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An examination of the accuracy of students' expected grades.

ABSTRACT

The accuracy of students' predictions of their final grades in an introductory collegiate course is examined. Accuracy of predictions made at the start of the course and at the time of the final exam are examined and related to selected factors believed to affect students' level of performance. Data were gathered from 376 students enrolled in Principles of Marketing courses. The accuracy of students' grade predictions were observed to improve as the course progressed and to be related to students' class attendance levels, but they were not observed to be related to selfreported time spent studying nor to students' proclivity to self handicap.

INTRODUCTION

From the viewpoint of many students, evaluation is one of the most important concerns in the education process. The grades earned during one's academic tenure can have farreaching effects--they can determine whether courses must be retaken, whether academic scholarships will be maintained, and whether graduation will be achieved. In many courses, especially those of an introductory nature, students' grades are determined primarily from performances on several exams (Bacon, 2003). Given the importance of testing in the grading process, research focusing on the students who take the tests appears to be a fruitful area of study.

The goal of this paper is to examine the accuracy of students' to predictions of their final grades in a Principles of Marketing course. This is an important area of concern since "accuracy affords predictability that may help persons cope with their social and physical environments" (Kruglanski, 1989, p. 395). Furthermore, "self-perceptions that are out of touch with reality not only reveal a lack of self-knowledge, but may also impede effective self-regulation and goal setting in academic, professional, and interpersonal situations" (Beyer, 1999, p. 280). The grades expected by students determine, in part, their class strategies and level of effort expended to master new material. Hacker, Bol, Horgan & Rakow, (2000), for instance, suggest that greater predictive accuracy permits students to better manage their time and effort and allows them to maximize their test preparedness and course performance. Grimes (2002) notes that greater predictive accuracy aids students in their selection of study methods and effort expenditures. Consequently, accuracy of course grade predictions made at the start of the course and at the time of the final exam are examined and related to selected factors believed to affect students' level of performance in the course.

PERFORMANCE EXPECTATIONS

Some research attention has been placed on the performance expectations of students (e.g., Arnold, Willoughby & Calkins, 1985; Beyer, 1990, 1998; Beyer & Bowden, 1987). The focus of much of this research is on the accuracy with which students are able to predict the grades they receive on exams. Research has demonstrated that students typically possess a greaterthan-chance ability to accurately predict test performance (Gillstrom & Ronnberg, 1995). Research has also shown a positive relationship between ability to accurately predict exam performance and academic success (Fitzgerald, Gruppen, White & Davis, 1997). Most of the past research on accuracy of students' performance expectations, however, is restricted to laboratory settings or asking questions concerning generic, not course specific, knowledge (Hacker, Bol, Horgan & Rakow, 2000). None of the past research has examined the accuracy of performance predictions within an introductory business course.

Students typically enter courses with an expectation of the grade they will ultimately receive. These expectations, however, are based on performances in courses already taken. At the start of a new course, however, students often possess minimal information onto which to base performance expectations for the course. This is especially true for an introductory course, since most students taking the course possess no history taking courses in the subject. Indeed, empirical research suggests that students exhibit lower predictive accuracy of their grades in introductory courses than advanced courses (Falchikov & Baud, 1989).

Although students possess performance expectations throughout most courses, there is no evidence which suggesting that these expectations remain unchanged. Indeed, it is logical to expect that the grade expectations of many students will change over time, especially as students become more acquainted with the requirements of each course and with each instructor's expectations and grading style. Specifically, it is likely that grade expectations made at the beginning of a course and grade evaluations made at the end of the course (immediately prior to the final exam) are similar, but it is also likely that the expectations will have changed during the course.

Grade expectations at the end of a course, immediately prior to taking the final exam, can be expected to be more accurate predictors of students' final course grades than grade expectations at the start of the course (Koriat, 1997). By the time of the final exam, students have typically already taken at least one previous exam and are acquainted with the form and the coverage of exams in the course. They have also received feedback on performances on previous exam(s), so they are acquainted with the performance outcomes and of any shortcomings which they experienced (Hacker, Bol, Horgan & Rakow, 2000). Furthermore, they are familiar with the material to the covered on the final exam and how well they are prepared for it.

H1a: Students' predictions of final course grades made at the start of course and predictions made at the time of the final exam are related.

H1b: Students' predictions of their final course grades change during the course.

H1c: Students' predictions of final course grades made at the time of the final exam will be more accurate predictors of final course grade than are predictions made at the start of the course.

FACTORS HYPOTHESIZED TO AFFECT EXAM PERFORMANCE QUALITY

The amount of effort exerted in a course, measured by time spent studying and class attendance, and personal qualities, such as one's proclivity to self-handicap, can logically be expected to affect one's performance on exams. Furthermore, effort and proclivity to self-handicap can also logically be expected to affect the accuracy of one's exam performance predictions.

Time Spent Studying

The time students spend preparing for an exam, or the time spent studying, is generally assumed by most classroom instructors and students to directly relate to students' performances on tests (Grimes, 2002). It is generally believed that more time spent studying for an exam will lead to higher resulting grades. Surprisingly little research has examined whether this supposed relationship actually exists, however. A study by Schuman, Walsh, Olson and Etheridge (1985) (replicated by Michaels and Miethe (1989)) is an exception. In a series of studies employing a variety of methodologies, Schuman, Walsh, Olson and Etheridge (1985) could not find a relationship between time spent studying and exam performance. Rau and Durand (2000) observed that test performance may actually be more related more to when students study and what they do when they are not studying than to the actual time spent studying.

No known research exists, however, which looks at the accuracy of course grade predictions, at the beginning of the course or immediately prior to the final exam, and their relationships with amount of time spent studying. Although the very few studies which have been conducted examining the relationship between time spent studying and exam performance have not observed a relationship between the two, this does not necessarily mean that there does not exist a relationship between time spent studying and the accuracy of course grade predictions. Since most students believe that a relationship does exist between time spent studying and exam performance, it is likely that this belief affects students' grade predictions. Also, it seems logical that students who have spent more time studying will possess a more correct understanding of how well they are prepared for exams, permitting more accurate predictions.

H2: The accuracy of predictions of final course grades will improve with increased time spent studying. The strength of the relationship is stronger for predictions made at the time of the final exam than for predictions made at the beginning of the course.

Absences

Most classroom instructors and students alike expect that a strong relationship exists between attendance and exam performance, similar to the assumed relationship between time spent studying and exam performance (Shimoff & Catania, 2001). Again, given the centrality of attendance to the education process, surprisingly little research has examined this issue. The relatively little research which has been conducted, however, has produced results consistent with general assumptions. For instance, Devadoss and Foltz (1996), Durden and Ellis (1995), Hammen and Kelland (1994), Park and Kerr (1990), Romer (1993), and Shimoff and Catania (2001) observed direct negative relationships between number of absences and academic performance.

Higher attendance rates (fewer numbers of absences) likely provide students with better exposure to the course material which will be included on exams. Higher attendance rates, therefore, would appear to provide students with additional information onto which to base their predictions of course grades (Grimes, 2002). Course grade predictions made before a course begins will likely be based in part on a projection of anticipated attendance in a course. Predictions made at the time of the final exam, however, will be based on the knowledge of the actual number of classes missed during the term. Predictions made at the time of the final exam, therefore, will likely be more accurate since they are based on more complete knowledge.

H3: The accuracy of predictions of final course grades will be greater for students with fewer absences than for students with greater numbers of absences. The strength of the relationship is stronger for predictions made at the time of the final exam than for predictions made at the beginning of the course.

Self-Handicapping

Self-handicapping involves the use of excuses given prior to a possible negative performance, such as a performance on an exam (Baumeister & Scher, 1988). These anticipatory excuses are given with the goal of shielding one from the negativity which could be associated with a deficient performance (Snyder, 1990).

The self-handicapper, we are suggesting, reaches out for impediments, exaggerates handicaps, embraces any factor reducing personal responsibility for mediocrity and enhancing personal responsibility for success. One does this to shape the implications of performance feedback both in one's own eyes and in the eye's of others (Jones & Berglas, 1978, p. 202). Self-handicapping, therefore, involves protecting one's image of competence by proactively arranging for adversity (Higgins, 1990).

Jones and Berglas (1978) suggest that proclivity to self-handicap should be inversely related to academic achievement. The results of empirical testing, however, have been mixed. Among competitive athletes, Rhodewalt, Saltzman and Wittmer (1984) observed such a relationship between proclivity to self-handicap and an index based on the individuals' GPA and SAT scores. Similarly, Rhodewalt (1990) observed a significant inverse relationship between proclivity to self-handicap and an index based on the individuals' GPA and ACT scores, as did Zuckerman, Kieffer and Knee (1998) and Urdan, Midgley and Anderman (1998). These findings, however, have not been found to be universal across the academic setting. Several studies (e.g., Greenberg, Pyszczynski & Paisley, 1985; Harris & Snyder, 1986; Hunsley, 1985; Jung, 1988; Rhodewalt & Davison, 1986) reported that high self-handicappers generally perform as well as do low self-handicappers. Feick and Rhodewalt (1997) also observed no relationship between self-handicapping and exam performance.

Given the evaluative nature of the testing process and since the objective of self-handicapping is to sever or lessen the responsibility connection between one's self and a possible forthcoming poor performance, it would seem likely individuals possessing a higher proclivity to self-handicap will likely have lower performance expectations than will individuals possessing a lower proclivity to self-handicap. The lower grade expectations held by individuals with higher proclivities to self-handicap can be expected to lower the target performance level in the eyes of others and in the eyes of the performing individuals. Since their predictions are likely based on factors in addition to the performance level actually expected, the accuracy of the performance predictions of individuals with higher proclivities to self-handicap, therefore, will likely be less than those with lower proclivities to self-handicap.

H4: The accuracy of predictions of final course grades will be greater for students with lower proclivities to self-handicap than for students with greater proclivities to self-handicap. The strength of the relationship is stronger for predictions made at the time of the final exam than for predictions made at the beginning of the course.

METHODOLOGY

The sample was comprised of students enrolled in Principles of Marketing classes at a medium-sized university located in the Midwest. To minimize bias resulting from differing teaching and/or testing styles, all of the classes were sections of a single course taught by a single instructor.

Grades in the course were determined primarily through the use of exams (two midterms and a final exam). The final exam accounted for twice as many points as the midterm exams (200 points as opposed to 100 points each). The resulting sample was comprised of 376 students.

Students were asked to complete two short questionnaires during the course. The first questionnaire was administered at the beginning of the course and included the SelfHandicapping Scale (SHS) (Rhodewalt, 1990). Students were also asked to report their expected grade in the course through a simple question, "What grade do you expect to receive in this course?" (a question similar to that used by Campbell and Henry (1999)). The second questionnaire was administered at the end of the course immediately prior to the start of the final exam. Students were again asked to report their expected grade in the course using the same question employed in the first questionnaire and to report the amount of time spent studying for the final exam. In an attempt to minimize possible bias, students were expressly guaranteed anonymity as far as the course instructor was concerned. Finally, students' final course grades and actual number of absences were gathered from course records by an individual other than the course instructor.

The Self-Handicapping Scale is comprised of 25 statements designed to assess an individual's proclivity to display self-handicapping behavior (Table 1). For each statement, students were asked to indicate their level of agreement on a six-point scale. Large group testing sessions indicate that the scale exhibits acceptable internal consistency (Cronbach's alpha = .79) and test-retest reliability (r = .74 after one month) (Rhodewalt 1990). The predictive ability of the scale is confirmed by a number of studies (e.g., Rhodewalt, 1990, 1994; Strube, 1986).

Students' expected and actual course grades were measured on a five-point scale based on letter grade (A, B, C, D, F) with a grade of A equal to 1 (Wong, 2000). Accuracy of predictions of the final grade were computed as the absolute value of the difference between predictions of final course grade and the actual final course grade received.

RESULTS

Results are displayed in Table 2.

Students' predictions of final course grade made at the start of the course and predictions of final course grade made at the start of the final exam were observed to be highly correlated consistent with Hypothesis 1a. Furthermore, predictions of final course grade were found to have significantly (at the .05 level) changed during the course, consistent with Hypothesis 1b. Students' predictions of final course grade made at the start of the course and predictions of final course grade made at the start of the final exam were both observed to be highly correlated with actual grade received. Moreover, predictions of final course grade made at the start of the final exam were found to be significantly (at the .05 level) more strongly correlated with actual grade received than were predictions of final course grade made at the start of the course (using Steiger's (1980) test for comparing dependent correlations), consistent with Hypothesis 1c. Support, therefore, was observed for all components of Hypothesis 1.

Neither the accuracy of students' predictions of final course grades made at the start of the course nor the accuracy of predictions of final course grade made at the start of the final exam were observed to be significantly (at the .05 level) related to the length of time students reported studying for the final exam. No support, therefore, was observed for Hypothesis 2.

The accuracy of students' predictions of final course grade made at the start of the course and the accuracy of predictions of final course grade made at the start of the final exam were both observed to be significantly (at the .05 level) correlated with number of absences incurred. The direction of the relationships were as hypothesized--the greater the number of absences incurred by students, the less accurate were their predictions of final course grade. The strength of the relationship, however, was not observed to be stronger for predictions made at the time of the final exam than for predictions made at the beginning of the course. Partial support for Hypothesis 3, therefore, was observed.

To provide additional insight, the correlations between differences between students' predictions of final course grades and number of absences incurred were examined (in addition to the absolute value of the differences). In both instances (predictions made at the start of the course and those made at the start of the final exam), significant (at the .05 level) negative relationships were observed r =--.264 and r =--.228), indicating that individuals with higher number of absences tended to overestimate the final course grades they would receive.

Finally, neither the accuracy of the students' predictions of final course grade made at the start of the course nor the accuracy of predictions of final course grade made at the start of the final exam were observed to be significantly (at the .05 level) related to students' proclivity to selfhandicap. No support, therefore, was observed for Hypothesis 4.

DISCUSSION

As hypothesized, students' predictions of final course grades in an introductory collegiate course were found to be strongly related to the grades actually received. Although students were observed to be overly optimistic regarding their predictions of final course grades, grade expectations became more accurate as students gained experience in the course. The evidence suggests that predictions of final course grades by students are factually based--based on past knowledge/experience and knowledge/experience gained while taking the course.

Interestingly, although the accuracy with which students predicted their final course grades improved during the course, the improvement in accuracy was not found to be related to the amount of effort exerted in the course (as measured by time spent studying) nor with the personal quality of proclivity to self-handicap. Each of these issues will be discussed.

Although increased time studying can be expected to provide students with a better idea of what they do and do not know, and hence, result in more accurate predictions of final course grades, such a relationship was not observed. Increased time spent studying for the final exam was not found to affect the accuracy of prediction of final exam course grade. This finding further illuminates the relationship between time spent studying and performance. Not only is time spent studying not related to exam performance (as established by previous research discussed earlier), but time spent studying is not related to accuracy of students' grade predictions. Increased time spent studying, therefore, does not seem to provide students with any increased insight into their preparation and ultimate performance level.

Knowledge of this reality may prove to be beneficial to classroom instructors. Frequently, students who have experienced a disappointing exam performance will reference the time that they have spent studying and preparing for the exam and their resulting certainty of receiving a particular grade. Although logical, such improved accuracy of grade prediction does not appear to be an outcome of increased time spent studying.

The lack of a relationship between self handicapping and prediction accuracy was surprising. Students with higher proclivities to self handicap were not observed to predict their final course grade with any less accuracy than did students with lower proclivities to self handicap. A possible explanation for this finding is that students' proclivities to self-handicap do not affect the accuracy of their predictions of their final course grade. Since this explanation is not consistent with selfhandicapping theory, however, an alternative explanation is more likely. An alternative explanation is that the obstacles which students with high proclivities to self handicap erect as hindrances to appeal to in the event of a poor performance may actually depress their performance levels which, in effect, improves the apparent accuracy of their intentionally lower performance predictions. Such a possibility has been suggested by Burns (2005).

If the exam performance of students possessing relatively higher proclivities to self handicap are indeed adversely affected by their self-handicapping activity, classroom instructors need to pursue classroom strategies which possess the possibility of reducing self-handicapping activity, such as those suggested by Urdan (2004). If successful, classroom instructors may observe that students possessing a relatively higher proclivity to self handicap may find themselves underestimating the grades they will receive in their courses.

Increased accuracy of final grade prediction, however, was observed for students with superior class attendance--students who missed fewer classes were found to have more accurately predicted their grades in the course than were students who missed a greater number. These findings suggest that students who miss class sessions may find themselves with inadequate information onto which to base grade predictions. Indeed, students who miss a greater number of classes were observed to overestimate their final grades. The overestimation most likely results from not realizing the number of classes that will ultimately be missed in the instance of predictions made at the beginning of the course and/or misestimating the detriment that absences would ultimately have. In the issue of grade predictions at the start of the final, students' overestimations of their final course grade most likely result from a misestimation of the negative effect that absences would have on their final grade.

The overestimations of course grades by students experiencing a greater number of absences likely directly affect classroom instructors. Given their overestimation of their course grades, students experiencing a greater number of absences will more likely experience dissonance upon receiving lower-than-anticipated final course grade. Consequently, these students will likely be more apt to complain about and/or contest their course grades. Instructors need to clearly and repeatedly communicate this reality to students in their courses in attempts to increase student attendance levels. Furthermore, classroom instructors will be better able to predict which students may be most likely to contest grades, permitting them the ability to better prepare for such occasions.

The findings of this study, therefore, strongly support that the accuracy of student' grade expectations may improve as a course progresses. Instructors, however, may not be able to expect differences in the accuracy of students' grade expectations based on the factors examined. An exception exists with the number of absences incurred by students during the course--the greater the number of class sessions missed by students, the lesser the accuracy which students were able to predict their final course grade. This was observed to be true regardless whether the grade prediction was made at the start of the course (before any absences could be incurred) or whether the prediction was made at the start of the final exam (when students were aware of how many classes they missed during the semester).

Limitations

A number of limitations exist which may limit the generalizability of the results. To control of extraneous variables, the sample included only students taking the Principles of Marketing course at a single medium-sized university located in the Midwest. Furthermore, only students taking the course from a single instructor with a single teaching testing style were included. Additional research is required to establish the generalizability of the results to students attending other universities, to instructors with differing teaching/testing styles, and to different courses. Moreover, hours spent studying for the final exam was acquired through student self-report. It was not possible to check the accuracy of this information.

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David J. Burns, Xavier University
Table 1: Self-Handicapping Scale

1. When I do something wrong, my first impulse is
to blame the circumstances.

2. I tend to put things off to the last moment.

3. I tend to over prepare when I have any kind of exam or
"performance."

4. I suppose I feel "under the weather" more often than most people.

5. I always try to do my best, no matter what.

6 Before I sign up for a course or engage in any important
activity, I make sure I have the proper
preparation or background.

7. I tend to get very anxious before an exam or "performance."

8. I am easily distracted by noises or my own
creative thoughts when I try to read.

9. I try not to get too intensely involved in
competitive activities so it won't hurt too much if I lose or do
poorly.

10. I would rather be respected for doing my best than
admired for my potential.

11. I would do a lot better if I tried harder.

12. I prefer the small pleasures in the present
to the larger pleasures in the dim future.

13. I generally hate to be in any condition but "at my best."

14. Someday I might "get it altogether."

15. I sometimes enjoy being mildly ill for a day
or two because it takes off the pressure.

16. I would do much better if I did not let my emotions get in the way.

17. When I do poorly at one kind of thing, I often
console myself by remembering I am good at other things.

18. I admit that I am tempted to rationalize when I
don't live up to others' expectations.

19. I often think I have more than my share
of bad luck in sports, card games, and other measures of talent.

20. I would rather not take any drug that interfered
with my ability to think clearly and do the right thing.

21. I overindulge in food and drink more often than I should.

22. When something important is coming up, like an exam or
a job interview, I try to get as much sleep as
possible the night before.

23. I never let emotional problems in one part
of my life interfere with things in my life.

24. Usually, when I get anxious about doing well,
I end up doing better.

25. Sometimes I get so depressed that
even easy tasks become difficult.

Table 2: Results

Grade Expectations at the Start of the Course and at the
 Time of the Final Exam

 H1: Average Course Grade Expected at the Start of 1.345
 the Course
 Average Course Grade Expected at the Start of 1.776
 the Final
 Correlation of Grade Expectations .4492 **
 Change in Course Grade Expectations t = -11.431 **
 Average Actual Course Grade 2.179
 Correlation with Grade Expected at the Start of .3619 **
 the Course
 Correlation with Grade Expected at the Start of .6551 **
 the Final
 Improvement in Course Grade Expectations Z = 4.85 **
 Accuracy
Prediction Accuracy and Amount of Time Spent Studying
 H2: Grade Prediction at the Start of the Course 0.131
 Grade Predication at the Time of the Final -0.0222
Prediction Accuracy and Number of Absences
 H3: Grade Prediction at the Start of the Course .2643 **
 Grade Predication at the Time of the Final .1744 **
Prediction Accuracy and Proclivity to Self-Handicap
 H4: Grade Prediction at the Start of the Course -0.0356
 Grade Predication at the Time of the Final -0.0715

** p < .01
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Author:Burns, David J.
Publication:Academy of Educational Leadership Journal
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 1, 2007
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