A massive analysis of some 350,000 students in 53 countries has uncovered a paradox: Students in many countries that are mediocre at science have an inflated sense of how good they are.
If you're a student at the halfway point of the academic year, and you've just taken stock of your performance, perhaps you have reason to feel proud of yourself.
But a recent study suggests some of the pride you feel at having done well — especially in science — may be unfounded. Or at least your sense of your performance may not be a very accurate picture of how good you actually are.
A massive analysis of some 350,000 students at nearly 14,000 schools in 53 countries has uncovered a paradox: Students in many countries that are mediocre at science have an inflated sense of good they are.
First the good news: The United States isn't among the worst offenders. Students in countries such as Thailand, Jordan, Mexico and Brazil seem to be worse than U.S. students when it comes to science knowledge, but they have even higher levels of self-esteem when it comes to their beliefs about how good they are at science.
But compared to countries such as New Zealand, Australia, Sweden, Japan, South Korea and Great Britain, American students appeared to have an inflated sense of their science abilities. Students in those other countries were better when it came to scientific knowledge than American students, but it was the Americans who had the higher opinion of themselves as students of science.
The study, published in the Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, focused on the academic performance of 15 year-old students. It was conducted by Eva Van de gaer, Aletta Grisay, Wolfram Schulz and Eveline Gebhardt.
The paradox between performance and students' impression of their performance has been noted before. The paper proposes an explanation for it: The reference group effect.
The study argues that countries have very different standards when it comes to science education.
In countries with elite science education standards, you can be a very good science student but, since you measure yourself against an elite standard of performance, you think of yourself as mediocre. On the other hand, if you live in a country with average (or mediocre) science standards, you might be just a decent student, but compared to general expectations of how good students are supposed to be, you feel like a genius.
In an interview, Schulz offered me an analogy. He asked me to think about a person who was 5-foot-10 in China and a person who was the same height in the Netherlands. The Dutch, on average, are taller than the Chinese.
"The person would in China probably think of themselves as a tall person," Schulz said. "If you go to the Netherlands, such a person would rather say, 'ah, I'm a short person,' because you compare yourself to those who surround you."
The same thing happens with science education, he said. Students in countries with elite science standards are much more likely to think of themselves as mediocre, whereas students in countries with mediocre standards are much more likely to think of themselves as elite.
Schulz works at the Australian Council for Educational Research, which studies educational issues in science, mathematics and reading.
Schulz told me the reference group effect could potentially be a double-edged sword: In terms of preparing students for competition with one another, it makes good sense to get a realistic sense of how good you actually are compared to, say, your peers in South Korea. On the other hand, Schulz said, there was also something to be said for having an inflated sense of your own abilities.
"For motivating students to take up science studies, how you perceive yourself is actually more important than how much you know," he said. "If your general belief (is) you're not that good at science, that might have this powerful effect of saying, 'Ah, I'd better stay away from it in the future.' "