Why student self-perception is key to exam success

This article is part two of the John Hattie series of articles.

In social psychology, self-perception is the view an individual forms of themselves based on their behaviours. For example, if you have a student who completes homework without fail every time, they might perceive themselves as a diligent. The behaviour precedes and influences how that student views themselves.

Many teachers will know of the work of John Hattie, globally renowned professor of education, and the current Director of the Melbourne Education Research Institute at the University of Melbourne.

In the first article in this series, we looked at the assessment strategies outlined in his research with the highest impact on student achievement.

At the very top of the list came self-reported grades or student expectations. This is directly related to how students see themselves and what they expect to achieve.

With this in mind, how can teachers work with students to improve the expectations they have of themselves? And how does this relate to exam success?


The psychology of positive self-perception

The findings of Hattie’s research indicate a direct correlation between a student’s overall achievement and the expectations they have of themselves.

If a student expects to receive a higher grade, they are more likely to do so, and the same applies for those who expect a lower grade.

Research by psychologist Pamela Davis-Kean shows that a child’s self-concept of ability can be formed as early as age 8, and is directly linked to academic achievement in adolescence.

When student self-perceptions may have long-term outcomes, this has real implications for both teachers and parents in their use of language and how they communicate expectations. 


Improving students’ self-perception

While self-perception is not set in stone, it does tend to be more malleable when people are younger and still developing psychologically.

The following suggestions might be helpful for working on self-perception with your students, and could help to boost achievement in the process:


1. Review strengths and weaknesses in a subject

When students have an understanding of where their strengths and weaknesses lie, they can build confidence when approaching questions they know how to answer, and focus their class time working on the more challenging areas. This is particularly helpful if a student is stuck in the belief that they are destined to fail in your subject. You can encourage them to first complete a few problems that they do understand, and help them to build positive momentum towards better self-perception of their ability.


2. Reflect on progress through the year

Reflection could take the form of a quick exercise at the end of a lesson, where students answer the following questions:

  • What are your current strengths and weaknesses in this subject?
  • How are you finding the subject this year?  Are you enjoying it and is it meeting your expectations?
  • Do you feel confident coming in to class?  If not, can you explain why?
  • How well do you think you’ll do in this subject?
  • Are you happy with this?  Try to explain your answer.
  • Having students write down their responses with a pen and paper will also help them to organise any thoughts or anxieties that arise.


3. Introduce breathing exercises or meditation

Meditation or a focus on breathing can be a great way to develop a more positive sense of self and harness a student’s potential.

Breathing exercises have been proven to boost achievement by helping students overcome their fear of disappointing results and develop a more positive attitude towards the exam process.


4. Visualise success

Showing students how to visualise success is a proven technique for improving overall outcomes, and a technique that athletes use frequently. This can go hand in hand with meditation or be taught discretely.

For this to work, the pathway to success needs to be made clear to students, no matter where they currently sit on the achievement spectrum. All students should be shown how to get the top marks, and this information made available to them. They need to see what success looks like every day.For more information, you can download the full chart explaining Hattie’s findings here.


Neap has been active in the education community for over 30 years, with an established reputation for producing high quality materials for VCE and HSC. We are driven to deliver assessment materials that teachers can trust for their accuracy, level of complexity and adherence to the curriculum.

This article is authored by Sophia Wichtowska, an experienced writer and English teacher with a Masters in Education from the University of Cambridge. She enjoys writing about learning and passing on knowledge to others.