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Why Some Kids Have An Inflated Sense Of Their Science Skills

Dec 21, 2012
Originally published on December 21, 2012 8:49 pm

If you're a student at the halfway point of the academic year, and you've just taken stock of your performance, perhaps you have reason to feel proud of yourself.

But a recent study suggests some of the pride you feel at having done well — especially in science — may be unfounded. Or at least your sense of your performance may not be a very accurate picture of how good you actually are.

A massive analysis of some 350,000 students at nearly 14,000 schools in 53 countries has uncovered a paradox: Students in many countries that are mediocre at science have an inflated sense of how good they are.

First the good news: The United States isn't among the worst offenders. Students in countries such as Thailand, Jordan, Mexico and Brazil seem to be worse than U.S. students when it comes to science knowledge, but they have even higher levels of self-esteem when it comes to their beliefs about how good they are at science.

But compared to countries such as New Zealand, Australia, Sweden, Japan, South Korea and Great Britain, American students appeared to have an inflated sense of their science abilities. Students in those other countries were better when it came to scientific knowledge than American students, but it was the Americans who had the higher opinion of themselves as students of science.

The study, published in the Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, focused on the academic performance of 15 year-old students. It was conducted by Eva Van de gaer, Aletta Grisay, Wolfram Schulz and Eveline Gebhardt.

The paradox between performance and students' impression of their performance has been noted before. The paper proposes an explanation for it: The reference group effect.

The study argues that countries have very different standards when it comes to science education.

In countries with elite science education standards, you can be a very good science student but, since you measure yourself against an elite standard of performance, you think of yourself as mediocre. On the other hand, if you live in a country with average (or mediocre) science standards, you might be just a decent student, but compared to general expectations of how good students are supposed to be, you feel like a genius.

In an interview, Schulz offered me an analogy. He asked me to think about a person who was 5-foot-10 in China and a person who was the same height in the Netherlands. The Dutch, on average, are taller than the Chinese.

"The person would in China probably think of themselves as a tall person," Schulz said. "If you go to the Netherlands, such a person would rather say, 'ah, I'm a short person,' because you compare yourself to those who surround you."

The same thing happens with science education, he said. Students in countries with elite science standards are much more likely to think of themselves as mediocre, whereas students in countries with mediocre standards are much more likely to think of themselves as elite.

Schulz works at the Australian Council for Educational Research, which studies educational issues in science, mathematics and reading.

Schulz told me the reference group effect could potentially be a double-edged sword: In terms of preparing students for competition with one another, it makes good sense to get a realistic sense of how good you actually are compared to, say, your peers in South Korea. On the other hand, Schulz said, there was also something to be said for having an inflated sense of your own abilities.

"For motivating students to take up science studies, how you perceive yourself is actually more important than how much you know," he said. "If your general belief (is) you're not that good at science, that might have this powerful effect of saying, 'Ah, I'd better stay away from it in the future.' "

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.



Next, let's talk about the power of positive, or not-so-positive, thinking. Not long ago on this program, we heard some research suggesting that student performance in class may be affected by what their teachers think of them. If the teacher gives off signals that the student is not a great student, the student will do worse. If the teacher gives off signals that the student is good, the student may well do better.

NPR's Shankar Vedantam joins us regularly to talk about social science research. He's been looking into a related finding. Hi, Shankar.


INSKEEP: You're also looking into what students think about themselves. What did you find?

VEDANTAM: Well, I'm looking at something that looks like a paradox. So if you went to any school and you generally asked students, what subjects are you good at? the students who say they're good at science are generally, going to be the students who actually are good at science. The students who say they're good at math are generally, going to be good at math.


VEDANTAM: Right? And educators have known for a long time that if you ask students what they're good at, it's a usually reliable predictor to what they're actually good at.

INSKEEP: Sure. They're getting grades, and they know what they're comfortable with, right.

VEDANTAM: Now, it turns out, however, that this relationship between beliefs and performance breaks down at an international level.

INSKEEP: What do you mean, it breaks down at an international level?

VEDANTAM: Well, researchers recently tracked about 350,000 students in about 14,000 schools, across 53 countries - massive, massive study. And it turned out that if you looked at individual countries and individual schools, this link between belief and performance held in each school, and in each country. However, when you compared students between countries, the relationship didn't hold.

So let me give you an example. Students in the United States, for example, performed less well in science than students in New Zealand or Australia or Sweden or Japan or Korea or Great Britain. But when you asked the students, how good do you think you are at science? students in the United States say they are better at science than students in those other countries.

INSKEEP: OK, so why would that be?

VEDANTAM: So I spoke with Wolfram Schulz; he's a researcher at the Australian Council for Educational Research. And he told me this is the result of a psychological illusion; which is, when you ask someone to judge themselves, the way they do it is they compare themselves with those who are immediately around them, right? The problem is, people have different reference groups in different countries.


VEDANTAM: So if you look at somebody who is 5 foot, 10 inches tall, in China; and somebody who is 5 foot, 10 inches tall, in the Netherlands; they're the same height. But if you ask them, are you tall or short? they're probably going to give you very different answers in those two countries.

WOLFRAM SCHULZ: The person would, in China, probably think of themselves as a tall person. So you go to the Netherlands; such a person would, rather, say ah, I'm actually a short person - because you compare yourself to those who surround you.

VEDANTAM: So it's, you know, the little pond, big pond effect. And when you apply that to educational systems, it looks like some countries have more elite standards when it comes, for example, to science education. If you're a very good student in one of those countries, you're surrounded by lots of students who are really, really good. So you feel average. On the other hand, if you're in a country with lower standards, you could be decent. But when you compare yourself to those around you, you feel like a genius.

INSKEEP: So does that mean we should change our expectations?

VEDANTAM: Well, you know, like many of the findings of the social scientists, Steve, this one's complicated. And it's complicated because if students want to compete in a global marketplace, then yes, you actually want to have a very clear picture of how good you actually are. But there's a Catch-22 here. It isn't always helpful to have a perfectly accurate picture of how well you can do. And this is especially true, Schulz told me, when it comes to the subject of motivation.

SCHULZ: How you perceive yourself is actually more important than how much you know. If your general belief - you're not that good at science - that might have this powerful effect of saying, I'll better stay away from it in the future. You know?

INSKEEP: So being more brutally realistic about how good we are at science, might actually make us worse at science.

VEDANTAM: Well, the Catch-22, Steve, is that believing you are better than you actually are, can lull you into a sense of overconfidence when it comes to actual performance. But at the same time, believing that you're actually very good can motivate you to try a difficult subject that you might not have tried otherwise. And so what I take away from the study is that false beliefs are neither always a good thing, or always a bad thing. They're a tool. And what educators and parents need to do is to use the tool depending on the context - because false beliefs might help you when it comes to preparation; they might not be helpful when it comes to performance.

INSKEEP: Shankar, thanks very much.

VEDANTAM: Thanks, Steve.

INSKEEP: NPR's Shankar Vedantam. He's on Twitter @hiddenbrain. You can also follow this program @NPRGreene, @NPRInskeep and @MorningEdition. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.