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  • Writer's pictureAnna Widlund

Can students' feelings towards school predict changes in their performance over time?

Updated: Sep 21, 2022

It has been well established that students' well-being and their performance in school seem to go hand in hand - students who perform well tend to also like and be highly engaged in school, and typically do not experience exhaustion and negative feelings towards school. However, most previous studies have been cross-sectional, and thus, offer limited evidence in terms of causation. In one of our recent studies (Widlund et al., 2022), we aimed to further our understanding of the long-term associations between students' school well-being and their performance by investigating if changes in students' well-being can, in fact, predict changes in students' performance over time, and/or vice versa.

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If students do not have enough resources to cope with increasing demands, it may result in negative changes in their well-being and educational outcomes.

This study focused on students in lower secondary school (i.e., grades 7–9). This time-period involves several individual and environmental co-occurring changes and challenges (e.g., entering adolescence and puberty, facing greater academic demands). Seventh-graders have also recently transitioned from elementary to lower secondary education, while ninth-graders are faced with significant decisions regarding their further education and occupation. If students do not have enough individual or contextual resources to cope with these increasing demands, it may result in negative changes in their well-being as well as in their educational outcomes. Therefore, early adolescence seems to be a relevant time-period for studying such developmental dynamics.

Following students across lower secondary education

The data came from a longitudinal research project (FRAM: Adolescents' well-being and learning in future society) led by Johan Korhonen at Åbo Akademi University. This study included 1131 students who were measured four times across secondary education in 2016–2019 (fall and spring in both 7th and 9th grade). At all time points, students completed a standardized mathematics test and an electronic questionnaire measuring their school well-being (i.e., school engagement and burnout). We then used a random intercept cross-lagged panel model to investigate the relations between mathematics performance, school engagement and burnout across all time points.

Reciprocal relationships between school well-being and performance

Our findings revealed that changes in students' mathematics performance and their engagement with schoolwork predicted each other over time. In other words, students who were highly engaged in their schoolwork also progressed better than their peers in mathematics, while high performance also increased students' engagement over time. These findings may not be surprising, as highly engaged students may have more resources to focus and dedicate their time and energy to their schoolwork, leading to continued high engagement and performance, creating a ‘gain spiral’ over time.

Initial high feelings of inadequacy in school predicted negative changes in students' performance.

In contrast, we found that lower performance in mathematics predicted increased levels of both exhaustion and cynicism over time. Such associations were found in the other direction as well, as initial high feelings of inadequacy in school predicted negative changes in students' performance from 7th to 9th grade.

Interestingly, higher exhaustion was associated with higher mathematics performance. This could possibly reflect some of our previous findings, where groups of students have been identified that both perform well in school, are highly motivated, yet experience elevated levels of exhaustion (Tuominen-Soini & Salmela-Aro, 2014; Widlund et al., 2018). Some students may feel exhausted by school, potentially as a cost of having high school values and ambitious aspirations and might, therefore, result in higher performance. However, although exhaustion may contribute to higher performance for some at the beginning of adolescence, this association dissipated in 9th grade. Over time, prolonged feelings of exhaustion may stop functioning as a positive predictor and have negative consequences for students' performance later on. Consequently, despite these positive effects, students' elevated levels of exhaustion in school should be taken seriously, particularly as it may develop into more serious mental health problems, if prolonged.

Both well-being and performance need to be supported in schools

To summarize, our findings highlight that students' positive and negative views and feelings towards school may affect their performance in mathematics over time. Reciprocal relationships were detected between engagement and burnout already at the beginning of adolescence, while the relations between students' performance and school well-being seemed to become more prominent during the later years of lower secondary education. Nevertheless, negative effects of school burnout on students' performance were found both within the school years and more long-term. Therefore, it would be important to implement resources to support students' academic well-being early on in the school years. Schools should, for example, make student welfare services (i.e., school psychologists and health care) easily available and focus on enhancing adequate coping strategies for students, to help them prevent and handle possible feelings of burnout.

Our article is open access and you can read it from here:

Widlund, A., Tuominen, H., & Korhonen, J. (2022). Reciprocal effects of mathematics performance, school engagement and burnout during adolescence. British Journal of Educational Psychology.

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