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Bad Grades Can Actually Be Good

Everyone has been there. You study extremely hard for a test or quiz and give it 110%, only to get it back a week later and see a grade that is significantly lower than you were expecting. No students likes that blow to their self-esteem, but a recent study by Max Ostinelli, David Luna, and Torsten Ringberg at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, shows that a small drop in morale can actually increase your performance in day-to-day tasks. For the first part of the study, the scientists asked people to imagine elevating in some way, such as moving toward the sky in a glass elevator or in a hot air balloon. Those people were reported to have experienced a small boost in their self-esteem. The subjects were then given a series of challenges to complete, such as SAT math problems, and the researchers found that these people did worse on these problems than they had before receiving the self-esteem boost. Ostinelli explained that when self-esteem is boosted in this way, people are motivated to keep that self-esteem high, and as a result it becomes like a bubble. The subjects did worse because they were afraid that taking on the challenge and popping the bubble.

When the researchers asked people to imagine going down in an elevator, they found that subjects responded exactly opposite from those who imagined the ascending elevator. Ostinelli accounts for this as well. According to him, “Once self esteem is threatened, then people are motivated to recover it. It looks like they’re working harder to prove themselves.”

The gap in performance between those who had their self-esteem artificially boosted and those who had it artificially deflated was between 20 and 30 percent. This study’s conclusion is that for people to work in accordance with their full potential,  it is better to match praise and criticism to the reality of the situation, rather than over-praising or over-criticizing to maximize performance.

What does this mean for students at Columbus Academy? It corresponds directly with what we have been told since middle school. One bad grade is not the end of the world, because failure does not have to be final. Clearly, while we love being praised and rewarded for our work, sometimes it’s necessary to be knocked off our high horse because only then can we see what we are truly capable of.

Written by Sarah Fornshell’15

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