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Abbreviated Assessment Tool of Learned Helplessness and Mastery Orientation: The Student Behavior Checklist—Brief



Measurement limitations have hindered research on learned helplessness (LH) and mastery orientation (MO) in the classroom. We reduced the 24-item Student Behavior Checklist to a 6-item scale and tested the abbreviated measure for evidence of reliability and validity in a sample of 5 th and 6 th graders ( N = 299). We then replicated findings in an independent sample of middle school students ( N = 116). Results demonstrated strong support for construct validity of the Student Behavior Checklist-Brief (SBC-B), including a hierarchical two-factor structure indicating the distinctness of LH and MO and an overarching construct, which we refer to as learning approach. Results also demonstrated consistent evidence supporting criterion and convergent/discriminant validity, internal consistency reliability, and temporal stability. The SBC-B offers a psychometrically sound teacher-report measure of LH and MO.
Student Behavior Checklist—Brief
This is the final accepted version of the following article:
Rueger, S. Y., Cipra, A., Choe, H. J., Steggerda, J., Kirby, A. E., & Stone, L. B. (2021).
Abbreviated assessment tool of learned helplessness and mastery orientation: The Student
Behavior Checklist-Brief. Journal of Psychoeducational Assessment, 39(6), 772-777.
Abbreviated Assessment Tool of Learned Helplessness and Mastery Orientation:
The Student Behavior Checklist—Brief
Sandra Yu Rueger1, Alli Cipra2, Hyung Joon Choe1,3, Jake C. Steggerda1,4,
Andrea Kirby1,5, and Lauren Stone1
1 Wheaton College, School of Psychology, Counseling, and Family Therapy, Wheaton, Illinois
2 Governors State University, University Park, IL 60484
3 Columbia University, School of Professional Studies, Applied Analytics, New York, New York
4 University of Arkansas, Department of Psychological Sciences
5 Dallas CBT, Dallas, TX
Corresponding Author:
Sandra Yu Rueger, Ph.D.
School of Psychology, Counseling, and Family Therapy
Wheaton College
Wheaton, IL 60187
630-752-5753 (telephone)
630-752-7033 (fax)
Word Count: 2356 words, inclusive of Title Page, Abstract, and References (excluding
supplemental tables/figure)
Funding and Disclosure Statement: This research was supported by the Wheaton College
Alumni Association to the first author. There are no relevant financial or non-financial
competing interests to report.
Student Behavior Checklist—Brief
Measurement limitations have hindered research on learned helplessness (LH) and mastery
orientation (MO) in the classroom. We reduced the 24-item Student Behavior Checklist to a 6-
item scale, and tested the abbreviated measure for evidence of reliability and validity in a sample
of 5th and 6th graders (N=299). We then replicated findings in an independent sample of middle
school students (N=116). Results demonstrated strong support for construct validity of the
Student Behavior Checklist-Brief (SBC-B), including a hierarchical two-factor structure
indicating the distinctness of LH and MO and an overarching construct, which we refer to as
learning approach. Results also demonstrated consistent evidence supporting criterion and
convergent/discriminant validity, internal consistency reliability and temporal stability. The
SBC-B offers a psychometrically sound teacher-report measure of LH and MO.
KEYWORDS: psychometric; learned helplessness; mastery orientation; learning approach
Student Behavior Checklist—Brief
Abbreviated Assessment Tool of Learned Helplessness and Mastery Orientation:
The Student Behavior Checklist—Brief
Learned helplessness (LH) and mastery orientation (MO) are related constructs that have
been studied for decades in the achievement motivation literature and help explain students’
response to challenging situations (Dweck & Leggett, 1988; Fincham et al., 1989; Haimovitz &
Dweck, 2017). LH is defined as a passivity in response to failure and is characterized by
disengagement in the face of challenging tasks. This passivity is theoretically connected to a loss
of motivation to persist in problem-solving behaviors resulting from beliefs in an external locus
of control (Rotter, 1966; Fincham et al., 1989). MO is defined as persistence in response to
failure and is characterized by continued engagement in challenging tasks. This persistence is
theoretically connected to a strong achievement motivation resulting from beliefs in an internal
locus of control (Rotter, 1966). Students with MO believe that continued efforts can lead to
success, and they utilize more productive learning and study methods, favor challenging tasks,
and present with a more positive mindset about learning (Sorrenti et al., 2015; Yates, 2009).
Students with LH show greater difficulties completing tasks successfully, and higher likelihood
of choosing subsequent nonchallenging tasks (Burnette et al., 2013; Yeager & Dweck, 2012), as
well as lower academic performance (Hooper & McHugh, 2013; Mega et al., 2014) than
mastery-oriented counterparts. Over time, learned helpless individuals develop negative attitudes
toward work and display rejection, anxiety, and boredom (Sorrenti et al., 2015).
Related, LH also is an important construct in understanding depression. The reformulated
theory of learned helplessness (RTLH; Abramson et al., 1978) posits that individuals who
demonstrate causal attributions to failure that are internal (e.g., deficient abilities), stable (cause
of failure is unlikely to change), and global (cause of failure impacts other areas of their lives)
are likely to develop LH and be more prone to depression. Research has demonstrated significant
relationships between LH and depression in grade school and middle school students (Nolen-
Student Behavior Checklist—Brief
Hoeksema et al., 1992; Rueger & Malecki, 2007; Rueger et al., 2010), as well as negative causal
attributions (Nolen-Hoeksema et al., 1986; Rueger & Malecki, 2007; Rueger et al., 2010).
The Student Behavior Checklist (SBC; Fincham et al., 1989) is one of the only
instruments available to assess these important constructs. Utilizing 12 items for each construct,
the SBC assesses students’ cognitive, emotional, and/or behavioral features that characterize
maladaptive and adaptive approaches to learning. While previous research with the SBC has
demonstrated excellent internal consistency reliability (α > .90; Fincham et al., 1989; Nolen-
Hoeksema et al., 1992; Rueger et al., 2010), its length is undesirable due to time constraints, as
the measure can be burdensome for teachers to complete (DeVellis, 2011). Hence, it is not
surprising that the teacher completion rate of the SBC was less than 50% in one study (Nolen-
Hoeksema et al. 1986).
Recent studies modified the SBC to a 10-item version focused on math achievement
(Yates, 2009) and a 13-item self-report version (Sorrenti et al., 2015). However, some items
retained were double-barreled, which is undesirable in test construction (Devellis, 2011), and
both measures resulted in imbalances of LH and MO items. In addition, due to inconsistency in
factor analytic support for LH and MO as distinct constructs (Sorrenti et al., 2015; Yates, 2009),
clarity about the factor structure is needed. A brief, psychometrically sound measure to assess
LH and MO across broader student populations is needed.
Thus, the current study aimed to develop an abbreviated version, the Student Behavior
Checklist-Brief (SBC-B), and evaluate the psychometric properties with older children and
young adolescents. In Study 1, we reduced the number of items and tested evidence for
reliability and validity in a sample of 5th and 6th grade students. In Study 2, we reproduced the
psychometric evidence and included a test of temporal stability using a sample of 7th and 8th
grade students. All procedures were approved by the Institutional Review Board.
Student Behavior Checklist—Brief
Study 1: Elementary Schools
Participants were recruited through four public elementary schools in an ethnically and
socio-economically diverse school district in a suburban midwestern town using active consent
procedures. The sample consisted of 299 students (53% male) and was 54% White (n=162), 22%
Hispanic (n=66), 11% biracial (n=32), 6% Asian American (n=17), 5% African American
(n=15), and 2% other or unknown (n=7). There were 107 5th graders and 192 6th graders.
Students with parental permission completed written assent before surveys were
administered. Among other measures, students were asked to complete the Behavior Assessment
System for Children, Second Edition, Child Version (BASC-2; Reynolds & Kamphaus, 2004).
The current investigation utilized the Depression, Anxiety, Attitude to School, and Sensation
Seeking subscales. Teachers completed the SBC (Fincham et al., 1989) for each participating
student in their class. Parents’ ratings of academic achievement (0=well below average to 5=well
above average) were used as an estimate of grade point average (GPA).
Study 2: Middle School
Participants were recruited from a middle school in the same school district using active
consent procedures. Written student assent was collected before administering the adolescent
version of the BASC-2 (Reynolds & Kamphaus, 2004). The school assigned students into one of
six “teams” of five teachers for the core academic subjects. The five core teachers in each team
were asked to complete the SBC (Fincham et al. 1989) for 30 randomly selected students in their
team with the option to complete the SBC individually or together as a team. Analyses were
conducted on SBC team ratings. The sample for the primary analyses consisted of 116 students
(53% male) with 53.5% White (n=62), 22% Hispanic (n=26), 10% Asian American (n=12), 9%
biracial (n=10), 3.5% African American (n=4), and 2% other or unknown (n=2). There were 70
Student Behavior Checklist—Brief
seventh graders and 46 eighth graders. The sample to test for temporal stability included 21
students (67% male) who had team ratings taken at a second timepoint four months apart.
Results and Discussion
SBC items were reduced using Study 1 data with corrected item-total correlations in
conjunction with a content analysis of items (DeVellis, 2011). Double-barreled items were
eliminated, while the top three items with the highest item-total correlation within each subscale
were selected for retention (Supplemental Figure shows the SBC-B). All remaining analyses
were conducted with Study 1 data and replicated with Study 2 data.
The underlying structure of the SBC-B was examined using confirmatory factor analysis
(CFA) to test a two-factor model representing LH and MO, a one-factor model representing one
global construct, and a hierarchical model representing a global construct with two underlying
factors. CFAs were conducted with R software (R Core Team, 2016) using the lavaan package
(Rosseel, 2012). To account for nested data (i.e., students within teams of classrooms), single-
level CFAs were fit using robust maximum likelihood and corrected standard errors (Dedrick &
Greenbaum, 2011). CFA model fit was evaluated using Satorra-Bentler chi-square, the
comparative fit index (CFI), and standardized root mean residual (SRMR; Hu & Bentler, 1998).
The chi-square test was included as a measure of exact model fit with non-significant p-values
indicating no significant differences between the models and observed data (Barrett, 2007). CFI
values above 0.90 and SRMR values below .10 were criteria for an adequate fit, whereas CFI
values above 0.95, below .05, and below .08, respectively were criteria for an excellent fit
(Vandenberg & Lance, 2000). The CFI and SRMR indicated excellent fit for all SBC-B models
(Supplemental Table 1). However, the Chi-square test was nonsignificant for the hierarchical
model in Study 1 and both two-factor models in Study 2, suggesting LH and MO are distinct
constructs comprising a global construct.
Student Behavior Checklist—Brief
Cronbach’s alphas of the SBC-B were 0.84/.89 and 0.91/.95 for the LH and MO
subscales for elementary/middle school students, respectively, demonstrating “very good” to
“excellent” internal consistency reliability (DeVellis, 2011). Criterion-related validity was
strong, evidenced by significant correlations between SBC subscales and SBC-B. The 12-item
LH scale was significantly positively correlated with the 3-item LH scale (rs=.95/.95), and the
12-item MO scale was significantly positively correlated with the 3-item MO scale (rs=.95/.94)
in Study 1/Study 2. Additionally, comparison of correlations using Fisher’s r to z transformation
found no significant differences in associations between outcome variables and the SBC
compared to those with the SBC-B in either study. Finally, bivariate correlations were used to
investigate convergent/discriminant validity. In Study 1, both SBC-B subscales were
significantly related to Depression, Anxiety, Attitude to School, and GPA, while neither
subscales were significantly linked to Sensation-Seeking (Supplemental Table 2). Study 2 had
similar results. However, the MO subscale was not related to Anxiety. Finally, Study 2
demonstrated moderate temporal stability across four months (rs = 0.58 and 0.66, for LH and
MO, respectively).
Overall, the newly developed 6-item SBC-B demonstrated strong psychometric
properties in two independent samples. Specifically, the 3-item subscales demonstrated very
strong to excellent internal consistency reliability, moderate temporal stability, and strong
criterion-related and convergent-discriminant validity, offering compelling support for its use.
Additionally, the CFA of the SBC-B provided statistical evidence of the theory-driven two-factor
structure consistent with a SBC self-report version (Sorrenti et al., 2015). Taken together, results
of these two studies suggest that the reliability and validity of the SBC-B completed by an
aggregate team of teachers familiar with students’ functioning across multiple subjects are
comparable to ratings by a single teacher assessing students across multiple subjects. This is
Student Behavior Checklist—Brief
important for continuity of assessments as youth transition from individual teachers in grade
school to multiple teachers in middle school.
Interestingly, the hierarchical factor structure suggests the distinct but related constructs
of LH and MO are elements of a global construct, which we refer to as learning approach. We
define learning approach as “the set of behaviors exhibited in learning situations potentially
influenced by the motivation to avoid failure, resulting in LH, or the motivation to learn from
failure, resulting in MO.” A global learning approach with distinct LH/MO student responses in
challenging, failure situations is consistent with implicit theories of intelligence that highlight
fixed and growth mindsets as distinct aspects (Dweck & Leggett, 1988; Haimovitz & Dweck,
2017). A greater understanding of students’ learning approach using the SBC-B can contribute to
growing research on theories of intelligence and growth mindset (Haimovitz & Dweck, 2017). In
addition, the wider use of the SBC-B can facilitate research on youth depression, especially as it
relates to social-emotional learning (Durlak et al., 2011) and LH as a risk factor for depression
(Abramson et al., 1978).
Study strengths include the use of a multi-reporter design, and two independent samples
that were ethnically diverse and evenly distributed between males and females, which supports
the generalizability of findings across educational levels. However, sample size limitations did
not allow for comparisons based on race and ethnicity. Additionally, we did not examine subject-
specific teacher ratings of LH or MO. Future research could examine whether learning approach
for specific subjects might relate differentially to child outcomes. Last, future research should
continue to evaluate the psychometric properties of the SBC-B in different samples, specifically
by age and subject.
Student Behavior Checklist—Brief
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Student Behavior Checklist—Brief
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Student Behavior Checklist—Brief
Supplemental Table 1
Fit Indices for the Student Behavior Checklist-Brief with Elementary School and Middle School Students
Model 1:
Model 2:
Model 3:
Elementary School Students
11.74 (7), p=0.11
Middle School Students
5.50(8), p=0.702
4.82(7), p=.68
Notes. SB
2=Satorra-Bentler chi-square; df=degrees of freedom; CFI=comparative fit index;
RMSEA=root mean square error of approximation; SRMR = standardized root mean square residual;
*p<.05, **p<.01.
Student Behavior Checklist—Brief
Supplemental 2
Means, Standard Deviations, and Bivariate Correlations Among Measures in Two Samples
1.LH (Brief)
2.MO (Brief)
3.LH (Full)
4.MO (Full)
Note. Grade school presented below diagonal/before correlations; middle school presented above diagonal/after correlations;
LH=Learned-Helplessness, MO=Mastery-Orientation, DEP= Depressive Symptoms, ANX=Anxiety Symptoms, ATS=Attitude to
School, SEN=Sensation Seeking, GPA=Academic Achievement. Higher BASC-2 scores indicate more depressive symptoms, more
anxiety symptoms, more negative attitude toward school, and higher levels of sensation-seeking behaviors. *p<.05. **p<.01.
Student Behavior Checklist—Brief
Supplemental Figure
Student Behavior Checklist-Brief
Instructions: Below is a list of items that describe some children’s behavior in school. Please
consider the behavior of the child named above over the last 2-3 months. For each item, circle
the number that indicates how true that description is of the child.
Please read the items carefully, as they ask about several
different aspects of the child’s behavior.
Not True
Very True
1. When s/he encounters an obstacle in his/her work, s/he works
to overcome it.
2. Gives up when you correct him/her or find a mistake in
his/her work.
3. Tries to finish assignments, even when they are difficult.
4. When s/he begins a difficult problem, his/her attempts are
5. In general, attempts to do his/her work thoroughly and well,
rather than just trying to get by.
6. Says things like “I can’t do it” when s/he has trouble with
his/her work.
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