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Open Access Research article

Big Fish in a Big Pond: a study of academic self concept in first year medical students

Kirsty Jackman1, Ian G Wilson2*, Marjorie Seaton3 and Rhonda G Craven3

Author Affiliations

1 School of Psychology, University of Western Sydney, Locked Bag 1797, Penrith NSW 2571, Australia

2 School of Medicine, University of Western Sydney, Locked Bag 1797, Penrith NSW 2571, Australia

3 Educational Excellence and Equity Research Program, University of Western Sydney, Locked Bag 1797, Penrith NSW 2571, Australia

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BMC Medical Education 2011, 11:48  doi:10.1186/1472-6920-11-48

Published: 27 July 2011

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.