by Muriel Reddy

Personal best allows boys to compete with themselves

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Two leading educational psychologists want to revolutionise how we define achievement in the school years. They want more kids to savour the sweet taste of success by introducing personal best measurements.

“We’re not talking about an ‘all must have prizes’ culture,” says , a senior lecturer in educational psychology at the University of Sydney. “But having a personal best measurement provides a new framework for personalised success.”

The psychology behind their thinking is not new. Setting personal goals have inspired elite athletes to be faster, higher and stronger. Not all of them win gold at the Olympics. But reaching a personal best can be almost as satisfying. “We’re smuggling this idea out of sport and into the academic domain with very positive results,” says Andrew Martin, a professor of educational psychology at the University of NSW.

“But having a personal best measurement provides a new framework for personalised success.”

Dr Paul Ginns

Both academics are now engaged in a three-year study that is looking at what factors predict students’ tendencies to pursue personal best goals. Funded by the Australian Research Council, the study will involve up to 6000 high school students from across the country. They hope the data they collect will yield points on what to address to encourage students to set personal best goals.

One of the drivers behind the study is the comparative approach to student assessment that has been used by Australian schools for decades. While it provides information on where the student sits relative to his year level, it does not provide a comprehensive picture on his individual progress. “They will be given a mark for an essay say, or they will be given a set of marks at the end of the year,” explains Professor Martin. “These are relativistic – they’re an indication of where the student sits relative to other students in the class or year level. A student’s academic life is hundreds and hundreds of snapshots of how he or she performs in the group they’re being compared with. They don’t get a sense of their own personal progress, only how they’re sitting relative to others.

“We found excessive emphasis on these types of assessments can lead to anxiety and fear of failure, stigma and declines in self-esteem. It also can lead to a loss of interest in school.”

“Personal best goals are where we encourage students to look at how they did before and how they can raise the bar to do a bit better next time.”

Professor Martin

Using a personal best approach allows a student to compete with himself. Both academics agree that the ideal approach would be for schools to use the comparative approach to education in tandem with the personal best model. It would also encourage the high achievers to aim higher.

“Personal best goals are where we encourage students to look at how they did before and how they can raise the bar to do a bit better next time, and for schools to acknowledge that,” says Professor Martin. “It personalises success and makes success accessible to all students.”

Muriel Reddy is an Australian author and journalist. This article is about

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