“Big-fish-little-pond” is a concept well known among education professionals: As the theory goes, students in higher-achieving schools will compare themselves with their peers and consider themselves less capable, while equally performing students in lower-achieving settings have more confidence.
The effect appears in all subjects, from math to science to history, and at all levels of education. Low-income and high-income students exhibit it. Countries all around the world see it.
While the phenomenon has been observed in many studies over the years, no large-scale, cross-national analysis credibly showed causation. There was always the possibility, then, that another factor, such as an unobserved trait of individual students or their parents, explained why students in high-performing schools exhibited more self-doubt.
Now, a team of researchers led by Prashant Loyalka, an assistant professor at Stanford Graduate School of Education, has found a direct link between highly competitive programs and students’ negative self-concepts. In a study published in the November 2018 issue of Comparative Education Review, they provide the strongest evidence yet that the big-fish-little-pond effect exists.
Moreover, Loyalka’s analysis reaffirms what previous studies suggested: The phenomenon affects girls and boys equally and across all countries — wealthy or poor, big or small.
“This study tells us, in a meaningful way, what education psychologists have long suspected,” Loyalka said. “As humans, we have a tendency to compare ourselves to others in terms of our abilities and, because of that, we tend to feel better or worse about ourselves. It is fundamental to who we are.”
The concept of the big-fish-little-pond effect dates to the mid-1980s. The theory refers to how students think of themselves as learners, or their “academic self-concept.” Researchers have observed that when you are a “big fish” (high-achieving student) in a “little pond” (lower-achieving school), you have more positive academic self-concept. Conversely, when equally talented students (little fish) are in high-achieving environments (big pond), they compare themselves to their peers and conclude they don’t measure up.
Academic self-concept is important to student outcomes. Research has shown that it affects how well students do in school, their attitudes about the classroom and their placement in more advanced programs.
The theory made so much sense and scholars found such consistent correlations across countries, subjects, genders and income levels that it was treated as established fact. A few small studies showed causation, but none attempted to do so in a generalizable way.
“Everybody just agreed that the effect existed,” said Loyalka, who is also a fellow at Stanford’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies.
But showing causation in education research is especially critical as policymakers, school administrators, teachers and parents grapple with decisions about how best to allocate money to programs, improve teaching, and identify schools that are the right fit.
“We have a tendency to compare ourselves to others in terms of our abilities and, because of that, we tend to feel better or worse about ourselves. It is fundamental to who we are.”
— Prashant Loyalka, Assistant Professor, Stanford Graduate School of Education
A gender difference ruled out
To conduct their study, Loyalka and his coauthors, Andrey Zakharov and Yulia Kuzmina of Russia’s Higher School of Economics, set out to eliminate as many explanations for differences in academic self-concept as possible.
To do that, they relied on a statistical approach developed in 2005 by Stanford GSE professor Thomas S. Dee. Called a cross-subject student-fixed effects model, it allowed Loyalka to get around many of the challenges inherent in studies that try to isolate the effect of a particular factor. They did this by evaluating the academic self-concepts of individual students in two different contexts — in this case, math versus science.
“In this way, we could theoretically control for an infinite number of factors that could confound the relationship between the ability of their peers and how students feel about how they do in school,” said Loyalka.
The researchers then applied the model to a commonly used data set known as the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS). Based on 2011 results, Loyalka and his team evaluated nearly 200,000 eighth-grade students in 33 countries or regions, ranging from the United States and Norway to South Africa and the United Arab Emirates. The TIMSS data include test scores in math and science as well as measures of academic self-concept.
The scholars found that, in high-achieving schools throughout the countries studied, when students compared themselves, separately, with their math and science classmates, they had less confidence in both subjects. Students in lower-achieving schools showed the opposite effect.
Loyalka also found that boys were just as likely as girls to exhibit the effect. The finding is notable because researchers have theorized that gender differences in the big-fish-little-pond effect might be especially large in STEM subjects. Girls, Loyalka said, tend to think poorly of their abilities in math and science, and might be influenced to a greater extent by negative stereotypes and other people’s judgments about their abilities.
“There are other things happening that explain gender differences in the classroom, but it’s not the big-fish-little-pond effect,” said Loyalka. “The fact that the effect doesn’t differ by gender means it’s something that is fundamentally human.”
Loyalka cautioned against overestimating the effect’s impact on students at competitive schools. The benefits of attending a selective can outweigh any negatives. Even so, Loyalka said, it’s important to remember there are trade-offs and that students might require additional support to keep up their confidence.
“There can be negative psychological consequences,” said Loyalka, “when you’re surrounded by high performers.”
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