The Meritocratic Learning Environment and Perceptions of the Self

How important is the learning environment on student achievement, student self-esteem,a and even self-concept?  The values and goals of those within your academic environment can have an enormous effect on your perceptions of your self.  I have experienced this at so many levels but the one that comes to mind is my undergraduate education.  Although I was a Music Ed major who wanted nothing more than to teach music, I was at a primarily performance major school.  The emphasis on performance did quite a number on me, to the point that I still have insecurities about my own abilities on my instruments.  I was so lucky to have the experiences I had at that school, but at the same time, the emphasis on perfection has caused a second-guessing of sorts of my own abilities since I was never as good as them!  Well, tonight I want to discuss the importance of the learning environment on student self-concept, self-esteem, and academic achievement.

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Before we jump into this, it might be helpful to gain further understanding in our three variables as we often use self-concept and self-esteem synonymously:

Academic achievement: student achievement through school as measured by grades and standardized test scores

Self-concept: a student’s self-evaluation within a specific domain or ability within a specific area (this may sometimes be referred to as “domain specific self-concept” or “academic self-concept” if in an academic field)

Self-esteem: the  global perception of the self as a person as measured by abstract and global values

A 2006 article on the effects of learning environment on the self conducted a longitudinal study with students from East and West Germany.  Before the reunification of East and West Germany, the school systems worked in different ways.  The schools in East Germany were meritocratic whereas the schools in West Germany were EgoProtective.  Here are the main differences between the two:

Meritocracy (East Germany):

  • emphasis on importance of achievement
  • values effort as the primary role in achievement
  • merits of a student through achievement and effort are visible to classmates
  • use social comparison to encourage students to excel

EgoProtective (West Germany):

  • less emphasis on academic success or failure
  • minor social comparison
  • private feedback
  • academic success and failure can be attributed to things beyond students’ control (difficulty of task, ingratiation, luck, etc.)

While this study took place after the reunification, most of the teachers from the two regions were still in place and still had great influence over environment.  The findings of this study showed a stronger relationship between higher academic self-concept leading to higher global self-esteem` with East German students than for West German students.  Additionally, higher achievement often led to higher self-esteem at later times.  This study also found significant effects between self-esteem and mathematics self-concept.  When students had a higher self-esteem, they also had higher mathematics self-concept and when they had lower self-esteem, they had lower mathematics self-concept.

Perhaps the most important findings within this study included support for the meritocratic learning environment.  Students in the East German schools showed significant effects on self-esteem in that high academic self-concept = high self-esteem.  This does give educators direction as we work to build environments within our classrooms, our schools, and our school systems.  Perhaps there is greater merit in meritocratic learning environments than we previously believed.

Also, it is important to note that while this study does promote a meritocratic environment, we must realize that innate ability, luck, money, family situation, SES!, and many other things may greatly influence student achievement and must not be overlooked.  I do think this study is interesting, but I am not yet on board with a meritocratic system.

Trautwein, U., Lüdtke, O., Köller, O., & Baumert, J. (2006). Self-Esteem, Academic Self-Concept, and Achievement: How the Learning Environment Moderates the Dynamics of Self-Concept. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 90(2), 334–349.

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