by Ken N. Meadows
A colleague and I were recently discussing the first year student experience. He wondered if some members of the university community might inadvertently be conveying to first year students that the university is pessimistic about their academic ability. Specifically, my colleague wondered if emphasizing the probable drop in grades from high school to first-year University could be sending this unintentionally pessimistic message. The actual message is undoubtedly intended to help students develop realistic expectations about their academic performance and support their academic self-efficacy but he wondered if that message could also be having this potentially negative consequence.
This conversation led me to do a preliminary literature search on institutional academic optimism. As it turns out, Hoy and colleagues (e.g., Hoy, Tarter, & Woodfolk Hoy, 2006) have conducted considerable research on the academic optimism of primary and secondary schools in the United States. They define academic optimism as a positive academic environment determined by three inter-related variables: academic emphasis (“the extent to which the school is driven by a quest for academic excellence”, p. 427), collective efficacy (“…judgment of teachers that the faculty as a whole can organize and execute the actions required to have a positive effect on the students”, p. 428), and faculty trust in students and parents (“…willingness to be vulnerable to another party based on the confidence that that party is benevolent, reliable, competent, honest, and open” p. 429). They found that institutional academic optimism significantly predicts students’ academic performance over and above students’ previous academic performance and socio-economic status.
Reading the work of Hoy and colleagues (2006) raised a plethora of questions for me. Does the academic optimism concept apply to universities and colleges in Canada? Is academic optimism predictive of students’ academic performance at the post-secondary level? For large-scale institutions like colleges and universities, would the institution be the appropriate level of analysis or would the faculties’ or departments’ academic optimism be more predictive of student performance? Would smaller teaching colleges and universities generally be more academically optimistic than their larger research-intensive counterparts? Does setting realistic performance expectations for first year students have the unintended consequence of sending academically pessimistic messages about the institution?
As always, there are more questions than answers. Of course, that is part of the reason that research is so exciting.
What do you think?
Hoy, W. K., Tarter, C. J., Woolfolk Hoy, A. (2006). Academic optimism of schools: A force for student achievement. American Educational Research Journal, 43, 425-446.