How can teachers help students overcome their own perceived academic limitations: The big fish little pond effect.

School student with raised hand in a classroom

Students who are highly academically capable may struggle in classrooms where the average achievement is below their individual capabilities. This is known as the big-fish-little-pond effect (BFLPE). Researchers believe that teachers can help students overcome these perceived limitations with appropriate pedagogy and skills which promotes a learning context supportive of students’ psychological needs. The mechanism involves having students focus on their own growth and achievement rather than by social comparison to other students in the class. 

Social Comparison

It is this social comparison to others which is detrimental to academic achievement. To illustrate, when the class average is lower than the student’s own academic capabilities, it can send a signal to avoid overdoing their own achievement such that it outstrips the average achievement of the class. ASC and BFLPE have a relationship which shares negative correlations between academic self-concept and class or school average academic achievement. 

Academic Self-Concept

Academic self-concept (ASC) is an important part of students’ own perceptions of their educational capabilities. ASC is also influence by the context in which students find themselves, such as the classroom. BFLPE represents an imbalanced social comparison process or either deliberate or forced. Deliberate social comparisons are considered adaptive such as where a student will align their ASC with other students who fare better in order to improve their own academic outcomes. Forced comparisons, often provided by way of teacher feedback, are those where the comparison is with the entire class and forces a student to position their academic achievement in relation to the rest of the class. Although it is not a volitional decision, the class-average is the source of information students most rely upon for their academic self-concept.

The effect of needs supportive teacher pedagogy

Researchers (Gilbert et al., 2022) have found that teacher pedagogy which is supportive of students’ psychological needs helps to remove the negative associations of class-average levels of achievement on high-achieving students’ ASC. This is achieved through pedagogical practices which aim to focus student’s achievement on their individual experience and to minimise the use and impact of social comparison. These needs supportive experiences with the teacher include being understood and feeling connected, tenants of psychological needs support (Chen et al., 2014) are found to improve ASC and furthermore, act as a protective factor against negative effect of class-average levels of achievement on student’s ASC. 

Psychological needs support

Psychological needs support of students more generally, has been found to enable students to perceive there are more academically capable and believe in their future potential (Jang et al., 2010; Reeve & Jang, 2006; Reeve et al., 2004). Finding contextual moderators of BFLPE help academically capable students reach their potential by minimising the negative associations typically found in the social comparison dynamics in schools and classrooms. Needs supportive teaching practices foster optimal learning contexts that encourages students to use their own improvements as benchmarks for ASC.

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Chen, B., Vansteenkiste, M., Beyers, W., Boone, L., Deci, E., Van der Kaap-Deeder, J., Duriez, B., Lens, W., Matos, L., Mouratidis, A., Ryan, R., Sheldon, K., Soenens, B., Van Petegem, S., & Verstuyf, J. (2014). Basic psychological need satisfaction, need frustration, and need strength across four cultures. Motivation and Emotion, 1-21.

Gilbert, W., Guay, F., & Morin, A. J. S. (2022). Can teachers’ need-supportive practices moderate the big-fish-little-pond effect? A quasi-experimental study with elementary school children. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 69, 102060.

Jang, H., Reeve, J., & Deci, E. L. (2010). Engaging students in learning activities: It is not autonomy support or structure but autonomy support and structure. Journal of Educational Psychology, 102(3), 588-600.

Reeve, J., & Jang, H. (2006). What teachers say and do to support students’ autonomy during a learning activity. Journal of Educational Psychology, 98(1), 209-218.

Reeve, J., Jang, H., Carrell, D., Jeon, S., & Barch, J. (2004). Enhancing students’ engagement by increasing teachers’ autonomy support. Motivation and Emotion, 28(2), 147-169. 

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