Skip to main content
Log in

Academic self-concept formation: testing the internal/external frame of reference model, big-fish-little-pond model, and an integrated model at the end of primary school

  • Published:
European Journal of Psychology of Education Aims and scope Submit manuscript

Abstract

Given the significant role that academic self-concept plays in students’ learning, understanding the psychological processes involved in its formation continues to be an important focus of enquiry. There is strong empirical support for two major models of academic self-concept (ASC) formation: the big-fish-little-pond (BFLP) model and the internal/external frame of reference model (I/E model), models which emphasise the roles of social and dimensional comparisons in ASC development. The present study aimed to contribute to an emerging body of evidence on the validity of a model that integrates the predictions of the BFLP and I/E models into a unified framework. Models were tested in the domains of reading and mathematics using data from a nationally representative sample of 4166 grade 6 students in 220 classes in Ireland. Central predictions of the BFLP and I/E models held when tested in combination. Specifically, individual achievement in one domain had a significant positive effect on self-concept in that domain and a negative effect on self-concept in the other domain. Additionally, class-level achievement in a given domain was negatively related to self-concept in that domain, after accounting for the effect of individual achievement. Findings support the hypothesis that social and dimensional comparisons have effects on the academic self-concepts of primary school children.

This is a preview of subscription content, log in via an institution to check access.

Access this article

Subscribe and save

Springer+ Basic
EUR 32.99 /Month
  • Get 10 units per month
  • Download Article/Chapter or Ebook
  • 1 Unit = 1 Article or 1 Chapter
  • Cancel anytime
Subscribe now

Buy Now

Price excludes VAT (USA)
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.

Instant access to the full article PDF.

Fig. 1
Fig. 2
Fig. 3
Fig. 4

Similar content being viewed by others

Notes

  1. The term ‘effect’ is used in a statistical sense only. The analyses presented do not allow causality to be inferred.

  2. The reading test was administered in English only. A small number of schools in the sample taught through the medium of Irish, and in these schools, bilingual versions (English and Irish) of the mathematics test were administered.

  3. In Ireland, medical cards entitle the bearer to access medical care that is free at the point of use. In most cases, medical cards are granted on the basis of low income, and so, medical card possession is frequently used as a (crude) indicator of socioeconomic disadvantage.

  4. In order to explore the feasibility of reducing the length of the grade six test booklets in future national assessments, shortened versions of the mathematics test forms containing two blocks of items were administered to pupils in a random subset of participating schools.

  5. The fit of measurement models in which loadings were constrained to equality across levels did not differ significantly from the fit of models in which they were free to vary (for reading self-concept: Δ CFI = − .004, Δ TLI = − .001, Δ RMSEA = .001; for mathematics self-concept: Δ CFI = .000, Δ TLI = − .004, Δ RMSEA = .004).

  6. Although chi-square values are reported here, the sensitivity of that statistic to sample size should be noted given the relatively large sample in the present investigation. As chi-square is almost always statistically significant in models with more than 400 cases (Kenny 2015), this statistic was only used to reject models if other fit statistics also indicated poor model fit.

References

  • Chiu, M.-S. (2012). The internal/external frame of reference model, big-fish-little-pond effect, and combined model for mathematics and science. Journal of Educational Psychology, 104(1), 87–107. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0025734.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Cohen, J. (1988). Statistical power analysis for the behavioral sciences (2nd ed.). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Earlbaum Associates.

    Google Scholar 

  • Cosgrove, J., & Creaven, A.-M. (2013). Understanding achievement in PIRLS and TIMSS 2011. In E. Eivers & A. Clerkin (Eds.), National schools, international contexts: beyond the PIRLS and TIMSS test results (pp. 201–239). Dublin: Educational Research Centre.

    Google Scholar 

  • Eccles, J. (2009). Who am I and what am I going to do with my life? Personal and collective identities as motivators of action. Educational Psychologist, 44(2), 78–89. https://doi.org/10.1080/00461520902832368.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Educational Research Centre. (2008). Framework for the 2009 National Assessment of English Reading. Dublin: Author.

    Google Scholar 

  • Ehm, J. H., Lindberg, S., & Hasselhorn, M. (2014). Reading, writing, and math self-concept in elementary school children: influence of dimensional comparison process. European Journal of Psychology of Education, 29(2), 277–294.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Eivers, E., Close, S., Shiel, G., Millar, M., Clerkin, A., Gilleece, L., & Kiniry, J. (2010). The 2009 National Assessments of Mathematics and English Reading. Dublin: Educational Research Centre.

    Google Scholar 

  • Gilleece, L. (2014). Understanding achievement differences between schools in Ireland – can existing data-sets help? Irish Educational Studies, 33(1), 75–98.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Guay, F., Marsh, H. W., & Boivin, M. (2003). Academic self-concept and academic achievement: developmental perspectives on their causal ordering. Journal of Educational Psychology, 95(1), 124–136. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-0663.95.1.124.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Guay, F., Larose, S., & Boivin, M. (2004). Academic self-concept and educational attainment level: a ten-year longitudinal study. Self and Identity, 3(1), 53–68. https://doi.org/10.1080/13576500342000040.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Hu, L., & Bentler, P. M. (1999). Cutoff criterial for fit indexes in covariance structure analysis: conventional criteria versus new alternatives. Structural Equation Modelling, 6(1), 1–55. https://doi.org/10.1080/10705519909540118.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Kavanagh, L., Shiel, G., Gilleece, L., & Kiniry, J. (2015). The 2014 National Assessments of English Reading and Mathematics. Volume 2: Context report. Dublin: Educational Research Centre.

  • Kavanagh, L., Weir, S. & Moran, E. (2017). The evaluation of DEIS: Monitoring achievement and attitudes among urban primary pupils, 2007 – 2016. Dublin: Educational Research Centre.

  • Kenny, D.A. (2015). Measuring model fit. Retrieved from http://www.davidakenny.net/cm/fit.htm. Accessed 1 Mar 2018.

  • Lohbeck, A., & Möller, J. (2017). Social and dimensional comparison effects on math and reading self-concepts of elementary school children. Learning and Individual Differences, 54, 73–81.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Marsh, H. W. (1986). Verbal and math self-concepts: an internal/external frame of reference model. American Educational Research Journal, 23(1), 129–149. https://doi.org/10.2307/1163048.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Marsh, H. W. (1987). The big-fish-little-pond effect on ASC. Journal of Educational Psychology, 79(3), 280–295.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Marsh, H. W. (2007). Self-concept theory, measurement and research into practice: the role of self-concept in educational psychology. Leicester: British Psychological Society.

    Google Scholar 

  • Marsh, H. W., & Hau, L. (2003). Big-fish-little-pond effect on academic self-concept. A cross-cultural (26-country) test of the negative effects of academically selective schools. American Psychologist, 58(5), 364–276.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Marsh, H. W., & Hau, K.-T. (2004). Explaining paradoxical relations between academic self-concepts and achievements: cross-cultural generalizability of the internal/external frame of reference predictions across 26 countries. Journal of Educational Psychology, 96(1), 56–67. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-0663.96.1.56.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Marsh, H. W., & Martin, A. J. (2011). Academic self-concept and academic achievement: relations and causal ordering. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 81(1), 59–77.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Marsh, H., Trautwein, U., Lüdtke, O., & Köller, O. (2007). Big fish little pond effect: persistent negative effects of selective high schools on self-concept after graduation. American Educational Research Journal, 44(3), 631–669.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Marsh, H. W., Kuyper, H., Seaton, M., Parker, P. D., Morin, A. J. S., Möller, J., & Abduljabbar, A. S. (2014). Dimensional comparison theory: an extension of the internal/external frame of reference effect on academic self-concept formation. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 39(4), 326–341. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cedpsych.2014.08.003.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Marsh, H. W., Abduljabbar, A. S., Morin, A. J. S., Parker, P., Abdelfattah, F., Nagengast, B., & Abu-Hilal, M. M. (2015). The big-fish-little-pond-effect: generalizability of social comparison processes over two age cohorts from Western, Asian, and Middle Eastern Islamic countries. Journal of Educational Psychology, 107(1), 258–271. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0037485.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Möller, J., Streblow, L., Pohlmann, B., & Köller, O. (2006). An extension to the internal/external frame of reference model to two verbal and numerical domains. European Journal of Psychology of Education, 21(4), 467–487.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Möller, J., Pohlmann, B., Köller, O., & Marsh, H. W. (2009). A meta-analytic path analysis of the internal/external frame of reference model of academic achievement and academic self-concept. Review of Educational Research, 79(3), 1129–1167.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Möller, J., Retelsdorf, J., Köller, O., & Marsh, H. W. (2011). The reciprocal internal/external frame of reference model: an integration of models of relations between academic achievement and self-concept. American Educational Research Journal, 48(6), 1315–1346. https://doi.org/10.3102/0002831211419649.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Möller, J., Zimmerman, F., & Köller, O. (2014). The reciprocal internal/external frame of reference model using grades and test scores. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 84(4), 591–611. https://doi.org/10.1111/bjep.12047.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Muthén, L. K., & Muthén, B. O. (1998-2015). Mplus user’s guide (7th ed.). Los Angeles: Muthén & Muthén.

    Google Scholar 

  • Nagengast, B., & Marsh, H. W. (2012). Big fish in little ponds aspire more: mediation and cross-cultural generalizability of school-average ability effects on self-concept and career aspirations in science. Journal of Educational Psychology, 104(4), 1033–1053. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0027697.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Nagy, G., Trautwein, U., Baumert, J., Köller, O., & Garrett, J. (2007). Gender and course selection in upper secondary education: effects of academic self-concept and intrinsic value. Educational Research and Evaluation, 12(4), 323–345. https://doi.org/10.1080/13803610600765687.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Niepel, C., Brunner, M., & Preckel, F. (2014). The longitudinal interplay of students’ academic self-concepts and achievements within and across domains: replicating and extending the reciprocal internal/external frame of reference model. Journal of Educational Psychology, 106(4), 1170–1191. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0036307.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Parker, P. D., Marsh, H. W., Lüdtke, O., & Trautwein, U. (2013). Differential school contextual effects for math and English: integrating the big-fish-little-pond effect and the internal/external frame of reference. Learning and Instruction, 23, 78–89. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.learninstruc.2012.07.001.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Pinxten, M., Wouters, S., Preckel, F., Niepel, C., De Fraine, B., & Verschueren, K. (2015). The formation of academic self-concept in elementary education: a unifying model for external and internal comparison. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 41, 124–132.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Ryu, E., & West, S. G. (2009). Level-specific evaluation of model fit in multilevel structural equation modeling. Structural Equation Modeling, 16(4), 583–601. https://doi.org/10.1080/10705510903203466.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Seaton, M., Marsh, H. W., & Craven, R. (2009). Earning its place as a pan-human theory: universality of the big-fish-little-pond effect (BFLPE) across 41 culturally and economically diverse countries. Journal of Educational Psychology, 101(2), 403–419.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Seaton, M., Marsh, H. W., & Craven, R. G. (2010). Big-fish-little-pond effect: Generalizability and moderation—two sides of the same coin. American Educational Research Journal, 47(2), 390–433. https://doi.org/10.3102/0002831209350493.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Shavelson, R. J., Hubner, J. J., & Stanton, G. C. (1976). Self-concept: validation of construct interpretations. Review of Educational Research, 46(3), 407–444.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Shiel, G., Kavanagh, L., Millar, D. (2014). The 2014 National Assessments of English Reading and Mathematics. Volume 1: Performance report. Dublin: Educational Research Centre.

  • Sofroniou, N., Archer, P., & Weir, S. (2004). An analysis of the association between socioeconomic context, gender, and achievement. Irish Journal of Education, 35, 58–72.

  • Wang, Z. (2015). Examining big-fish-little-pond-effects across 49 countries: a multilevel latent variable modelling approach. Educational Psychology, 35(2), 228–251. https://doi.org/10.1080/01443410.2013.827155.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Wang, Z., & Bergin, D. A. (2017). Perceived relative standing and the big-fish-little-pond effect in 59 countries and regions: analysis of TIMSS 2011 data. Learning and Individual Differences, 57, 141–156. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.lindif.2017.04.003.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Weir, S. & Kavanagh, L. (2018). The evaluation of DEIS at post-primary level: An update on trends over time in achievement and retention levels. Dublin: Educational Research Centre.

  • Zimowski, M. F., Muraki, E., Mislevy, R. J., & Bock, R. D. (2003). BILOG-MG. Chicago, IL: Scientific Software international.

    Google Scholar 

Download references

Acknowledgements

The data used in the present study were drawn from Ireland's 2014 National Assessments of English Reading and Mathematics. The author is grateful to the lead researcher of that study, Dr. Gerry Shiel of the Educational Research Centre. The author would also like to thank both anonymous reviewers for their very helpful comments on the manuscript.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations

Authors

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Lauren Kavanagh.

Additional information

Publisher’s note

Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Lauren Kavanagh. Educational Research Centre, Dublin, Ireland. Email: lauren.kavanagh@erc.ie. Web site: www.erc.ie

Current themes of research:

The roles of individual characteristics and contextual factors in the development of reading and mathematical skills. Educational disadvantage. Parental involvement in learning and home-school relations.

Most relevant publications in the field of Psychology of Education:

Kavanagh, L., & Weir, S. (2018). The evaluation of the Delivering Equality of Opportunity in Schools (DEIS) programme: The lives and learning of urban primary school pupils, 2007–2016. Dublin: Educational Research Centre.

Kavanagh, L., Weir, S., & Moran, E. (2017). The evaluation of Delivering Equality of Opportunity in Schools (DEIS): Monitoring achievement and attitudes among urban primary school pupils from 2007 to 2016. Report to the Department of Education and Skills. Dublin: Educational Research Centre

Kavanagh, L., Shiel, G., Gilleece, L., & Kiniry, J. (2015). The 2014 National Assessments of English Reading and Mathematics. Volume 2: Context report. Dublin: Educational Research Centre.

Kavanagh, L. (2014). Exploring parental involvement and home-school relations in Irish immersion education: Integrating multiple perspectives, Journal of Immersion and Content-Based Language Learning, 2(1), 119–136.

Kavanagh, L. & Hickey, T. (2013). ‘You’re looking at this different language and it freezes you out straight away’: Identifying challenges to parental involvement among immersion parents. Language and Education, 27(5), 432–450.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and permissions

About this article

Check for updates. Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Kavanagh, L. Academic self-concept formation: testing the internal/external frame of reference model, big-fish-little-pond model, and an integrated model at the end of primary school. Eur J Psychol Educ 35, 93–109 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10212-019-00416-w

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Revised:

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/s10212-019-00416-w

Keywords

Navigation