I recently found myself hanging from a trapeze, gripping for dear life to circus silks, and juggling. This workshop was a part of Staff Wellbeing Week, and really got me out of my comfort zone.

While I managed the trapeze and the silks, it’s the juggling that got to me. People around me seemed to be coping with having their balls in the air, while mine were nowhere near my hands. Plop- plop. I’ll never manage to have them all in the air at the same time! It’s just not my thing.

Enter defensive pessimism and self-handicapping!

When learning something new we are often afraid to fail. This fear can be overwhelming for some of us and we will adopt some dodgy strategies to help us cope with it. Students are no different. In fact, they often find themselves swept by some strong emotions that hinder their learning, so as educators we need to be aware of the coping mechanisms that students rely on and help students adopt more useful strategies.  

Probably the worst strategy that many students (and people in general) use is self-handicapping. Some people get overwhelming urges to clean the house, go see a friend/relative or get a medical check-up when they really need to be working on their assignment. This happens because when worried about failure, some students find comfort in creating a situation when they can say “I failed not because I lack ability, but because I was too busy and I needed to clean the house”. This thought is much easier to cope with than ‘I am worthless’ ( see Martin, Marsh, Williamson, & Debus, 2003 for details).  

Low expectations (or defensive pessimism as it’s known) is another common coping strategy “I might get a pass if I’m lucky, but I think I’ll fail”.  Martin et al (2003) report that there are some students who always expect to fail, and their university experience is truly painful.

While protective in the short-term, these strategies are dangerous both for the student, and students around them, as they can lead to learnt helplessness.  

So what can we educators do?

Fist of all, we can give better feedback, as noncontingent or inconsistent feedback is one of the reasons why students feel the lack of control (Perry & Dickens, 1988; Thompson, 1994). 

Another condition that may trigger self-handicapping and defensive pessimism is classroom competition. Cooperative and collaborative learning is much ‘healthier’ for students who tend to self-handicap, so we need to be careful when we consider using competition in the classroom.

And call it out! Talk to students about self-handicapping and defensive pessimism and if necessary refer them to Campus Wellbeing, where they can see one of our Uni counsellors. It can make a huge difference to their studies … and life!

Martin, A. J., Marsh, H. W., Williamson, A., & Debus, R. L. (2003). Self-handicapping, defensive pessimism, and goal orientation: A qualitative study of university students. Journal of Educational Psychology, 95(3), 617.

Perry, R. P., & Penner, K. S. (1990). Enhancing academic achievement in college students through attributional retraining and instruction. Journal of Educational Psychology, 82, 262–271.

Thompson, T. (1994). Self-worth protection: Review and implications for the classroom. Educational Review, 46, 259–274.

Posted by Olga Kozar

I'm a 'long-term' Mq girl. I did my PhD here and taught different courses, ranging from undergrad to PhD students. I then joined the Learning Innovation Hub, which I love. I'm passionate about good learning and teaching. Give me a shout if I can assist you in any way.

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