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Students Self-Handicap to Protect Themselves

2011 October 26

ResearchBlogging.orgWhen students feel that their performance on learning assessments is out of their control, they create excuses before the assessment has even taken place.  These excuses are often not based in reality; instead, the students are trying to protect their self-esteem – if they ultimately fail, they have already created an excuse as to why it happened, and if they succeed, they have done so in the face of adversity.  Either way, the student’s self-concept is protected.  This practice is called self-handicapping.

In a fascinating article in the American Psychological Society’s Observer, Valkyrie and Tobin[1] discuss the research on self-handicapping, rather amusingly titled, “Teacher, I May Not Do Well on the Test Next Week Because I May Have to Babysit My Sister.”  They discuss the myriad excuses students use a priori to excuse themselves from the responsibility of a difficult test looming before them.

This isn’t necessarily done to annoy instructors, although it often feels like it to the instructor. Instead, students are trying to protect themselves. Knowing that the test is difficult, they shift the blame from themselves to external factors. It’s not that I didn’t study enough, or that I didn’t know what coming – instead, the world is conspiring against me so that I have no choice but to fail.

Of course, in reality, these excuses are nonsense. Needing to babysit next week certainly does not prevent you from studying now. But they are convincing to students making the argument, perhaps with a similar mechanism to self-fulfilling prophecy.

The authors suggest several techniques that teachers might use to minimize the effect of self-handicapping:

  1. Teach students about self-handicapping so that they are strengthened against it.
  2. Create an environment that discourages self-handicapping by:
    1. Being supportive of students.
    2. Explaining why staying on task is important, and how course objectives relate to staying on task.
    3. Emphasize equity and fairness, that the power to succeed is shared by the teacher and student.
  3. Don’t use motivational structures that pit students against each other (i.e. don’t use competition to motivate)
  4. Teach learning strategies to students.
  5. Consider why students are motivated to perform (or not) in your classes and work toward those motivations.

These are generally good recommendations, although I’m not sure about #3.  Certainly outright competition for grades is not a great idea, but revealing grade ranges so that students have some sense of how well they are doing relative to others can be useful.  This de-legitimizes claims like, “This class is too hard, everyone is failing!” and can be a useful tool to give students a better sense of perspective.

  1. Valkyrie, K., & Tobin, C. (2011). ‘Teacher, I may not do well on the test next week because I may have to babysit my sister.’ Observer, 24 (8) []
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