Should teachers focus on performance differences between students or within students?

Teachers’ perceptions and actions can have a great impact on students’ beliefs, motivation, effort and performance. One way in which teachers affect their students is in the way they evaluate students’ performance. Falko Rheinberg (1980) showed that some teachers tend to compare students with each other – this is called a social reference norm orientation (social RNO) – while other teachers tend to compare a student’s current learning outcomes with his or her previous performance – this is called an individual reference norm orientation (individual RNO).

Teachers with a social RNO tend to attribute their students’ learning outcomes to stable causal factors (ability) on which they base their long-term expectations. They also tend to base their sanctions (praise and criticism) on whether a learning outcome is above or below the class average. Teachers with an individual RNO tend to view achievement as more variable and are thus more sensitive to fluctuations in student performance. They tend to attribute their students’ learning outcomes to variable causes such as effort and learning strategies. Their sanctions (praise and criticism) depend on whether or not a student’s performance has improved over time.

The following table (which was based on Table 2 in this article) summarizes the differences between the two orientations.

RNO Research (e.g. Trudewind and Kohne, 1982; Rheinberg, 1979) showed that students taught by teachers with an individual RNO showed decreasing fear of failure and an increased hope of success. This effect was strongest with students who scored in the low range on intelligence tests. Also, students felt more encouraged to participate actively in class when their teacher had an individual RNO (Rheinberg & Krug, 2005).