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‘Smart students get perfect scores in tests without studying much’: why is an effortless achiever identity attractive, and for whom is it possible?

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Abstract

Download free eprint: http://www.tandfonline.com/eprint/QSWzEPI6TVCkksvrBeEp/full#.VK6DRaMZn50 Discourses about the value of effort and hard work are prevalent and powerful in many western societies and educational contexts. Yet, paradoxically, in these same contexts effortless achievement is often lauded, and in certain discourses is heralded as the pinnacle of success and a sign of genius. In this paper we interrogate discourses about effort and especially ‘effortlessness’ in Swedish and English educational contexts. Informed, in particular, by interview data generated in upper secondary schools in Sweden and secondary schools in England, we address the questions: why is effortless achievement attractive, and for whom is it possible to be discursively positioned as an effortless achiever? We argue that the subject position of ‘effortless achiever’ is not available to all categories of students equally, and for some it would be almost impossible to attain; the intersections of gender, social class, ethnicity and institutional setting are influential. We end by considering the problematic implications of effortless achievement discourses.
... Discourses that position boys as more authentically intelligent and girls as more hardworking are widespread inside and outside education and seem hard to do away with (Paule 2015). While hard work, or collaboration, can be seen as valuable behaviors, the raw intelligence of the genius still evokes more respect (Paule 2015), and a position as an effortless achiever is thus desirable in many education contexts, but often more readily available to white middle-class boys/men (Jackson and Nyström 2015). The gendering and racialization of notions of intelligence and brilliance seems to be one mechanism whereby women and racialized academics are discouraged from pursuing certain academic fields such as physics where the beliefs about the necessity of raw talent are stronger (Leslie et al. 2015;Storage et al. 2016). ...
... For Sara, these students appear as authentically intelligent, but also as putting on a kind of show where this supposed intelligence may give status in physics. This status is achieved by appearing to possess the raw, authentic intelligence generally valued in western society and in that way being Beffortless achievers,^a position generally more available to privileged men (Castles 2012;Jackson and Nyström 2015;Paule 2015). However, Sara's identification of this behavior as a kind of act serves to make visible the positioning work that enables someone to appear as intelligent. ...
... This article has demonstrated how this social recognition of intelligence comes to matter for Research in Science Education master's students. One expression of this can be seen in the investment in Bbrainy^positions by some physics students, something which, with a phrase borrowed from Sara, can be called Bgoing Albert.^Regardless of the competence and capabilities of these students, the possibilities for taking such a position are structured by gendered and classed notions of who can be a genius (Jackson and Nyström 2015;Paule 2015). ...
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Motivated by widespread concerns for representation and equity in physics education, this study investigates negotiations of identity positions of master’s students in physics. The goal is to explore how sociocultural features of physics can structure the possibilities for becoming a physicist. Interviews with international master’s students in physics were analyzed focusing on perceived norms about physics and how students responded to and negotiated these in crafting a position as competent physicists-to-be. The results show how physics master’s students from varying backgrounds have to negotiate stereotypes of intelligence and nerdiness, as well as an implicit ranking of physics specializations. The stereotype that physicists are intelligent and nerdy is further complicated in physics studies, as some specializations—the more pure and theoretical—are viewed as more intellectually demanding and are in this way accorded a higher status. Students on these specializations are simultaneously seen as more intelligent and more nerdy, while a perception that students who choose other subjects do this just because they are not good enough to do theoretical physics is perpetuated. These notions become significant in relation to western society’s high regard of authentic intelligence and idolization of geniuses, ideas that can serve as powerful ideals in physics. This study gives novel insight about how well-known norms and stereotypes about physics come to matter in physics master’s students’ negotiations to become recognized as competent physicists.
... For example, as noted earlier, the ways in which exceptionally high academic performance are normalised among some groups and anything other than excellence is regarded as failure can lead to stress, anxiety, fears of failure, shame and low self-worth (Walkerdine, Lucey, and Melody 2001). Additionally, constructions of success and success discourses shape, among other things: perceptions about who is most likely to be read by others as successful; students' approaches to learning and university life; feelings of belonging; career prospects; and wellbeing (Anderson, Kraus, and Keltner 2011;Jackson and Nyström 2015;Hailikari, Kordts-Freudinger, and Postareff 2016). In this particular paper, there is not space to consider in any detail the implications of students' perceptions of success. ...
... Second, research about conceptualisations of 'success' in Sweden in other sectors of education, most notably compulsory education, is congruent with that conducted in numerous other countries (e.g. Holfve-Sabel 2011; Jackson and Nyström 2015;Nyström 2014;Öhrn and Holm 2014). Third, the H.E. system in Sweden shares many similarities with numerous countries, especially those elsewhere in Europe and the global north. ...
... Amanda's (medical student) comment that 'it feels like it's [high] status to get a high result based on little study-time' reflected the views of the majority of our interviewees. This accords with previous research suggesting that 'effortless' academic achievement is equated with intelligence or talent in many western societies, and being intelligent or talented is highly valued in and outside of educational contexts (Bourdieu and Passeron 1979;Power et al. 1998;Walkerdine, Lucey, and Melody 2001;Jackson and Nyström 2015;Nyström 2014;Brown et al. 2016). It is important to note that the term 'effortless achievement' is a little misleading. ...
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Academic achievement is regarded an indicator of the success of individuals, schools, universities and countries. ‘Success’ is typically measured using performance indicators such as test results, completion rates and other objective measures. By contrast, in this article we explore students’ subjective understandings and constructions of success, and discourses about ‘successful’ students in higher education contexts that are renowned for being demanding and pressured. We draw on data from 87 semi-structured interviews with students and staff on law, medicine and engineering physics programmes in a prestigious university in Sweden. We focus particularly upon academic expectations, effort levels, and programme structures and cultures. Achieving top grades while undertaking a range of extracurricular activities was valorised in all contexts. Top grades were especially impressive if they were attained without much effort (especially in engineering physics) or stress (especially in law and medicine); we introduce a new concept of ‘stress-less achievement’ in relation to the latter. Furthermore, being sociable as well as a high academic achiever signified living a ‘good life’ and, in law and medicine, professional competence. We discuss the implications of the dominant constructions of success, concluding that (upper) middle-class men are most likely to be read as ‘successful students’, especially in engineering physics.
... Many emphasised how such constructions made invisible the hard work that the majority of students invested in their studies (often outside of 'visible' contact hours), and the high levels of stress many experienced as a result of the demands of their study programmes, and having to balance these demands with paid work, internships and family responsibilities (see Chapter 6). Thus, our study participants did not seek to present themselves -or to be viewed by others -as 'effortless achievers', in order to demonstrate 'authentic intelligence' or portray an image of being 'cool', as has been documented in some other studies which have explored the relationship between learner identities and narratives of hard work and effort (for example, Jackson and Nyström, 2015). They also did not try to position themselves as 'stress-less achievers' or people who were cruising through their degrees, ably balancing academic and non-academic activities and pursuits (for example, Nyström et al, 2019). ...
Book
Amid debates about the future of both higher education and Europeanisation, this book is the first full-length exploration of how Europe’s 35 million students are understood by key social actors across different nations. The various chapters compare and contrast conceptualisations in six nations, held by policymakers, higher education staff, media and students themselves. With an emphasis on students’ lived experiences, the authors provide new perspectives about how students are understood, and the extent to which European higher education is homogenising. They explore various prominent constructions of students – including as citizens, enthusiastic learners, future workers and objects of criticism.
... Cet objectif était en fait décomposé en deux sous-objectifs : le premier était de montrer qu'effectivement l'essentialisme renforce la menace et par extension le deuxième était de montrer que le nonessentialisme est une stratégie de réduction de la menace. Le premier sous-objectif prend la suite de l'étude de Dar-Nimrod et Heine (2006) (Jackson & Nyström, 2015). D'autre part, cette tendance à la légitimation et à la justification est valable pour les dominant·e·s ainsi que pour les dominé·e·s : chez les hommes comme chez les femmes dans la justification des différences genrées par exemple (Brescoll, Uhlmann, & Newman, 2013 (Haslam et al., 2000;Haslam & Levy, 2006). ...
Thesis
La plupart des recherches a montré que l’effet de la menace du stéréotype pouvait être renforcé par l'essentialisme psychologique, c’est-à-dire par la croyance selon laquelle les caractéristiques de surface d’un groupe s’expliqueraient par une essence sous-jacente partagée par les membres de ce groupe. Dans cette thèse, nous envisageons le processus inverse en faisant l’hypothèse que la menace du stéréotype peut elle-même renforcer l’essentialisme psychologique. Selon nous, cet effet répondrait au besoin de justifier ou de rationaliser la situation d'échec dans laquelle la menace du stéréotype peut nous plonger. Ainsi, l'essentialisme offrirait cette possibilité car il serait plus confortable d’attribuer un échec à sa propre nature plutôt qu’à un manque d'apprentissage ou d'effort. De manière générale, l'essentialisme est étudié pour ses effets négatifs dans divers domaines et spécifiquement dans le paradigme de la menace du stéréotype. L'objectif englobant notre thèse est de dépasser cette conception sans toutefois la renier. Ainsi, nous tenterons d'observer l'utilité d'une telle croyance. En effet, il est possible de se demander, alors même que l’essentialisation peut renforcer la discrimination, pourquoi certaines personnes qui en sont elles-mêmes victimes usent de l’essentialisme en retour. Nous défendrons l’idée d’un essentialisme susceptible de constituer une stratégie défensive de soi, singulièrement efficace à un niveau individuel mais beaucoup moins désirable à un niveau plus groupal. Cette idée est particulièrement applicable à la menace du stéréotype dans notre optique de justification d’un échec. L'autre objectif général est d'étudier les tenants et aboutissants idéologiques de la menace du stéréotype.
... (Spain, HEI1) While various commentators have argued that, under conditions of marketisation, students have increasingly come to view a degree as a product to be bought, rather than a process of learning that requires effort on their part (e.g., Nixon et al., 2018), the responses above suggest that, not only did the focus group participants see the process of learning as central to their understandings of what it means to be a student, but also that they viewed it as not always easy and, often, requiring considerable effort. In general, there was no attempt to position themselves as 'effortless achievers' as a means of demonstrating their 'authentic intelligence', as has been documented in numerous studies of compulsory education, and some of HE (see, e.g., Jackson and Nystrom, 2015). ...
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