Student 'personal bests' more effective than My School comparisons

27 May 2010

Building on ground-breaking 2006 research, a new study by the University of Sydney has confirmed the importance of school students setting and pursuing 'personal bests' (PBs) in achieving academic success.

The study - published in the latest issue of the international journal, Learning and Individual Differences - also offers a new approach for educators and parents to motivate and inspire struggling students and to challenge and engage high achievers.

This longitudinal study, conducted by Professor Andrew Martin and Dr Gregory Liem at the Faculty of Education and Social Work, involved 1866 Australian high school students. Over the course of a year, students were assessed on their academic personal best approach to school and schoolwork. They were also assessed on numerous measures of academic motivation, engagement, and achievement.

The results of the study showed that students who pursued academic PBs were significantly more likely to achieve at a higher level, complete homework, participate in class, enjoy school, hold positive educational aspirations, and persist at school tasks longer.

"We are very excited by these results," Professor Martin commented, "because they confirm the benefits of PBs over time - that pursuing PBs in one year can have significant and positive reach into a student's academic life today and also one year later."

"Also, in the age of My School with explicit emphasis on school comparisons, these results are a timely reminder that genuine educational progress is when individual students strive to reach and attain personal excellence," Professor Martin said.

The findings mean that girls and boys benefit from positively adjusting their expectations of success based on their previous academic personal best, and motivating themselves by attempting to beat that prior PB.

"The study shows that there is real educational merit in encouraging students to compete with themselves - more than compete with others," Professor Martin said. "That way we retain the energising properties of competition but eliminate the often counterproductive and dispiriting process of excessive comparisons with others."

These results hold important implications for educational interventions aimed at improving students' engagement and achievement at school, because PB interventions might help students to set achievable academic goals for themselves and help give struggling students a more effective and inspiring way of doing well at school. Findings are also relevant to high achievers who often outperform lots of other students but who might not be working to personal potential or capacity.

"What more can we ask of a student than to strive for personal excellence?" says Professor Martin. "Schools, teachers, and parents that actively instil and sustain this orientation to school and schoolwork will not only be assisting academic outcomes, but also teaching a valuable orientation to life more generally."

PB student and teacher worksheets can be downloaded for free at the Lifelong Achievement website.

Media inquiries: Stephanie Whitelock, 9351 2261, 0401 711 361,