Practice excellence not perfection – study

Some students striving for perfection in their exams fear they will fall short of it. But is it a damaging quest?

Flinders University clinical PhD candidate Ivana Osenk, under the supervision of Distinguished Professor of Psychology Tracey Wade, led a study to understand the relationship between perfectionism and academic achievement.

“Our study suggests we should encourage young students to set healthy high standards and strive for excellence, not perfection,” says Ms Osenk.

The study analysed 67 peer-reviewed articles with a total of 21,272 participants to assess the effects of perfectionism on academic performance, academic burnout and stress, test anxiety, procrastination, engagement, satisfaction, and learning strategies.

Overall, the articles showed that having high standards improved academic outcomes and increased academic performance, and protected against negative outcomes like anxiety, stress and procrastination. But anxieties around falling short of perfection were damaging.

“Our study adds to the evidence that perfectionism is harmful, particularly the feeling of falling short of impossible standards,” Ms Osenk says. “Being self-critical about not attaining perfection increases the risk of burnout and doesn’t protect against stress, anxiety or procrastination.”

Psychology PhD candidate Ivana Osenk who conducted the research project.

The results of the study did find a difference between the effects of students striving for perfection, and their perfectionistic concerns – the impact mistakes, failure, and feelings of falling short of expectations had on them.

While perfectionistic concerns, such as fear of failure and falling short of one’s standards, had consistently negative outcomes for successful learning, the outcomes for perfectionistic strivings varied.

Striving for perfection was linked to high academic performance. But it didn’t protect students against harmful academic outcomes such as procrastination and stress.

“Some of the articles we examined found striving for perfection may be helpful, but we don’t agree with that as a blanket statement,” said Ms Osenk. “We discovered the most helpful thing was having healthy high standards. Traditionally, this has been put in the same bucket as striving for perfection. But our ongoing research shows the two concepts must be distinguished.”

“Striving for perfection may be related to better academic scores on paper in the short-term. But in the long term, perfectionism is neither healthy nor helpful.”

But if perfectionism is so harmful, why would high standards be helpful?

“Having healthy, high standards leaves more space for self-compassion and flexibility in the face of failure, rather than criticism,” Ms Osenk says. “This means allowing room for imperfection and error, which is common to all of us as humans. Perfection is unattainable.”

“Perfectionism makes young people aim for rigid goals, and sets them up to fear failure, to fear making mistakes and taking risks in their learning, and to be self-critical when perfection isn’t attained.”

“We need to encourage students to strive to be the best they can be, rather than wanting to be the ‘best’ and chasing an unattainable ideal. One is healthy and helps high achievement. The other can be toxic to both academic outcomes and students’ mental health.”

“Previous research shows perfectionism has increased in young people over the last few decades. Perfectionism is linked to depression, anxiety, and poor mental health. It’s very concerning when we think about young people today, who face academic and social pressures to attain perfect ideals”.

“In our future research, we’re looking for ways to promote healthy high standards and self-compassion rather than perfectionism. We’ve just finished testing our school-based intervention program in high schools across SA, and I’m excited to see the outcomes”.

Ivana Osenk, Paul Williamson & Tracey Wade (2020) ‘Does Perfectionism or Pursuit of Excellence Contribute to Successful Learning? A Meta-Analytic Review’ published in Psychological Assessment. DOI: 10.1037/pas0000942

Article by MCERA, an independent, not-for-profit organisation which connects education research and researchers with the media. 

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College of Education, Psychology and Social Work