Educators recognize the social nature of the classroom, so it is no surprise that social psychology should help us understand why students learn--and why they don't.

In fact, "knowing that some teaching-related situations are predictable and explainable through social psychology may reduce teachers' frustration in those situations," said Randolph Smith, PhD, in his G. Stanley Hall Lecture, "A social psychology toolbox for the college classroom," at APA's 2002 Annual Convention.

According to Smith, one common behavior of less successful students is self-handicapping. Students engage in behaviors that virtually guarantee worse performance than they might otherwise show. For instance, there is a correlation between scores on self-handicapping scales and on academic procrastination. Further, students who sabotage their academic performance also study for shorter amounts of time and spend little time reading the textbook.

There are also individual differences in the way people self-handicap, so it is important to identify each student's idiosyncracies in this regard, he noted. Ultimately, these behaviors serve to enhance their opportunity to excuse anticipated failure.

Smith pointed out that the different forms of self-handicapping do not appear in isolation. For instance, through self-serving bias, students can ignore their debilitating strategies. Then, when negative outcomes follow, they can blame external causes for their failures. Thus, ultimately students do not recognize that they are accountable for their failures.

Students aren't the only ones who fall prey to self-serving biases, Smith reminded the audience. Professors have the same tendencies: Faculty tend to attribute high levels of student learning to their good teaching, concluding that students who perform poorly do so because of their own foibles. Such conclusions illustrate that identical behaviors can be interpreted differently by students and by professors.

Another interesting psychological phenomenon in the classroom is student perceptions of faculty who teach about controversial topics, Smith said. Students often conclude that the professor is giving personal opinion when discussing controversial theories. According to the fundamental attribution error, people tend to focus on internal characteristics in trying to understand others' behaviors. So, if a teacher presents evidence in favor of an unpopular theory, students may decide that the professor is presenting personal belief.

Individual differences come into play here as well, Smith noted. Research has demonstrated that academically stronger students tend to attribute successful performance to their abilities, but failure to the instructions they receive. Academically weaker students show a different pattern: They conclude that their successes are influenced by instructions, but they are more willing to believe that their failure could be due either to instructions or to their low ability levels.

Individual differences are important, but too often faculty have a tendency to perceive students as being very similar to one another. In reality, teachers know that each student is unique, but they are still not immune to social categorization, in which outgroup differences are minimized and similarities are enhanced, Smith noted.

It is common for people, including students and faculty, to regard individuals in their own group as being more variable, whereas those in an outgroup are characterized stereotypically. As Smith declared, social categorization happens when groups are formed by random processes, like flipping a coin. Not surprisingly, then, when there are more tangible reasons for establishing different categories, students and faculty will both see the other group with one face.

Finally, he said, as professors try to maximize the likelihood of student success, they may resort to using positive reinforcement for successful behavior. Students may consider this bribery. Whatever it is called, though, Smith pointed out that providing tangible rewards for students who already enjoy a behavior can backfire. According to the overjustification effect, bribes and positive reinforcement can reduce the enjoyment students feel in engaging in behaviors they like. Rewards lead students to conclude that they are performing the behaviors in question not because they like to do them, but because of the external rewards. Although offering rewards may induce some students to perform when they otherwise would not, it can detract from the long-term behavior of other students.

This constellation of powerful social psychological phenomena can explain many of the regular dynamics of the classroom. Smith concluded that knowing about these effects may not make teachers or students immune to them, but this knowledge can contribute to a greater understanding of the important social effects in the classroom.

Barney Beins, PhD, is APA's director of precollege and undergraduate programs.