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The Importance of Self-Referential Cognitions for Performance Development

May 20th, 2019

(Translation of an article in: IPN Journal No 4)

Christian Schöber

While at school it is our duty to acquire new skills and knowledge. But does it matter what we think about our own abilities? Can teachers recognize if we have inappropriate self-beliefs? Does this apply to all of us in the same way?

Academic self-concepts and self-efficacy beliefs are part of a person's self-beliefs and considered important predictors of school achievement. However, the question of their causal order, i.e., whether self-beliefs influence the development of performance or whether performance affects the development of self-beliefs, has been an unresolved question in educational-psychological research for decades (so-called chicken-and-egg question). Current research favors the reciprocal effects model (REM), which assumes a mutual influence of both constructs over time.

In comparison to students without a migrant background, students with a migrant background showed a high degree of self-referential skills cognition with weaker performance, which suggests a different calibration of self-beliefs. This could result in differential connections between self-beliefs and performance; the migration background could thus be the moderator in this context. The different calibration could, however, also be due to educational success; then, for example, the type of secondary school attended could act as a moderator of the relationship between self-beliefs and achievement.

In order to positively influence calibration, teachers must as accurately as possible be able to determine how students assess their own self-beliefs. They are unable to do so using the academic self-concept. An average underestimation of the level (mean value comparison) goes hand in hand with a weak to moderate correlation between the teacher's assessments and the students’ self assessments. In addition, samples containing a high proportion of migrant students showed a particularly weak accuracy of judgement, which implies checking the influence of the migrant background on the accuracy of judgement. There are few findings on convictions of self-efficacy.

The aim of my dissertation's three studies was to study the following three points:

  1. the examination of the causal order between ability self-concepts or self-efficacy convictions and achievements in students at lower secondary level in Germany,

  2. the evaluation of a possible moderation of the connections due to the migration background of the students or the type of school they attended,

  3. determining the accuracy of secondary school teachers' judgement in relation to the less-specific self-efficacy convictions, taking into account the specific migration background of the students.

The project "Development and implementation of a school-to-work transition concept for schools serving disadvantaged communities (EIKA)", funded by the Department of Education and Science of the Bremen Senate and the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF), provided the data basis for Study 1; the BMBF-funded project " Self-efficacy beliefs among students with and without a migration background: Different forms of acquisition, teachers' judgement accuracy and their impact on academic achievement (Se-Mig)" served as the basis for studies 2 and 3. Structural equation models with two measurement points were used for the longitudinal examination of the causal order between verbal self-concept and reading or spelling performance (Study 1, N = 1 856 school children, 50.6 % female, 48.6 % with migration background, measurement points in grades 5 and 7) as well as between reading or mathematics-specific self-efficacy convictions and reading or mathematics achievements (Study 2, N = 1 597 students, 49.5 % female, 59.9 % with migration background, measurement points at the beginning and end of class 7). A possible moderation of the relationships due to migration background of the students or due to type of school attended (grammar school vs. non-grammar school) was evaluated by means of the model fit indices of invariant measurement and structural models. Two-level regression models, which allow predictors of teacher judgements to be estimated simultaneously at different levels, were used to examine the accuracy of judgement (Study 3, N = 1,573 students, 49.5 % female, 25.6 % with a Turkish migrant background, 14.6 % with a migrant background in post-Soviet states or Poland, 19.2 % with another migrant background), in addition to the level assessment and correlation.

The results from studies 1 and 2 indicated invariant structural models, so that neither moderation by the migrant background nor by the type of school attended can be assumed (all RMSEA ≤ .05, CFI ≥ .98, TLI ≥ .98). While Study 1 confirmed the REM over two years in both achievement areas for the entire sample, i.e., without considering individual groups, in both achievement areas (all paths from the self-concept at T1 to the achievements at T2 or from the services at T1 to the self-concept at T2 with .03 ≤ β ≤ .09), the findings in Study 2 were inconsistent. In mathematics, a significant positive path from the mathematics specific self-efficacy beliefs at the beginning on the mathematics achievements at the end of seventh grade (β = .08, S.E. = 0.02), while reading performance at the beginning of the year had a positive influence on the reading-specific self-efficacy convictions at the end of the school year (β = .14, S.E. = 0.03). If, on the other hand, one considered a two-group model in which students were divided according to their migrant background (with or without), the path from self-efficacy conviction to later achievement was also significantly confirmed in reading (β = .06, S.E. = 0.03), and thus the REM, whereas in mathematics there was still no evidence of any influence of mathematics achievement on the mathematics-specific self-efficacy convictions.

In terms of the accuracy of judgement with regard to reading self-efficacy beliefs, with r = .23 the predominantly weak correlations from the findings in the self-concept area could be confirmed in Study 3 as well as with M = -0.40 (S.E. = 0.03) a medium underestimation of the level of self-efficacy convictions of students by the teachers.

In the two-level regression model, the performance assessment of teachers proved to be the strongest predictor of their self-efficacy judgements. In addition, teachers rated the reader-specific self-efficacy convictions of students with Turkish migrant backgrounds higher among students with Turkish migrant backgrounds than among an otherwise identical student without a migrant background. The significant interaction with the performance assessment indicates that this higher assessment changes less when the teacher changes the performance assessment than is the case with otherwise identical students without a migration background.

Overall, the findings from the three studies suggest that the development of performance and skills cognition in groups with different migrant backgrounds or educational attainment is similar. The measurement and structural invariance across groups of students supports this assumption. The invariance across groups does not, however, preclude the possibility that the psychological processes underlying comparable path coefficients differ between groups

Researching this could open up previously undiscovered potential and thus contribute to reducing performance disparities between students with and without a migration background. However, the different results in Study 2 in the fields of reading and mathematics underline the importance of subject-specific studies.

Teachers not only make very inaccurate judgements about their students' reading-specific self-efficacy convictions, they also base them very strongly on openly recognizable traits such as performance or migration background. More information about the construct of self-efficacy beliefs and its significance for performance development as well as about ways of influencing the development of self-efficacy beliefs in the context of training and further education could be helpful here to correct poorly calibrated self-efficacy beliefs and thus use their influence on performance development in reading and mathematics.