Many studies in the field of education sciences emphasize the impact of the class or school attendance on children’s learning.
On the basis of this study, we are generally inclined to believe that the fact of being in a school or class of a “good” level has a rather positive effect on both academic achievement, educational and career aspirations, and student motivation. Yes, but is it really that simple? Should other parameters be taken into account?
While the benefits are largely clear in terms of academic achievement, they differ at the social-affective level, in particular in how the student perceives his or her abilities and in the resulting self-confidence. Many school self-assessment studies highlight an important psychological effect called the big fish small pond effect (BFLPE): a fish swimming in a small pond feels larger than if it were swimming in a large pond.
A student’s self-perception, like a fish, varies depending on its immediate environment. Attending a more or less successful school or class can have confusing consequences for a student’s academic self-esteem. And they are relatively little known in the world of education, even if some actors understand them intuitively.
School self-concept, as opposed to self-concept or self-esteem in general, refers to how a student perceives himself in a given school subject. It is often measured using questionnaires: sentences such as “I am good at math”, “I am one of the best in my class” … are presented to students, who must indicate to what extent they agree with them.
To understand this self-assessment, the student will explicitly (for example, when the question is “I am one of the best in my class”) or implicitly (when the question is “I am good at math”) compares themselves with other students. in the class or school he attends.
We immediately understand how the composition of the groups in which the student is enrolled can influence the self-image. Depending on whether this class or school group is more or less strong, depending on whether this group is more or less heterogeneous in ability, the point of comparison that the student takes will be different, self-esteem will inevitably be affected.
Take, for example, two students who have an average score of 65% on the PISA math test (this is just an example, the observed phenomena could be the same on any other test). One of these students (A) is in a class that averages 80% on a test, the other student (B) is in a class that averages 50% on the same test.
It is safe to say that with the same performance (students A and B received 60% each), student A will consider himself significantly worse in mathematics than student B. This is what numerous studies have shown in various education systems (in Belgium especially in France and Germany). This reference group influence on self-esteem is powerful, universal, and persists over time.
The academic self-concept is one of the most important components of motivation and correlates well with academic results in this field. Not surprisingly, the most successful students have more positive self-image, which encourages them to invest in training in the field and, in a virtuous move, become or remain more efficient.
However, as we have just seen, this self-assessment depends not only on the level of the student, but also on the average performance in the class the student attends. Studies have also shown that the closest environment (classroom) has the strongest influence, much more than the school attended.
Several studies have examined whether the effect of class on student self-esteem depends on ability level, gender, sociocultural background, or even certain personality traits. The main conclusion is that most students are sensitive to the “little fish in a big pond” effect.
People who are emotionally unstable or have high levels of anxiety and worry tend to be more sensitive to it, while narcissistic, authoritarian or controlling personalities are less sensitive to it. Several studies that analyze students by gender show that girls are slightly more affected than boys by the performance of their classmates.
The negative impact of classroom performance on school self-esteem is clearly greater in middle school than in elementary school, that is, when we move to a larger grouping of students by ability (through courses or grade levels). Moreover, some studies show that the “little fish in a big pond” effect becomes even more important when the school system is differentiated.
Thus, in integrated or “comprehensive” school systems (Baltic or Scandinavian countries, Canada), i.e. where students are not grouped into classes or schools of different levels, reference groups (class and / or school, depending on the study), to which students who compare themselves are relatively similar in terms of ability, and the detrimental effects of adverse comparison with other students in the class will be less.
Conversely, in differentiated systems where students are grouped by stream or by level, the reference frames on which social comparison is based differ from one class or school to another, which multiplies the effect of social comparisons. France, Belgium, Germany, Luxembourg and the Netherlands belong to the second scenario, at least in the field of secondary education.
To sum it up in a simple formula, the more the question of choosing or placing a student in the “right” class – the “right” school, the “right” sector or choice – is a problem in the education system. , the more significant is the influence of the control group.
The “right” class is not always the best choice
The question of school choice (school, class, course, choice) is an undeniable issue in an education system such as French or Belgian. This choice affects academic achievement (level of knowledge and skills), as well as how the student perceives his abilities (I-concept), which, in turn, affects his motivation, self-confidence, perseverance.
In this regard, the relatively obscure research discussed in this article has clearly shown that it is not always helpful or desirable to want to place your child at any cost in a class that is rightly or wrongly perceived as “the best.” For the “average” student, and even more so for the student with difficulties, the daily situation of perceiving oneself as less good than others can have really negative consequences that can cause progressive demotivation and removal from school assignments.
Sometimes the “best” class is the one where the student feels confident, inspired, able to succeed, rather than one where there is fierce competition, where it is important to get the best grades, and where the student systematically finds himself being graded lower than in the class. other. This is an element that parents in particular need to be aware of and weigh against other criteria when it comes to choosing a school for their child.
Striving at all costs to get the best school, the most prestigious course for your child, is not always the best choice and may even be harmful if the student is especially sensitive to social comparisons (anxious, tense children, self-doubt) or experiences relative difficulties in school.