Perfectionism and more able learners Current research and future classroom practice

Professor Andrew Hill (pictured), Luke F. Olsson, Michael C. Grugan and Marianne E. Etherson, York St John University

The need to be or appear perfect pervades all aspects of society. In education, this is evident in that the experiences of many students appear to be underpinned by irrational beliefs that they need to perform perfectly. Perfectionism – an aspect of people’s personality that involves unrealistically high standards and overly critical evaluation – is therefore a particularly important characteristic to examine when considering the experiences of students.

Recent research suggests that perfectionism has become a hidden epidemic among students over the last 30 years, with students now more perfectionistic than ever before. In addition, this complex characteristic has been found to explain a wide range of outcomes among students. On one hand, some aspects of being perfectionistic are related to better academic performance. But, on the other hand, other aspects of perfectionism have been found to be significant sources of psychological distress for students, including burnout and depression.

Regarding more able learners, one interesting study of 10 samples including over 4,000 students found that intellectually gifted students tend to display higher levels of aspects of perfectionism than non-gifted students. One implication is that more able students are potentially at greater risk for mental health and wellbeing issues. This is evident in other research which has found that while more able students perform better academically, they can also be unhappier, lonelier, and have lower self-esteem. Tellingly, this may also be why more able students often respond to failure and setbacks more negatively.

As a consequence of what we have learned from research, it is apparent that more may need to be done to better support perfectionistic more able learners. Critically, if more able learners display signs of mental health difficulties, they need to be referred to a mental health professional. As such, those who work with more able students will need to be able to recognise when this might be the case. Improving mental health literacy among teachers is one way to do so.

There is also a great deal that can be done in regard to preventing mental health difficulties before they arise. We believe that prevention efforts aimed at reducing perfectionism are particularly important in this regard. One new area of research focuses on understanding how the environment created in achievement contexts such as the classroom can be designed in a way to discourage perfectionistic thinking among students. Our work in this area suggests that perfectionistic environments can involve a number of features including unrealistic standards (e.g. demanding extremely high standards regardless of ability), harsh criticism (e.g. fixating on minor mistakes and errors), manipulation and control (e.g. public punishments and rewards to motivate students), and anxiousness (e.g. signalling excessive concern over mistakes).

As awareness of the negative effects of perfectionism for more able learners students increases, there will be a greater emphasis on what teachers can do to support students. We believe that reshaping the classroom climate and making it less perfectionistic is one way teachers can help do so, and combat the hidden epidemic of perfectionism in young students.

The impact of COVID-19

When the COVID-19 pandemic swept across the globe and schools closed, students faced unprecedented change and had to adapt to a new way of learning. Amid increased isolation and overwhelming uncertainty, many students experienced heightened stress and anxiety, and in its aftermath, teachers and educators are cognisant of a potential surge in mental health problems. In particular, the global health crisis will likely be exacerbating the stress, distress and mental health problems of perfectionistic students. As we undergo a period of prolonged uncertainty, students will likely intensify their perfectionistic behaviours as a means to cope and gain some control. Undoubtedly, perfectionists will become further distressed when their expectations are not met.

In the summer term, NACE commissioned York St. John University to develop an online questionnaire to examine the study habits of students whilst at home. Key findings from this survey included:

  • If students are more perfectionistic they are likely to study more but will experience more stress and have mixed ability to manage their learning depending on whether they report difficulty dealing with imperfection.
  • Being better at managing time, effort and the study environment, and feeling like they matter to people (e.g. parents, teachers and peers), were factors related to less stress and more studying.
  • The experiences of more able students have been similar to other students. However, more able students appear better prepared to manage their own study, and to be likely to become more stressed by a sense of not mattering.

Evidently students are experiencing severe disruption to their daily routines and goals, and thus, it is important they reappraise failures and setbacks as opportunities for growth and learn to adopt self-acceptance when goals do not go to plan. Teachers and educators can certainly help implement a sense of self-acceptance and significance and should remain a vital source of contact to calm the uncertainties and doubts of their students. Indeed, the benefits of showing students that they are significant and matter are particularly instrumental amidst the unfolding pandemic.

Read more… This article is based on a series of blog posts written for the NACE website by the Motivation, Performance and Wellbeing (MPaW) research group at York St John University:

Join the conversation… Professor Andrew Hill will lead a keynote session on 17 November 2020 as part of the NACE Leadership Conference, exploring current research on perfectionism and more able learners, and how schools can create learning environments that reduce perfectionistic thinking. View the full conference programme.

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