The former group of students tend to achieve to their potential. The latter group of students are at risk of underachieving relative to their potential.
This tendency to reduce one’s chances of academic success is called self-sabotage.
In this article, I want to unpack self-sabotage and explain where it sits in the scheme of students’ motivation, look at various examples of self-sabotage in students’ academic lives, and what practical strategies educators can use to reduce students’ self-sabotage.
Self-sabotage and its place in students’ motivation and engagement
My research focuses on diverse aspects of students’ motivation and engagement. I developed the Motivation and Engagement Wheel, below, to represent the positive and negative parts of students’ motivation and engagement.
Motivation and Engagement Wheel (reproduced with permission and downloadable from www.lifelongachievement.com).
The Wheel has four main themes: positive motivation, positive engagement, negative motivation, and negative engagement. Each theme comprises specific facets of motivation and engagement. Self-sabotage falls under the negative engagement theme in the Wheel.
What is self-sabotage?
Self-sabotage is evident when students place obstacles in their path to academic success – especially when they are to be evaluated in some way, such as when an exam, test, or assignment approaches. Typical obstacles include procrastination, doing little or no study, wasting time, clowning around in class, going out the night before an exam, etc.
Some actions do not appear to be obstacles at first, but on closer inspection are also examples of self-sabotage. For instance, a student may study hard the night before the exam, but not for the subject that is being examined; a student may spend substantial time developing a study timetable but do no study; or, a student may become helpful around the house and avoid study for the upcoming test.
Why do students self-sabotage?
Why would students want to get in the way of their own success? Why wouldn’t a student want to optimise their chances of success?
Research shows that self-sabotage is a protection strategy. It is something students can do if they fear they are going to fail or perform poorly. By putting an obstacle in their path to success, students can have an excuse or an alibi in case they don’t do well in the assessment task. They can blame the obstacle (e.g., lack of effort) rather than blame a lack of ability in the event of poor performance.
How is this self-protective? Well, research also shows that when we fail due to a lack of ability, our self-worth takes a hit. We feel dumb and no good. So if we can deflect the cause of poor performance away from a lack of ability and onto a lack of effort, no-one can call us dumb – we just didn’t try hard enough. Consequently, our self-worth isn’t damaged.
Unfortunately, however, self-sabotage often leads to the very failure that students are scared of. Furthermore, after a while the excuses no longer convince people. So ultimately self-sabotage not only underpins poor performance, but it also loses its self-protective value.
Strategies to reduce students’ self-sabotage
The first task for educators is to determine if and to what extent self-sabotage is happening in students’ lives. This can be done informally by observing students’ behaviours and how much these behaviours are getting in the way of their success. Or, self-sabotage can be more formally assessed using validated survey measures such as the Motivation and Engagement Scale which I developed to measure students on each part of the Motivation and Engagement Wheel, including self-sabotage.
Then, if self-sabotage is identified in a student’s academic life, there are various strategies educators can use to address it. Here are five strategies for starters:
1. Develop courageous and constructive views of mistakes and poor performance. When students see mistakes and poor performance as information to help them improve next time, they are not so frightened of making mistakes or performing poorly. They have a much more courageous and constructive orientation to mistakes. When they are not so fearful of mistakes and poor performance, they are not inclined to engage in self-protective strategies like self-sabotage.
2. Develop courageous and constructive views of effort. When students see effort as the key ingredient for improvement – and not something that makes them look dumb if they perform poorly – they are more likely to try hard and less likely to withdraw effort though self-sabotage.
3. Reduce the link between self-worth and academic performance. When students are able to separate their self-worth from their academic performance, they are not so threatened by the possibility of poor performance. Whether they get a good mark or a poor mark, they feel okay about themselves. Because they feel okay about themselves regardless of the outcome, they are not tempted to protect their self-worth via self-sabotage.
4. Address specific issues or challenges that heighten the risk of poor performance. There are specific issues or challenges in students’ lives that can put them at increased risk of poor performance and which underlie their fear of failure. These may be learning-related disorders such as attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder; specific reading, writing or numeracy difficulties; or mental health issues such as anxiety or depression. There may also be subject-specific difficulties that can be addressed through additional instruction or tutoring.
5. Undertake a formal motivation program. There are formal programs students can do to reduce their self-sabotage. For example, I have developed the Student Motivation and Engagement Booster Program that comprises numerous self-complete modules – including a self-sabotage module – for students to work on that align with the strategies identified above.
Through these approaches, educators can help reduce students’ self-sabotage and support students to be more optimistic as they approach assessment tasks.
Martin, A.J. (1999-2022). Motivation and Engagement Scale. Sydney: Lifelong Achievement Group. https://lifelongachievement.com/pages/the-motivation-and-engagement-scale-mes
Martin, A.J. (1999-2022). Motivation and Engagement Student Booster Program. Sydney: Lifelong Achievement Group. https://lifelongachievement.com/pages/motivation-and-engagement-booster
Martin, A.J. (2010). Building classroom success: Eliminating academic fear and failure. New York: Continuum.
The author's publications can be accessed via his ResearchGate account.