Feb 02 2005

High self-esteem does not lead to high student achievement

After wasting space on Michelle Malkin last week, the Plain Dealer redeemed itself on Monday, January 31 with an intriguing op-ed piece by Roy F. Baumeister on the misguided attempts to cure various social ills by boosting the self-esteem of the people responsible for those ills. This was based on the theory that low self-esteem people resorted to violence, for example, in order to feel better about themselves. Thus it was believed that if we can raise their self-esteem, they will stop being violent.

A 1996 paper in Psychological Review by Baumeister and co-workers debunked that hypothesis by showing that violent individuals, groups, and even nations actually already think highly of themselves, and resort to violence when they do not receive the inflated respect they feel they are entitled to. Promoting high self-esteem that is unsupported by actual achievements or abilities turns out to be harmful.

Baumeister (who used to be a Professor of Psychology at Case until just a few years ago) now finds similar results in the research literature for student educational achievement. Inflated high self-esteem not only does not result in better academic achievement, it can sometimes even lower it.

These conclusions should be taken very seriously by educators, many of whom have put great stock in raising the self-esteem of under-achieving students as a strategy to boost their performance. The Education Trust reported in a 2001 study that children in high-poverty schools are given few assignments, that even those are of low-quality, and are then given As for work that would merit Cs and Ds elsewhere, all in a misguided effort to improve their self-esteem
In my own work with professional-development programs, an earnest and well-meaning teacher once told me of her frustration with attempts to improve students’ self-esteem in her exclusively black school district. After teaching a section of the mathematics course, she would give her students a practice test. She would then grade the tests and hand them back to the students, along with the answer key, and discuss the test. The “real� test, which was exactly the same as the practice test, was then given, with the students being aware beforehand that this was going to be done. The teacher told me that she adopted this strategy so that the students would score well on her tests and thus experience a boost in their self-esteem. Yet she was frustrated that her students still did badly on the test.

It is not hard to understand why the math teacher’s students were not putting in any effort to just memorize the answers to the practice test and reproduce them on the real test. It was because the “real� test was not a real test of anything meaningful. The task was so trivially simple as to be insulting.

This does not apply to just underachieving students at lower grade levels. Just yesterday a faculty member in the School of Engineering here at Case (which has ambitious, hard-working, and high achieving students) was expressing puzzlement because in order to get more class participation he would ask very easy questions but no one was volunteering to answer them.

But from the point of view of the students, this response is perfectly rational. If the question is obviously easy, then no kudos accrue to a student for answering it correctly. But if you do volunteer an answer and get it wrong, then you appear stupid in the eyes of your peers. So the safest course is to avoid answering.

The research on motivation suggests that students (and people in general) respond best not to praise and blame, but to neutral feedback that gives them a realistic sense of what they can do and what they need to do to improve. They also respond best to moderate levels of challenge. If the assignments are too hard, then they get frustrated. If they are too easy, then there is no sense of achievement in doing them. The challenge for any teacher is to gauge the right levels of challenge, provide appropriate support, and give informative and prescriptive feedback.

Baumeister’s work confirms that trying to raise self-esteem is not the way to go. While high self-esteem does provide some minor benefits (it feels good and supports initiative), he suggests that we might get better results by focusing more on self-control and self-discipline. It is a message that should be taken seriously.


1. Roy F. Baumeister, Jennifer D. Campbell, Joachim I. Krueger, and Kathleen D. Vohs, “Does high self-esteem cause better performance, interpersonal success, happiness, or healthier lifestyles?�, Psychological Science in the Public Interest, May 2003, vol. 4, No. 1, 1-44
2. Roy F. Baumeister, Laura Smart, Joseph M. Boden, “Relation of Threatened Egotism to Violence and Aggression: The Dark Side of High Self-Esteem�, Psychological Review, 1996, vol. 103, No. 1, 5-33
3. Kati Haycock, Craig Jerald, and Sandra Huang, “Closing the Gap: Done in a Decade,� Education Trust: Thinking K–16 5, no. 2 (Spring 2001)
4. Kati Haycock, “Closing the Achievement Gap,� Educational Leadership, March 2001, 6–11.

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