Interaction between Self-Esteem and Academic Achievement:
Review of Selected Research Studies
November 2, 1998
The Interaction between Self-Esteem and Academic Achievement:
A Review of Selected Research Studies
While many educators may argue the importance of the affective domain in their classroom, all will agree that academic achievement is central to their work with students. Academic achievement is a mark of success for both the student and the teacher. The student aims to prove his/her academic ability to parents and to self. The teacher has two intentions when he/she works to improve a studentís academic achievement. First, teachers want students to reach their highest potential. Second, teachers want to improve their own standing within the school or for the school as a whole by improving the academic achievement of students. Any advances in academic achievement are seen as medals of honor for both student and teacher. The school makes all attempts possible to achieve academic excellence. My school offers monetary rewards for both top scores and most improvement on the Iowa Test of Basic Skills (ITBS). Whether I disagree with this practice or not, our ITBS scores have improved since this reward system was implemented.
This paper will review the research that shows that affective traits and academic achievement are strongly correlated. If teachers want students to do well on academic achievement measures, it would be wise to work on studentsí affect as well. By the same token, if teachers want students to have a high self-concept, it would be wise to work on academic achievement. Teachers need to be aware that self-esteem and academic achievement have lasting impacts on each other.
The terms self-concept and self-esteem are often used interchangeably in academic journals. Both refer to the feelings one has about oneself, such as "a good student, " "a lousy tennis player," or "a handsome native American." When there is a distinction made between the two terms, self-concept refers to the nonjudgmental aspects of statements, such as "a tennis player," or "a native American." Self-esteem refers to the value judgement placed on the self-concept, such as "lousy," "handsome," and so on (Beane and Lipka 1986). For the purposes of this paper, no distinction between the two terms will be made.
The beginning of the study of self-esteem is traced back to the Hindu scriptures, and became an official discipline with James in 1860. Cooley (1902) contributed the theory of the "looking glass self," which states that people see themselves through the eyes of others. Students base their opinions of themselves on the opinions of others. Snygg and Combs (1949) argue that the world is what one perceives it to be, which may be more or less than reality.
While the study of self-esteem has occurred for centuries, the study of the interactions between self-esteem and academic achievement is relatively new to the academic world. Prescott Lecky (1945) was one of the first to point out that studentís level of achievement might be related to the perceptions students have of themselves as learners. Lecky saw that students with high self-esteem tended to have high academic achievement; students with low self-esteem tended to have low academic achievement. Today we may say that this point is obvious, but in Leckyís time, this was an insight that rocked the academic world. The idea of best practices for teachers was absurd. Teachers were seen as disciplinarians and knowledge-bearers who treated students in a manner that was most effective to quiet students. Students were not viewed as little people who had self-esteem.
Walsh (1956) found that students who had low ability felt inferior when paired with high ability students. These same students did not feel inferior when paired with students with the same academic abilities. The first wave of self-esteem studies in the 1950ís (Benjamins, Reeder, Buckley and Scanlan) all found that a personís self-concept had a direct bearing on his/her academic achievement. Since then, thousands of studies have been conducted on this topic, with most finding a significant correlation between academic achievement and self-esteem.
It is also important at this point to discuss the effects of culture on self-esteem and academic achievement. What is important in one culture may be mundane in another culture. Each culture has its own set of priorities, and different priorities will bring about different forms of self-esteem depending on that culture. For example, students in the Caribbean most often form positive self-images from appropriate behavioral conduct: "As a person I am very polite and have good manners" (Delacourt, & Others 1997). In the US, students might have high self-esteem because they have proficient hunting skills or a phenomenal musical talent.
Even in the United States, one characteristic may be highly valued in one culture and seen as negative in another culture. Kester (1994) found that "For many African-American students, being loyal to oneís heritage means one must embrace the street image that is portrayed on MTV" rather than succeed in school. This has a large impact on academic achievement. It is impossible to accurately measure academic achievement when students are purposely not doing their best. Some students see academic achievement as a negative characteristic and will do anything to avoid looking smart in front of their peers.
Gender also plays a part in self-esteem. Boys are more likely to form positive self-images from sports or academic achievement; girls look to their group belonging and interactions first for positive self-images. It is acceptable for a boy to be a great sports star and be smart, but athletics is the primary focus. Females may act smart if their group of friends considers academic ability more important than physical appearance.
Teachers must be aware that students will react differently to self-esteem building strategies. Some students would be pleased if you announced their great grade to the class, while others may be embarrassed or even discouraged by this and lower their effort on the next assignment. Teachers should observe students and their interactions with peers and tailor strategies to meet the needs of the students.
Teachers should also be aware that the relationship between the teacher and the student is an important one. The influence and feedback from a teacher is second only to the family of a child in formulating and maintaining a self-concept (Rosenberg, 1979). This relationship should be based on the best practices for the well being of the student. In 1993, Peng & Lee found that a negative teacher-student relationship was one reason for the poor performance of students. They conclude that teachers need to work on their relationships with students to positively affect these students.
Bloom (1977) discusses the relationship between teacher and student with his discussion of manifest and latent curriculum. Manifest curriculum, he argues, is the curriculum a student is expected to learn, such as reading or history. Latent curriculum is the way the student views him/herself in relation to others. He argues that latent curriculum may be harder to define, but that it has more of an impact on the student: "If most encounters with learning tasks are accompanied by appraisals of inadequacy, the individual is likely to develop a deep sense of inadequacy in connection with school activities."
Hamachek (1995) found that there is a relationship between self-concept and academic ability. He argues that this relationship is very interactive, with each variable affecting the other. He concludes that it is vital for educators to be sensitive to studentís self-concept and studentís perceived academic ability. He indicated that there could be a positive affect on one variable with a positive affect on the other variable (the opposite, negative affect, would also hold true). In other words, if self-esteem were lowered, one would see a drop in academic achievement, and if academic achievement were lowered, one would see a drop in self-esteem.
Wiggins, Shatz, and West (1994) found that self-esteem and academic achievement were positively correlated. They found that students who gained fifteen or more points on a self-esteem inventory during the first year of the study raised their grade point averages substantially the second year. This supports the theory that gains in self-esteem and gains in academic achievement are positively correlated. In a previous study, Wiggins (1987) found significant correlation between earned grades and self-esteem scores.
Kifer (1973) found similar results. He found that successful academic achievement interacted with self-esteem, achievement responsibility, and self-concept as a learner increasing over time. He found that unsuccessful academic achievement interacted with self-esteem, achievement responsibility, and self-concept as a learner decreasing over time. As time went by, a gap between successful achievement/high view of self and unsuccessful achievement/low view of self was created. Students who had high academic achievement also had a high self-esteem, self-concept, and academic responsibility over time; students who had low academic achievement also had low self-esteem, self-concept, and academic responsibility over time. This finding supports the theory that consistent success or failure has an effect on self-esteem and self-concept as a learner.
While most research supports the theory of an interaction between academic achievement and self-esteem, there are a few researchers who disagree. Holly (1987) disagrees with the idea that self-esteem has a direct impact on academic achievement, but points out that it may have an effect in three ways. First, feeling worthless can lead to depression, and depression can inhibit performance. If a student does not feel worthwhile, they will not feel like doing their best. Second, fear of failure can lead students to hold back, whereas those with greater self-esteem and self-confidence may be more willing to take up the challenge. The risk-takers are more likely to score better because they are more likely to guess at questions for which they do not know the answers. Finally, constant failure and the accompanying feelings of incompetence tend to be discouraging and demoralizing. For students who are convinced that they lack the ability to succeed, it does not make much sense to even try.
We do not know how teachers can most effectively influence self-esteem. More research is needed in the field of student self-esteem building strategies. We know that there will be significant gains in self-esteem with increased academic achievement. Research supports the idea that increased self-esteem will improve academic achievement. Each concept alone is vital to the well being of a child and worthwhile endeavors for teachers.
The interaction between self-esteem and academic achievement strengthens my stance on the need for positive experiences for students in the classroom. This goes far beyond the ability to understand the process of working a math problem. Classrooms need to be safe environments where students can feel free to express their opinions and thoughts. While a therapist model at face value, this approach is truly liberationist at heart. If students feel good about themselves, students will be more willing to be risk-takers. Once students are risk-takers, students will be more interested in knowing how to learn. Teachers should feel more comfortable preparing students for ITBS testing with the rationalization that increases in scores in this test may increase studentís self-esteem.
There is nothing worse than a student feeling worthless. Students have enough negative influences in their lives. Students may have poor homelives or poor interactions with peers. There is no reason for teachers to exasperate the situation. Rather, teachers should be cheerleaders for their students. Teachers should help students raise their spirits when they are doing poorly and cheer them on when they are doing well.
Dembrowsky (1990) cites five techniques for increasing self-esteem. First, teachers should develop a personal relationship to each student. This could be as easy as asking a student how their weekend was, or sending a student to the counselor when they need a shoulder to cry on. Second, teachers should focus on the positive, rather than the negative during the learning evaluation process. Papers should not bleed red ink. Teachers should praise a studentís hard work and gently point out areas where improvement is needed. Third, teachers should develop positive expectations about student behavior. Students pick up an amazing amount of knowledge from the way a teacher phrases something. "I know we will be on our best behavior and impress our audience" is very different than "I will send you all to the office if you act up and embarrass me" to a student. Fourth, teachers should facilitate, rather than direct, the selection and choice of options. Students should have a choice in some of the things they are required to do, even if the choices seem trivial. If a class gets to choose the color of their shirt for field day, they will all be proud to be wearing that color. Finally, teachers should establish positive role models for students to emulate. Teachers cannot demand that their students act a certain way and then act differently.
Teachers must act to increase their studentís self-esteem. But, they should be very careful in doing so. Students can tell when they have truly done something well, and can see through a teacher that is being too easy on them. Expect students to do their best, but help them get there. Praise students when they write an excellent poem, but be sure that they can do so by teaching them the basics of poetry and giving them a safe arena to practice. Give them constructive criticism by focusing on their strengths and pointing out their weaknesses. Students will not improve if they do not have specific feedback, both positive and negative.
Modeling is key when student expectations are high. If students need to outline a chapter, model on another chapter first. Students will feel more confident when they know what you expect. When their confidence is raised, they will do better and will try harder Ė they may even take a few risks.
Could a teacher just work on academic achievement and leave self-esteem for the home? Of course, and those teachers may see some improvements in academics. This may lead to some improvements down the road in self-esteem. But it seems so absurd to me for a teacher to make small strides with students when he/she could work on both self-esteem and academic achievement, which would lead to greater improvements. Why work on a small piece when we can work on the entire child?
It is not impossible to work on academic achievement and self-esteem at the same time; rather, they fit together naturally. Teachers should not be afraid to work on self-esteem. They should have a definite plan and rationale for what they do, though, and they should not overstep their bounds. There is a large difference between helping a child feel good about themselves academically or socially and trying to help a child with personal problems. That is the job of the counselor; teachers are certainly not trained in that field and should avoid such areas.
Beane, J.A., & Lipka, R.P. (1986). Self-Concept, Self-Esteem, and the Curriculum. New York: Teachers College.
Bloom, B.S. (1977). Affective outcomes of school learning. Phi Delta Kappan, 59(3), 193-198.
Cooley, C.H. (1902). Human Nature and the Social Order. New York: Scribnerís.
Delacourt, M.A.B., & Others. (1997). Self-perceptions of low- and high-ability adolescents in a Caribbean context. Journal for the Education of the Gifted, 20(3), 224-52.
Dembrowsky, C.H. (1990). Developing Self-Esteem and Internal Motivation in At-Risk Youth. Paper presented at the National Council for Self-Esteem Conference, Orlando, Florida.
Hamachek, D. (1995). Self-concept and school achievement: Interaction dynamics and a tool for assessing the self-concept component. Journal of Counseling & Development, 73(4), 419-25.
Kester, V.M. (1994). Factors that affect African-American studentsí bonding to middle school. Elementary School Journal 95(1), 63-73.
Kifer, E. (1973, February). The effects of school achievement on the affective traits of the learner. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Education Research Association, New Orleans.
Peng, S.S. & Lee, R.M. (1993). Educational experiences and needs of middle school students in poverty. Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics. (ERIC document Reproduction Service No. ED 364 628).
Rosenberg, M. (1979). Conceiving the Self. New York: Basic Books.
Syngg, D. & Combs, A.W. (1949). Individual Behavior: A New Frame of Reference for Psychology. New York: Harper and Brothers.
Wiggins, J.D. (1987). Self-esteem, earned grades, and television viewing habits of students. The School Counselor, 35(2), 128-133.
Wiggins, J.D., Schatz, E.L., & West, R.W. (1994). The relationship of self-esteem to grades, achievement scores, and other factors critical to school success. The School Counselor, 4, 239-244.
Hindu Scripture First century
let the self exalt itself,
Not sink itself below;
Self is the only friend of
And self selfís only foe.
For self, when it subdues
Befriends itself. And so
When it eludes self-conquest,
Its own and only foe.
So calm, so self-subdued, the
Has an unshaken base
Through pain and pleasure,
cold and heat
Through honor and disgrace.