Goodman profs research student grade expectations vs. reality

Research by a pair of Brock University professors is examining why there’s often a gap between what grades students think they will get, and what they actually get.

Building on previous research, Goodman School of Business professors Michael Armstrong and Herb MacKenzie set out to answer two questions: what factors contribute to the difference between student grade expectations and reality; and what it takes to cause students to change their study habits.

Armstrong first started researching the issue a number of years ago when he realized there were often students telling him they intended to finish a course with high grades even though they had struggled throughout the year leading up to the final exam.

He would often think to himself ‘Well, yes, technically that’s possible if you pull off an 80 per cent on your final, but chances are you won’t be getting that 80 if you’ve been scoring 40 per cent on your quizzes.’

“I know this, but maybe they don’t. Maybe I should tell them, but would that really sink in? Would they really believe it?” Armstrong said.

To help his students get a more realistic view of where they stand and what their academic goals should be, the professor started researching the difference between the grades university students expected to get and what they actually got.

The associate professor of Finance, Operations and Information Systems created a computer program that forecasts the marks students will earn on their final exam based on what they scored in assignments and tests.

Data was collected from 144 Goodman School of Business students and, of these, 29 per cent reported that their forecasted grades were lower than expected, while six per cent said the forecasts were higher than expected.

But Armstrong noticed something rather odd from the results of that study, A Preliminary Study of Grade Forecasting by Students,” published April 2013 in the journal Decision Sciences: Journal of Innovative Education.

He expected the students who were surprised by the forecasted marks would change their study habits in an effort to get a better grade, but it didn’t happen.

Intrigued, Armstrong and MacKenzie, associate professor of Marketing, International Business and Strategy, decided to take the earlier research one step further. In January their paper, “Influence of anticipated and actual grades on studying intentions,” was published in the International Journal of Management Education.

The researchers had 278 first-year business students fill out two surveys that were more detailed than the survey used in the 2013 study. These surveys included additional questions such as their high school grades, demographics and a personality test that measures how much people feel in control of their lives.

The students’ high school grade average was 83 per cent and they set an average target grade of 77 per cent in the first-year business course they were taking.

By Week 8 of the course, the group’s average was 63 per cent, and it dropped to 61 per cent by the end of the course.

Armstrong says previous education research has shown that students generally tend to overestimate their abilities, especially at the start of a university education.

“We’re naturally optimistic as human beings,” says Armstrong. “We don’t necessarily have feedback that would actually tell us how we performed, so we kind-of say, ‘Well, I don’t know but I think I’m pretty good.’”

As expected, the students said they would increase their studying if their grades were lower than the target grades that they had set for themselves.

But, like in the first study, the grades that Armstrong’s computer program forecasted had no effect on whether or not students would change their study habits.

“We don’t yet know why this is,” he said. “Perhaps they might not believe the forecast or they might think, ‘even if the forecast is reliable for an average student, it’s not reliable for me.’”

Other findings include:

  • students with the most unrealistic grade expectations in the beginning of the course still have unrealistic expectations at the end
  • confident students — that is, those with higher scores on the personal control test — set higher grade targets but generally don’t achieve these higher targets
  • accomplished students — that is, those with higher high school averages — are less likely to overestimate the grades they can reach

Armstrong says he hopes the research results will help guidance counsellors and parents to help high school graduates better prepare for university.

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