The Big-Fish-Little-Pond Effect (BFLPE) is one of the most influential theories about the formation of students’ self-concept, which refers to their perception of their own abilities in specific disciplines or more general academic areas.
Importantly, this academic self-concept has been found to have positive relations with many desirable educational outcomes, such as: interest, effort, and long-term attainment.
According to the BFLPE, students in selective schools tend to have lower academic self-concepts (ASC) compared to those with similar ability attending less competitive schools. In a nutshell, students’ self-concept related to academics is shaped, not only by their performance, but also by social comparisons with others in their grades, and more generally in their schools. Moreover, research seems to indicate that this BFLPE is an intercultural phenomenon affecting all kinds of students, and this regardless of age.
To verify this hypotheses, Fang et alia (2018) conducted a meta-analysis of 33 different studies carried out between 1984 and 2016 all around the world, and some with very large samples. Their findings do confirm a significant negative effect of both class and school average achievement on student ASC: “students in class / school with an average ability level one standard deviation above the mean have ASC that is 0.28 of a standard deviation below the averga ASC level”.
Interestingly, the team did find a moderating effect of age, with a much stronger effect in high school. Likewise, the influence was more noticeable in verbal than in STEM subjects. Finally, Asian students seemed particularly prone to the BFLPE, which the researchers attribute to the high value placed on academic achievement as well as the emphasis placed on peer comparison and competition in corresponding cultures (China, Singapore, ROC Taiwan).
As a conclusion, the authors note that the negative consequences of being in a more competitive educational setting should not be ignored. Parents who consider sending their children to high-achieving schools or placing them in advanced classes should thus be informed of the potential negative consequence on their ASC. As for educators, understanding how ASC might be influenced by the BFLPE can facilitate the application of appropriate teaching practices. For instance, differentiated instruction strategies can be used to attenuate the negative effect of the BFLPE on ASC.
More generally, these findings reveal the necessity of special education classes or schools: when disadvantaged students are put in regular schools/classes, they are very likely to suffer from low ASC for being small fishes in the big pond.
Fang et alia (2018), “The Big-Fish-Little-Ponf Effect on Academic Self-Oncept: A Meta-Analysis”, Frontiers in Psychology, August 2018.