Relationships between Personality, Academic Self-Handicapping and Academic Performance: Does the type of course matter?

by Britton Woods

Academic self-handicapping (ASH) is a strategy students use to draw attention away from their low (or lack of) ability and toward an external cause. Self-handicappers want to avoid internalizing failures, but will take credit for success, as they have succeeded despite lack of preparation, sleep, an illness or whatever excuse they made. The current study examined the relationships between ASH, personality traits, academic performance and strategies for learning and the nature of these relationships in courses of varying importance, that is, in elective courses as compared to required courses. It was hypothesized that significant relationships would be found between ASH and various learning related and personality variables and that academic performance would show the opposite relationships with all these variables. Furthermore, because greater importance is associated with greater tendencies to self-handicap, it was expected that all of these variables would show stronger relationships in required courses, as compared to elective courses.

A total of 154 participants from both required and elective courses completed measures that assessed academic self-handicapping, the five factors of personality, self-regulation learning factors, and reported course type, course importance and academic performance.

The results showed that students high in ASH tended to be lower in conscientiousness and self-regulation and higher in neuroticism and test anxiety, in both types of courses. Additionally, students’ academic performance was negatively related to test anxiety and positively to academic self-efficacy and self-regulation. GPA was also positively associated with conscientiousness, but only in elective courses. Academic self-efficacy was the only significant predictor of GPA and this was only true in elective courses. Conscientiousness, academic self-efficacy and test anxiety were all significant predictors of ASH in required courses, whereas in elective courses the only significant predictor of ASH was conscientiousness. Finally, in contrast to expectations, all the main variables of interest showed stronger (and more significant) relationships in elective courses, as compared to required courses.

It seems we may be able to predict which students are more likely to display ASH tendencies, based on their underlying personality traits. Based on the findings of this study, low conscientiousness, high neuroticism, high test anxiety and low self-regulation would all be considered risk factors for academic self-handicapping, especially in elective courses. Educators should try to explain to students what self-handicapping is, what puts them at risk and the ramifications it can have on both their psychological well-being and academic success. Perhaps then we could eliminate ignorance as a justification for self-handicapping and improve students’ chances for success in their courses.

How students’ learn and ASH tendencies appear to be more consistent with underlying personality traits in elective courses, but if enough effort is exerted and the course is of great importance, learning strategies can triumph over personality factors, which is often the case in required courses.