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RESEARCH ARTICLE Open Access
Big Fish in a Big Pond: a study of academic self concept in first year medical students

Abstract

Background: Big-fish-little-pond effect (BFLPE) research has demonstrated that students in high-ability environments have lower academic self-concepts than equally able students in low-ability settings. Research has shown low academic self-concepts to be associated with negative educational outcomes. Social comparison processes have been implicated as fundamental to the BFLPE.

Methods: Twenty first-year students in an Australian medical school completed a survey that included academic self-concept and social comparison measures, before and after their first written assessments. Focus groups were also conducted with a separate group of students to explore students’ perceptions of competence, the medical school environment, and social comparison processes.

Results: The quantitative study did not reveal any changes in academic self-concept or self evaluation. The qualitative study suggested that the attributions that students used when discussing performance were those that have been demonstrated to negatively affect self-concept. Students reported that the environment was slightly competitive and they used social comparison to evaluate their performance.

Conclusions: Although the BFLPE was not evident in the quantitative study, results from the qualitative study suggest that the BFLPE might be operating In that students were using attributions that are associated with lower self-concepts, the environment was slightly competitive, and social comparisons were used for evaluation.

Background
Over the past 25 years, research has demonstrated that
equally able students have lower academic self-concepts
in schools where the average achievement level is higher
than in schools where the average achievement level is
lower [1-3]. Known as the Big-Fish-Little-Pond Effect
(BFLPE), this finding has been replicated in primary
schools [4], high schools [2], and across countries and
cultures [5,6]. Although the BFLPE has also been shown
to have an effect on admission to elite universities [7],
to the knowledge of the authors it has not been explicitly
tested at the university level. The purpose of the
present investigation was to explore whether the BFLPE
[1,2,8,9] could be extended to medical students.

What is Self-Concept and Why is it Important?
Self-concept can be defined as “a person’s sense of self shaped through interaction with the environment and
other people” [10]. A positive self-concept is regarded as important for good mental health, improving academic
achievement [11,12], protecting against becoming a victim
of bullying [13], and is seen as a key aim of education
[14]. Although originally considered to be a
unidimensional construct, Shavelson, Hubner, and Stanton
[10] theorised that self-concept was multidimensional
and hierarchically organised, with a global general
self-concept at the apex and then split into two broader
domains: academic self-concept [e.g. verbal, science] and
non-academic [e.g. social, emotional]. Marsh and Shavelson
[15] further developed this model by splitting the
academic portion into two specific domains: verbal selfconcept and mathematics self-concept. Research has
since documented the multidimensional nature and the
domain specificity of self-concept in academic [9,16], art
[17], and sport [18] settings.

The BFLPE is specific to academic self-concept, a construct
that refers to an individual’s knowledge and perception
of his or her level of competence or ability
within the academic realm [19]. Research has shown
that one’s level of academic self-concept can influence
factors such as course selection, long-term educational
aspirations, educational attainment, academic attainment,
and academic achievement [5,12,20,21]. For example,
Phillips [22] showed that among equally able
students, those with a low academic...
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