Use psychology to manage students’ expectations

18th March 2016 at 00:00
Tips from the couch on how to pitch encouragement for optimists and pessimists

Teachers walk a tricky line when it comes to encouragement during revision season. You don’t want to overly indulge a student with positive messages, as this could lead to nonchalance or a wilful setting up of a student for disappointment. But neither do you want to be too withdrawn, as that could lead to a stifling of the student’s ambition and a drop in their self-esteem and motivation. Getting the balance right is incredibly difficult.

The majority of teachers will know their students well enough to pitch their encouragement correctly: giving a scare to one student, being overly encouraging to another and leaving some students alone to get on with it. But the students that we need to particularly watch for are the defensive pessimists and the defensive optimists.

Defensive pessimists reduce their fear of failure by holding unrealistically low expectations, especially when faced with tests and exams. They discount previous successes and set their sights on failure. This means that not failing can be thought of as success.

Defensive optimists, meanwhile, set unrealistically high goals and insist that they will excel, despite evidence to the contrary. This short-term strategy deals with the fear of failure for a time, but eventually has a detrimental impact on attainment and self-confidence.

Teachers can fall into the same traps when thinking of their students’ results. And they are exposed to other bias, too: we may base expectations of success on students’ character rather than their academic prowess (a cognitive bias known as the “halo effect”). For example, a teacher might assume that a student with a pleasant personality is a conscientious worker, or that a student who holds less admirable characteristics is less academically able.

Teachers need to guard against their own bias, while tackling both their students’ and their own defensive optimism or pessimism. But there is no one-size-fits-all solution.

Unfortunately, that doesn’t stop schools trying it – often holding assemblies to encourage success and describe, in excruciating detail, the consequences of failure. But research has found that these so-called “fear appeals” have a tendency to dramatically backfire. Likewise, plastering the walls with posters of uplifting quotes does little to encourage performance.

There are, however, some general lessons that should then be tailored to individual students and their particular circumstances.

1 Be realistic

Although we would love to tell all students that the top grade is within their grasp, the reality is that not all of them can get As. Encouragement should be pitched at a level that is realistically achievable based on previous performance in exams and other tests.

2 Challenge assumptions

Ask them to justify their optimistic or pessimistic assumptions based on the evidence. Listen out for phrases such as “I was just lucky on that test” or “I wasn’t feeling well that day and that’s why I got a low mark”. Help them to see the bigger picture and come to a more realistic view of their chances.

Meet defensive optimists halfway, or perhaps a little less than halfway. Are they claiming that they can achieve an A even though their work is really closer to a D? You don’t want them to lose motivation by saying they can only achieve a D but, at the same time, suggesting that they can achieve an A will only feed their destructive thinking. Meet them mid-way, say a C if they revise hard, or even higher if they follow the advice you give them and attend regular revision sessions.

3 Don’t oversell effort

This might seem to fly in the face of concepts like growth mindset, but it would be damaging to suggest to pupils that success is only about effort. Working hard is certainly important and should be encouraged, but having a realistic outlook, effective learning and revision strategies and good time-management skills can make all the difference.

Marc Smith is a Chartered Psychologist and Educational Writer and Researcher who has taught in secondary schools across North and West Yorkshire since 2004 He tweets @psychologymarc

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