Strong Students Get Stronger and the Struggling Continue to Struggle

Strong Students Get Stronger and the Struggling Continue to Struggle

The “Matthew”-effect originally described the concept that “the rich get richer and the poor get poorer” (3). However, since the term’s coining in 1968, it has been applied to the educational phenomenon in which “strong students get stronger and struggling students struggle even more” (3). In their paper, “Is teacher judgment accuracy of students’ characteristics beneficial for verbal teacher-student interactions in classroom?,” authors Maralena Pielmeier et al. explain that students with already high pre-achievement and high levels of confidence in a given subject are more likely to be verbally engaged in class, while students with lower pre-achievement and self-confidence are less engaged. However, if teachers can accurately judge students’ levels of student achievement and confidence, they may be better able to address the needs of lower performing students and help mitigate the “Matthew”-effect.

For Pielmeier et al., two student characteristics are highly relevant to student success in the classroom: pre-achievement and students’ self-concepts of ability (1). Previous studies have shown that students with high pre-achievement and high self-concept of ability are “more frequently engaged in interactions with teachers…are more likely to verbally contribute to elaborating teacher questions…and more frequently receive supportive teacher feedback” (2-3). Thus, by engaging more frequently with students who are already relatively successful in the classroom, teachers contribute to the growing gap in student achievement, the “Matthew-Effect”.

“In many classrooms, however, teachers verbally interact with only a few students. Often these students have strong prerequisites, such as high pre-achievement” (2).

In this study, Pielmeier et al. investigate the link between teachers’ judgements of students’ pre-achievement and content-confidence levels and the frequency of teachers’ verbal interactions with those students. The authors collected data from 348 German eight grade math students in 18 different classes during the 2013-2014 school year (4). First, students were asked to complete a questionnaire about their pre-achievement and their content-confidence levels. After two months of instruction, the math teachers were then asked to complete a questionnaire about the pre-achievement and self-concept of ability for each student in their class (4). Three to four months into the school year, teachers were then asked to give a 45-minute lesson on functional relationships (proportionality). The full lessons were videotaped so that the researchers could observe teacher and student interactions (4).

The Findings

“[F]rom the viewpoint of an individual student, instances of interactions with teachers are rather scarce events” (7).

  • Students with high pre-achievement also reported high content-confidence levels
  • Teachers who judged students’ pre-achievement accurately were also more likely to accurately judge those students’ self-concepts of ability (7)
  • Contrary to other studies, Pielmeier et al. found that student pre-achievement alone did not significantly contribute to students’ verbal engagement in class

“Higher student self-concept of ability was significantly related to higher verbal student engagement, elaborating teacher questions, and supportive teacher feedback” (9).

  • Teachers who were able to more accurately judge their students’ content-confidence levels were also more likely to give supportive feedback to those students
  • Teachers who had higher levels of judgement accuracy about student pre-achievement levels posed more elaborating questions to students with lower pre-achievement levels (9)

Pielmeier et al. remark that if teachers can accurately judge students’ pre-achievement and content-confidence levels, then teachers may be able to better address the needs of lower-performing students, especially by providing more supportive feedback to students with lower pre-achievement and lower confidence levels (3).


Paper Title:  Is teacher judgment accuracy of students’ characteristics beneficial for verbal teacher-student interactions in classroom?

Authors: Maralena Pielmeier, Sina Huber, and Tina Seidel (Technical University of Munich, TUM School of Education, Germany)

Full Paperhttps://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0742051X17303128

Published: Teaching and Teacher Education, 2018, Pages 1-12

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