There’s a student that’s familiar to many teachers: He’s the one who stumbles into class with sleep in his eyes after staying up late from writing his paper at the last minute. He probably avoids studying for tests, too. And maybe his backpack is a jumbled mess of crumpled papers and unorganized notes.
And there’s also a common explanation for his bad habits: He probably doesn’t particularly care how he does in school. But psychologists say that, for some students, that’s a totally inaccurate assumption.
Some students engage in so-called self-handicapping behaviors not because they don’t care. Rather, those students care a great deal about success and they are trying to protect themselves from the negative emotions they might feel if they fail at an academic task. So they put off studying for the big test, giving themselves an excuse in advance for a low score. And they might not always realize why they are doing it.
Self-handicapping is kind of a release valve for the anxiety some students associate with academics. And it shows up in other contexts, too, said Alexandra Patzak, a doctoral student in educational psychology at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, British Columbia, Canada. Patzak presented a summary of research on students’ self-handicapping habits at the American Psychological Association’s convention in Washington last week.
An athlete may not train as much as she should for an athletic event, for example.
“Those handicaps basically serve as a prior excuse for failure,” Patzak said.
Research on self-handicapping has been around for decades, but the findings take on fresh relevance when coupled with a growing understanding of how students’ self perception and understanding of the learning process affects their academic success. Education Week covered studies on self-defeating behaviors in 2003.
“For these individuals, how others perceive them is more important to them than what they do for themselves,” said Tim Urdan, professor of psychology at Santa Clara University told Education Week at the time. “They think, ‘If I can engage in some behavior that sort of dupes other people, then those other people can think, well, he’s not dumb, he’s just really busy or whatever.’ ”
But students aren’t just focused on fooling their peers; they also want to fool themselves, Patzak said. Some researchers have found students self-handicap in secret, with behaviors that might not be evident to classmates or teachers.
Students are more likely to self-handicap if they perceive an outcome as certain when it’s actually uncertain. The combination of a low sense of control (inability to do well on a test) over a situation and a high regard for the outcome (wanting a high score) can lead to a fear of failure.
So how should teachers respond to self-handicapping?
One possible response is teaching students that they have more control over their academic success than they think. Rather than focusing their energy on giving themselves an excuse for possible failure, they could try to avoid failure all together through smarter studying strategies and goal setting exercises. Some schools have worked with students to plan ahead for how they will study for a test, to anticipate distractions and challenges, and to prepare to work through them.
Another related response is to help students confront their fear of failure. Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck’s popular research on growth mindsets emphasizes teaching students how to learn through failure.
Students with a growth mindset believe that skill and academic strength can be developed through effort and practice. That’s contrasted with students with a fixed mindset, who believe their intelligence and skill sets are as unchangeable as the color of their eyes. Students with fixed mindsets may be more likely to fear failure because they believe it reflects on their own value, Dweck says.
Some schools have built on that research, working to “normalize failure” by framing it as an opportunity to learn. Those schools give students more chances to revise their work so they can learn new strategies to solving problems and answering questions.
It’s also possible that some students aren’t totally aware of the mental and emotional games they’re playing to buffer themselves from a fear of failure. One teacher told me her first approach when she suspects a student is self-handicapping is to simply sit them down and tell them about the behaviors she’s observed. Then she makes an effort to follow up in the future.
What do you think? Does the research ring true to you? How should schools help students face a fear of failure?
Read more about growth mindset, learning through failure:
- Carol Dweck Revisits the ‘Growth Mindset’
- Creating Classroom Opportunities for Meaningful Struggle
- Nurturing Growth Mindsets: Six Tips From Carol Dweck
A version of this news article first appeared in the Rules for Engagement blog.