How expectations affect exam scores

A largish study

  • confirms that college students tend to be over-confident about their academic success
  • supports some findings that female students are more realistic in their predictions of performance
  • finds that undergraduates can improve their expectations through repeated exam taking
  • finds that over-confidence is associated with higher performance
  • supports the theory that over-confidence motivates students to study harder.

There has been quite a lot of research into the relationship between students’ expectations and academic performance. It’s fairly well-established that students tend to have inflated expectations of their performance, but the effect of this has been disputed. Does over-confidence discourage students from preparing for exams, or do high expectations motivate students to study harder? A largish study has investigated this question.

The study involved 592 second-year students taking a statistics course at the HSE International College of Economics and Finance in Moscow. The students take three written exams during the course of the year, with each exam being divided into two parts of 80 minutes by a small break. Researchers surveyed the students during these breaks to see what final scores they were expecting. Students were encouraged to take their best guess by the promise that reasonably close predictions would be rewarded with an extra point on their score. Exams were marked out of 100 (rather than with a broad letter grade).

Students’ ability was assessed using previous grades in mathematics and statistics, first-year GPA, second-year homework, and performance on the previous exam.

The study found that, given similar ability, students who expected higher scores did actually attain them, supporting the idea that high expectations motivate students to work harder.

Consistent with previous research, students (of both genders) were overwhelmingly inclined to overestimate their abilities. However, with each passing exam, their predictions become more accurate. Overall, female students tended to be more realistic in their expectations, and faster to learn from each exam.

The researchers suggest the finding supports giving tests at the beginning of a course so that students are able to adapt their expectations more quickly. Note, however, that these exams covered cumulative knowledge. Courses where exams cover different, unrelated, material each time, will probably not see the same benefit.

https://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2018-01/nruh-hei012418.php

Full text available at https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2017.02346/full

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