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In my opinion

Unrealistic striving for academic excellence has a cost

Skills of well-being have been forgotten partly due to a combination of educational reforms and societal pressures.


This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

In my past experience as an academic advisor, it was difficult to explain to a disappointed family why their child did not make an admissions cut-off when the student’s overall high school average was over 80 percent.

I also accompanied students who got into their programs of choice through the many hurdles they faced as a result of feeling pressured to perform and sustain high academic achievement throughout their college years.

Now, as an assistant professor in the department of pedagogy at the University of Sherbrooke, I see the experiences of those who carry the burden of maintaining high grades.

For example, one student recently told me that the 80 percent she received on an assignment was hard to swallow. Was there anything that could be done to change the score?

This student also expressed serious concern whether the 80 percent would result in an A+ or an A as a final grade. I assured her she was progressing very well in the course.

This example is one of many I have encountered that has prompted me to think further about how today’s youth perceive their own academic abilities, and how student tenacity and perception directly affects expectations, learning and achievement.

It is not surprising nowadays to find students frustrated or in tears after receiving a grade less than A.

In some ways, it could be considered motivating to see today’s youth striving to achieve high grades. But from my point of view as a specialist in educational psychology, there are reasons to be concerned. It’s clear there are incremental risks associated with students developing obsessive behaviour toward performance, especially when persisting in an academic task with limited self-control.

Unhealthy persistence

A recent provincewide survey by the Institut de la statistique du Québec that polled 62,000 high-schoolers showed a significant increase in students’ reported anxiety: In 2016-2017, 17 percent of students reported anxiety compared with nine percent in 2010-2011.

A similar report by Université de Montréal’s School of Psychoeducation about mental health among college and university students indicated the primary cause of anxiety is pressure to succeed.

In Québec, particularly, high school students transitioning to CEGEP are faced with a performance measure referred to as the R-score. A new calculation method was introduced for the score in 2017. This assessment takes into account students’ individual grades, the class average (and standard deviation) and the group’s strength determined by the high school grades of the students in the course.

With this calculation, it also means that even with a 100 percent, a student’s R score can only reach to a certain limit which will never be a perfect score. This type of grading leads to many implications for academic, social and psychological well-being.

This scoring method is not only conducive to animosity, stress and hostility among peers, it also dampens conditions for optimal learning.

Perceptions of what it means to be a high achiever may vary across individuals or contexts and may be costly, especially if a person’s ideal resembles perfection.

Obsessive behaviours

In today’s social and academic landscape, it’s become commonplace to hear that in achieving excellence, passion and persistence must be pursued. But problems arise after students hear people say:

“Without passion everything is done with only half a heart and it will produce only half results. So unless you have a strong desire to achieve your goal, you will never be able to achieve excellence in it.”

Suddenly the 80 percent that students were obtaining in a course they enjoyed slowly begins to be replaced by a persistent cognitive effort to maintain even higher performance levels. This can lead to potentially obsessive behaviours and is fertile grounds for a culture of grade inflation to prevail.

When grades are associated with efforts or how well one has mastered content as opposed to demonstrating skills related to critical thinking, inquiry or other forms of high-order thinking, an unhealthy persistence surfaces. This is detrimental to students’ well-being.

Although the pursuit of academic excellence should be supported, nurtured and promoted, it should be carefully monitored for veering into perfectionism and its consequent risks.

Injecting positivity in education

Over the years, a combination of educational reforms, paradigm shifts in pedagogy and societal pressure have created a culture of students whose self-efficacy is so reliant on their academic self-concept that skills of well-being have long been forgotten.

For example, students who are not successful at a task immediately might develop a rigid way of persisting, one that leads to sacrifices at personal costs. This is particularly true in performance-based classrooms where traditional testing — measuring “Do you know it?” — is complemented by a performance assessment. The latter seeks to gauge: “How well can you use what you know?”

Performance-based assessments are complex, authentic, and open-ended and can be either process- or product-oriented. They tend to measure students’ ability to apply their knowledge by challenging them to use higher-order thinking skills and presenting them with open-ended questions that may produce a variety of correct answers. The transition from testing traditional to applied knowledge affects students’ academic persistence differently.

Thus, a central question remains: How do educators prevent youth from developing obsessive behaviour toward performance? How do we address this rising epidemic that has plagued the mindsets of today’s youth regarding their academic self-concept?

One possibility is to begin looking for answers through the lens of positive psychology in education. This field investigates indicators of what enables students to thrive and flourish in educational settings. It looks for the potential to change the way students think about themselves and to focus more on the process of achievement rather than the outcome.

The challenge now becomes how to foster a flexible approach to persistence for future generation youth to thrive, flourish and strive for excellence, without neglecting their well-being.

Tanya Chichekian is an assistant professor in the department of pedagogy at the Université de Sherbrooke.

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  1. John Vernon / April 3, 2019 at 14:08

    It cannot be a coincidence that this articles appears in the same edition as the article on the new investment and approach to mental health at McGill. We have to think about how we can get these young people to lift their foot off the gas pedal a bit.

  2. Prof. Ludwig Neyses, former vicepresident and acting president, University of Luxembourg / April 4, 2019 at 04:41

    Thank you, Tanya, for a very insightful and well-argued comment. From my many years of experience in university teaching and management, I’d like to add one element which you mention indirectly.

    A very good or brilliant student at High School (or equivalent) will almost invariably (and rightly) get positive feedback from their teachers, parents, maybe peers. When they then come to university, there will be many ‘very good or brilliant’ students who used to be the best in High School, particularly in the disciplines with restricted admissions, such as medicine etc.

    So, the student who is used to being (amongst) the best will suddenly realise there are people even better, and a lot to boot. This is a common source of frustration and pedagogically, teachers at High School, parents and we as university teachers should much better address questions such as ‘how to learn to have a realistic appreciation of oneself’, see where strengths lie that others don’t maybe have (e.g. lateral thinking) etc. If that issue was approached more systematically, we could avoid many frustrations – AND: I do think student mentors are key in this process!

  3. Heather / April 5, 2019 at 13:34

    This is an important article. The focus has long since moved from actually learning material to grade achievement, with no regard for the fact that a grade is meant to reflect one’s learning and mastery of the material. For many students, the root of this issue is the mistaken notion that one “must have a university degree in order to have a good career”. We need to stop perpetuating this bias. There are numerous perfectly respectable, important, rewarding careers which do not require a university degree. Imposing the expectation that everyone must fall in line with one way of being is unhealthy and elitist. University education is not meant to be career training. It is an education in critical analysis, effective communication and independent thought. None of these can be achieved by providing students with rubrics telling them what to tell the professor. Rather than beating young people over the head with the message that they must all succeed at one style of learning in order to be worthwhile adults, we need to teach them to be honest about what they are interested in, what they want to learn more about, what they can see themselves doing for the next 40 years of their lives and to value their interests, goals and aspirations for what they are, rather than what they think everyone else believes they ought to be.