the latter may also be of interest.
Another term that represents a source of confusion is self-efficacy, a construct identified by Bandura (1977). Self-efficacy refers to the belief that one can or will be efficacious in a particular arena. It has a futuristic connotation. For example, a student may feel that “when I am faced with new academic challenges, I will be successful.” Domain-specific self-concept, in contrast, refers to self-evaluations in the present, for example, “I am very good at my schoolwork (right now).” While the two constructs, self-concept and self-efficacy, may be correlated with one another, they are not the same and therefore there can be discrepancies between the two. For example, students could feel competent in the present about their specific ability, if facing new challenges, associated with movement to a new grade, a new teacher, a new school, but not necessarily possess self-efficacy about their future ability to perform. Conversely, students may feel that they can be efficacious in the future, if a change favors their abilities, but may not experience domain-specific competence in their present educational environment. (In this entry, the focus will be on domain-specific competence, emphasizing the scholastic or academic domain, and will not address self-efficacy, although it is important to distinguish clearly between the two constructs.)
Before addressing the third construct, self-esteem, which is not domain-specific but rather an overall evaluation of one's worth as a person, two classroom applications of domain-specific scholastic competence will be considered: (a) how perceptions of scholastic competence impact intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation in the classroom, and (b) whether the accuracy of perceptions of scholastic competence is predictive of preference for scholastic challenge, one motivational component.
An important motivational dimension critical to educators is whether children are intrinsically or extrinsically motivated in the classroom. Three dimension of motivation have been identified (Harter, 1981): First, are the students intrinsically motivated by curiosity and the love of learning or are they merely extrinsically motivated to do the schoolwork assigned? Second do the students prefer academic challenge or do they merely want easy work that they are sure they can accomplish? Third, do the students prefer to approach schoolwork independently or are they dependent on the teacher and need help and/or to be given the correct answer? These dimensions are highly correlated with one another and thus can be combined into a single score representing a student's average motivation along a dimension from intrinsic (highest score = 4) to extrinsic (lowest score = 1).
There is considerable variability in students' motivational level, across grade levels as well as within a given grade level. Developmentally, across grades 3 through 9, there is a systematic decline representing a gradual shift from intrinsic motivation in the third grade to extrinsic motivation during adolescence (Harter, 1981). Eccles, Midgley, and Adler (1984) have suggested that grade-related changes in educational practices are responsible. A focus on academic grades and test performance, including public posting of scores, social comparison, a shift from an emphasis on effort to ability, ability grouping, and a shift from an emphasis on the product of one's performance to the process of learning could all adaptively contribute to a decline in intrinsic motivation and an increase in extrinsic motivation.
Not all students show this unilateral shift. A longitudinal study by Riddle and Harter (reported in Harter, 1990) studied motivational patterns in children making the transition from a sixth grade elementary school to a middle school (seventh and eighth grades). Some showed the decline to extrinsic motivation over this transition, some reported no change, and yet a third group actually showed increases toward greater intrinsic motivation.
What might explain these three different patterns? The researchers found that the patterns were directly predicted by students' perceived scholastic competence. Students whose perceived scholastic competence increased across the transition from sixth to seventh grades, reported a shift toward greater intrinsic motivation, those reporting no changes in scholastic competence reported no changes in level of motivation, and those reporting a decrease in perceived scholastic competence reported a shift to more extrinsic motivation.
Why should children's perceived scholastic competence change as a function of the transition to a new school? In this study, students from three elementary feeder schools made the shift to one junior high school. This means that two-thirds of the students were undoubtedly new to each individual. Social comparison processes would lead to the conclusion that the hierarchy of perceived competence would shift for many, leading to different perceptions of their perceived scholastic competence (see Harter, 1996). These, in turn, impacted the level of intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivation. Thus, the more students feel scholastically competent, the more they will be drawn to an intrinsic motivational orientation. Conversely, if students report a decline in scholastic competence, they will shift toward an extrinsic motivational style in which they may feel more assured of some success and less failure.
The second application of domain-specific competence concerns the accuracy of perceptions of scholastic competence and preference for challenge. Do the accuracy of self-perceptions have an impact? In one study of the component of preference for challenge, the researchers first established accuracy by comparing teachers' ratings of students' scholastic competence to the students' own perceptions of scholastic competence. Students were divided into “over-raters,” those whose scores significantly exceeding the rating of the teacher, “under-raters,” those whose scores were significantly lower than the teacher's ratings, and “accurate” raters, those whose scores were congruent with the teachers' (see Harter, 1999).
Next, students were brought into a university classroom in which research assistants acted as teachers. Students were given a booklet that contained anagrams of different levels of challenge, three-letter to seven-letter anagrams, to be unscrambled to make legitimate words. They were given a choice of which they wanted to attempt (see Harter, 1999, for details). Results revealed that the under-raters selected the easier anagrams, presumably because they did not feel scholastically competent. Surprisingly, perhaps, the over-raters who reported high perceived scholastic competence also selected the easiest anagrams. Accurate raters chose the most challenging anagrams.
Why should those reporting high levels of perceived competence select easier anagrams? it should be recalled that this group, the over-raters, were so designated because teachers were not in agreement with their perceptions, viewing them as less competent than the students themselves. The researchers interpreted these findings to reflect the fact that these over-raters, at some level, consciously or perhaps defensively, knew that they were not as competent as their ratings implied. Thus, rather than risk failure, they selected the easiest anagrams. This is an important finding because if over-raters select easier tasks in a simulated classroom, they are likely to select easier tasks in other arenas of their life. By avoiding challenges, they will limit their learning ability. Thus, it is not only the level of perceived scholastic competence that is relevant to the prediction of certain forms of motivation but the accuracy of those judgments. The issue of why unrealistic evaluations can ultimately be psychologically debilitating will be further discussed below.
Another term that is critical to define is self-esteem. Self-esteem, in this entry, refers to a global perception of one's overall worth as a person, such as “liking who one is as a person,” “being satisfied, overall with who one is.” (Negative content is also included.) It should be noted that in the framework of Harter (1999) and Rosenberg (1979) global self-esteem is not the sum or average of domain-specific scores. It is its own construct, assessed by its own set of items.
From a developmental perspective, the ability to construct a global view of one's esteem does not appear until about age 8. Younger children (ages 4 to 7) do not have the cognitive skills to integrate information about the self into an overall self-evaluation of their worth (see Harter, 1985, 1999). Rather, they can only make judgments about domain-specific self-concepts such as cognitive competence, social acceptance, and physical competence. This does not mean that young children do not have some sense of their overall worth. Rather, they do not have a verbalizable concept of their global self-esteem, as a cognitive construct that can be expressed through language. However, it has been demonstrated that young children exude or manifest a sense of self-esteem in their behavior.
An empirical effort to identify the relevant behaviors by Haltiwanger and Harter has been described in Harter (1985). The researchers first asked teachers to sort behavioral descriptors into groups, those describing high- and low-self-esteem children, ages 4 to 7. Those defining the high self-esteem child included curiosity, exploration, pride in their “work” (e.g., drawings), and confidence, to name the primary descriptors. Those identified with low self-esteem displayed the lack of these attributes. Agreement among teachers was extremely high. The researchers then cast these items in a behavioral rating scale such that teachers or relevant adults could evaluate children on a four-point scale in which they rated each item separately. These could then be averaged to arrive at a score that represented young children's behaviorally manifest self-esteem.
To return to older children and adolescents, separate self-report measures of both domain-specific self-concepts and global self-esteem are needed because global self-esteem is highly related to depression, which, in turn, is predictive of suicidal thinking and behavior (Harter, 1999). These are major mental health concerns, particularly in contemporary society. In fact, reports indicate that depression and suicide are on the rise among preadolescents, adolescents, and young adults. Thus, it is important to understand the causes of depression and suicide, namely lack of global self-esteem, as well as to understand the causes of different levels of global self-esteem. Often these factors are difficult for teachers to observe, and observing them is not the primary task of the educator. Thus, self-report measures that may be administered by school counselors, social workers, or mental health professionals, can aid in the identification of children at risk.
In understanding the causes of global self-esteem and the relevance of domain-specific self-concepts, it is critical to assess domain-specific self-concepts because they can contribute to global self-esteem, as was pointed out by an historical scholar of the self, William James (1842– 1910) (1892). James argued that global self-esteem was the product of those domain-specific successes that individuals viewed as particularly important to their well-being (see Harter, 1985, 1999). For example, if scholastic competence is important to students and they are doing well academically, that may be one contributor to high global self-esteem. Conversely, if scholastic competence is important but the students are doing poorly at school-work, then they will experience low global self-esteem. The same logic applies to other domains. An example involves the domain of perceived physical attractiveness. In fact, this domain bears the highest correlation with global self-esteem (see Harter, 1985; 1999). The correlation between scholastic competence and self-esteem is the second highest correlation. Thus, to understand one's level of global self-esteem, it is critical to examine domain-specific self-concepts and the relationship they bear to how much one likes oneself as a person, overall.
Another influential theory of the causes of global self-esteem was put forth by Charles Horton Cooley (1864–1929) (1902), another historical scholar of the self. Unlike James, Cooley contended that the opinions of significant others were the key to understanding one's level of self-esteem. Cooley proposed the metaphor of the “looking glass self.” Other people are social mirrors into which individuals psychologically gaze in order to divine how they are being perceived. If people feel that others hold them in esteem and approve of them as worthy individuals, then they will incorporate their view into their self-evaluation of their own overall self-esteem. Conversely, if they feel that significant others do not value them, they will report low self-esteem.
Harter (1985, 1999) consistently discovered that approval from classmates is the best predictor of global self-esteem. Classmates are the public significant others who can scrutinize the self and whose resulting opinions are critical to one's self-esteem. The opinions of classmates, expressed directly (e.g., through comments that may communicate negative evaluations of the self) or more indirectly (e.g., avoidance, conveying social rejection), are internalized in the form of low self-esteem. In contrast, the perceived positive acceptance by classmates will lead to positive acceptance of the self, in the form of high self-esteem. Thus, processes that occur within the classroom, namely, perceptions of domain-specific scholastic competence and perceptions of classmate approval are each critical to global self-esteem.
A comprehensive coverage of the implications for intervention can be found in Harter (1999). A few of these principles will be summarized here. One issue is whether the goal of interventions should be the enhancement of domain-specific self-evaluations, for example, scholastic competence, or efforts to promote the accuracy of self-evaluations. Some scholars advocate enhancement as the primary goal, such that students will feel good about themselves. However, others point to the dangers of promoting unrealistically high domain-specific evaluations and urge that interventions promote more realistic self-perceptions. The negative effects of over-rating one's scholastic competence were described above.
A similar controversy applies to the construct of global self-esteem. While “feel-good” approaches aimed at encouraging students to value themselves as individuals may give students a temporary psychological lift, in the long run they can have detrimental effects. Damon (1995) views such efforts as misguided, in that they lead to an inflated sense of self-esteem. He argues that they divert educators from teaching skills and deprive students the thrill of actual accomplishment. Damon contends that the importance of self-esteem as a commodity has been greatly exaggerated and that the effusive praise that parents or teachers heap on children to make them feel good is often met with suspicion by children. Moreover, it interferes with the goal of building specific skills in the service of genuine achievement.
Other strategies apply to interventions to influence social self-evaluations. For those reporting low social support from parents, one should determine whether they are withholding support because their children are not meeting parents' highly demanding and often unrealistic expectations. Encouraging parents to accept their children for who they are and for domains in which the child has talents is one goal. For example, parents of a child who has legitimate academic limitations (low intelligence, learning disabilities) but who is musically talented should reward musical accomplishments rather than critically hound the child for lack of academic success. If these strategies are unworkable, then providing some type of compensatory support, in the form of a special adult who can provide support, for example, an extended family member or those in programs like Big Sisters and Big Brothers.
Other students may lack peer support, contributing to low self-esteem. To the extent that they are realistic, attempts should focus on understanding the particular causes of their lack of acceptance. Do such children lack attributes that are valued by peers, for example, attractiveness, athletic ability, or interpersonal qualities that make them likable? Intervention efforts may be directed toward improving the child's skills in the relevant area(s), realizing that there will be natural limits on the extent to which the child may be able to improve. Another strategy may involve removing such children from an unsupportive peer-group situation and placing them with individuals who are likely to provide more support. Social skills programs may also be an option. Increasing social support from either parents or peers, in turn, enhance children's global self-esteem.
The present entry has focused on two critical constructs, students' domain-specific self-concepts and global self-esteem, and how they are relevant to the classroom. Research by Harter has revealed that students' motivation shifts from intrinsic to extrinsic motivation as a function of grade-level. Moreover, students' perceived scholastic competence is a powerful predictor of the level of intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation. In addition, Harter's research has demonstrated that those who over-rate and under-rate their scholastic competence are more likely to report low preference for challenge, which in turn can hamper efforts to approach challenging situations in the classroom as well as in other arenas of their life that can provide learning experiences.
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