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Focus On Basics

Volume 8, Issue B ::: May 2006

Low Self-Esteem: Myth or Reality?

by Anastasiya A. Lipnevich
When you look at your class full of students, whom do you see? Individuals failing in life or accomplished people with enough energy to add schooling to their list of responsibilities? How do you think they see themselves?

Adult basic education (ABE) students' self-esteem is a surprisingly under investigated subject. Many researchers assert that high self-esteem is a crucial component in achieving positive results in the adult literacy classroom, and that a lack thereof is among the biggest deterrents to participation in adult education (McGivney, 2001; Beder, 1990; Valentine & Darkenwald, 1990; Hayes & Darkenwald, 1988; Scanlan, 1986). Scanlan (1986) provided a review of the literature on barriers to participation in the adult literacy classroom, and named lack of self-confidence as one of the six major categories of deterrents. Results of several of Quigley's (1997) studies confirm the finding that a lack of confidence appears to be a major deterrent, and usually relates to a negative attitude towards school in general. McGivney (2001) notes that a key issue in increasing learners' participation in adult literacy classrooms is helping students see themselves not as academic failures but as successful learners. Quigley (1997) and Scanlan (1986) use self-confidence as a synonym for self-esteem. Self-schema, self-attitude, self-worth, self-efficacy, and self-perception are among other terms sometimes used to describe this broad theoretical entity (Vygotsky, 1991; Schafer & Keith, 1999; Marsh, 1990).

No Empirical Evidence

These claims seem to be quite logical. However, despite presenting strong arguments about the importance of self-esteem, almost none of the existing studies has closely examined it. Researchers who did look at self-esteem often treated it as an outcome measure of the adult literacy program, and measures of this complex construct were based on self-report, usually elicited through one or two questions on a survey or interview. Although these studies provide evidence that self-esteem is important to adult learning, they do not offer insights on how its levels might influence learners' achievements in the adult literacy classroom, nor do they present a detailed picture of individuals' self-esteem. No solid link has been established between low literacy and low self-esteem, yet all the literature I encountered on the subject presumes low self-esteem levels in adult literacy students.

Beder (1991) and Quigley (1997) suggest that public adult literacy policy is based on the presumption that the culture of those with limited literacy skills is inferior to the mainstream culture. Adults with low literacy levels are viewed as unintelligent, unproductive, and deficient (Quigley, 1990). This stigma may be exacerbated by some instructional practices, such as inappropriately high praise for even small achievement, resulting in a "...condescending stance on the one hand and a cheerleader style on the other" (Beder, 1990, p. 72). Some educators believe that their students have lived lives of failure, that failure has resulted in poor self-concepts, and that until their deficits get fixed, the circle of failures will repeat. Therefore, some teachers believe that the goal of a literacy program is to identify the self-esteem deficit and "cure" it (Beder, 1990, 1991; Beder & Medina, 2001). Teachers focused on providing positive feedback may treat actual academic achievement as secondary to building up self-esteem and establishing trustful, reassuring environments (Beder & Medina, 2001).

As a result of negative schooling experiences in the past, adult learners often dislike school. However, this should not automatically lead to the conclusion that their self-esteem is low. In fact, none of the references above presents empirical evidence in support of this assumption. Mezirow, Darkenwald, and Knox (1975) state that "lack of participant self-confidence was thought to be widespread" (p. 62, italics mine) when referring to teachers' views on the students in adult basic education classes. Because the role and importance of academic success are taken for granted in modern society, this assumption is further generalized from the academic domain to individuals' overall self-esteem. As a result, the view of adult students as having very low self-esteem became prevalent.

To address the lack of empirical evidence on the self-esteem levels of adult literacy students, I designed a study that would investigate the self-esteem levels of a group of adult literacy students. I report on this study, the findings, and their implications here.

The Study Sample

This study was conducted with two groups of participants. The first group was comprised of 219 adult literacy students attending classes in the National Labsite for Adult Literacy Education, a partnership between the National Center for the Study of Adult Learning and Literacy (NCSALL) at Rutgers University and the New Brunswick Public Schools Adult Learning Center. This New Jersey adult learning center serves about 3,700 students per year. The classes include adult basic education (ABE), adult high school (AHS), preparation for tests of General Educational Development (GED), and English for speakers of other languages (ESOL). These research participants were awarded a $10 honorarium for answering the survey questions.

The survey I planned to use was one I created, based on a Russian survey (Panteleev, 1993). Since, as far as I know, it has not been used in the United States, self-esteem norms for the general US population were not available for comparison. Judgments of whether a certain self-esteem score is low or high could not be made. To solve this problem I invited doctoral students from several programs at Rutgers University to participate in a Web-based administration of the same survey; 47 participated. They were not compensated. This brought the total number of participants to 266, with 38 percent enrolled in ESOL programs, 17 percent in ABE programs, 16 percent in the AHS programs, 10 percent in GED programs, and 18 percent in PhD programs. The average age of the participants was 33 years, with a range in age of 16 to 67. Females made up 65 percent of the sample. In terms of ethnic background, 50 percent of our sample were Latino/Spanish-speaking students, 26 percent were black/African-American, 10 percent Caucasian, 6 percent Asian; the other students did not report their ethnicity. The average highest grade students had completed before coming to the Center was 9.6, with a range of grade 3 to 18.

academic and global self-esteem survey

Administering the Survey

Our instrument consisted of a total of 25 items (see sample, above) that measured global self-esteem, defined as feelings of general satisfaction with oneself and affection for oneself; and academic self-esteem, defined as attitudes towards the learning process, a sense of direction, and self-expectations for academic performance. We used a data collection method called assisted self-completion with the adult literacy students. In assisted self-completion, the data collection team monitored the students as they completed the questionnaire and provided literacy assistance as necessary. This method breaks the rules of standardized survey administration: it relies on teachers and data collectors to help students understand the specifics of taking a survey as well as the language used in it. Our justification for the use of this method is that it enables us to collect responses from learners with very limited literacy skills.

It has been commonly accepted that it is inappropriate to use questionnaires with people who have limited literacy skills. Our research team believes that this denies a voice to the very people who are supposed to benefit from adult literacy research. In the course of a week-long data collection marathon, the researchers answered all questions students had by paraphrasing, providing examples, and explaining word meanings in detail. A teacher or data collector translated the survey for those students with extremely limited English. Anecdotal evidence suggested that survey completion turned out to be a valuable literacy task. Students used dictionaries to look up the meanings of unknown words, wrote down new words and expressions in their note books, and explained unfamiliar words to each other. Not only was their school task uninterrupted but taking the survey was also an excellent literacy exercise for them.

The reliability of the survey instrument was high, as measured by Chronbach's alpha coefficient. Reliability means that "repeated measurements of the same thing give identical or very similar results" (Vogt, 1993, p. 195). It is believed to be affected by many factors, but from the researcher's point of view, the three most important factors are the length (total number of questions), the quality of the questions, and the fit to the group being measured. The high reliability of the present instrument suggests that the unusual survey administration procedure has been warranted during the data collection, and provided good results. With careful design and help, it is evident that basic-skills students can validly complete a questionnaire.


To understand better the self-esteem level of adult literacy education students, I compared their level to those of the graduate students. Therefore, the main research question that guided this study was whether the self-esteem levels of adult literacy and graduate students differ. We used a statistical procedure known as analysis of variance (ANOVA); the results indicated that the self-esteem of adult literacy students was not significantly different from that of doctoral students. Pairwise comparisons were run and they showed no differences in either global or academic self-esteem levels among adult students enrolled in the ABE, AHS, GED, and ESOL classes.

Surprising findings, aren't they? Some readers may be too skeptical to take them seriously. Let me lay out several possible explanations for the results. First, Steele (1988) proposed a self-affirmation theory that may be helpful in supporting the finding of adult students' normal levels of self-esteem. This theory suggests that people cope with negative outcomes in one domain by focusing on their achievements in other, unrelated domains. This may mean that low-literacy adults who have failed academically but succeed in other aspects of their lives may have a high general self-esteem that will allow them to lead full lives and fuel the self-confidence necessary for their coming back to school.

Second, all the participants in this study — the literacy and the doctoral students — voluntarily enrolled in their respective educational programs. Even though doctoral students and adult learners are at different educational levels, they had to believe they could succeed when they joined the program. They may have similar doubts about their potential success as they progress. Similar problems, fears, and motives shared by the two groups should make us revise our assumptions about detrimentally low levels of adult learners' self-esteem.

Finally, it is believed (Stolin, 1985; Panteleev, 1993) that self-esteem is partly a product of how a person believes others see her or him and how he or she is compared to others. Several studies (Hughes & Demo, 1989; Rosenberg, 1965) show that individuals from minority groups do not evaluate themselves against the dominant group but against those in their own group. It means that a specific frame of reference significantly influences individuals' self-perceptions. Graduate students consistently comparing themselves to more successful peers may have lower self-esteem levels than basic-literacy students who are doing better than others in their classroom.

Overall, these findings, if confirmed by further inquiry, have significant implications for the practice of adult literacy education. This study provides solid evidence that neither the academic nor the global self-esteem of adult literacy students differs significantly from a comparison group of doctoral students. Teachers' perspectives and beliefs about their students' self-esteem, which might affect their teaching styles, should be re-examined in the light of these findings.

Take another look at your class full of students. You may be surprised by whom you see.


Beder, H. (1990). "Reasons for nonparticipation in adult basic education." Adult Education Quarterly, 40, 207-218.

Beder, H. (1991). "The stigma of illiteracy." Adult Basic Education, 1, 67-78.

Beder, H. (1999). The Outcomes and Impacts of Adult Literacy Education in the United States. Cambridge, MA: National Center for the Study of Adult Learning and Literacy.

Beder, H., & Medina, P. (2001). Classroom Dynamics in Adult Literacy Education. Cambridge, MA: National Center for the Study of Adult Learning and Literacy.

Hayes, E., & Darkenwald, G. (1988). "Participation in basic education: Deterrents for low-literate adults." Studies in the Education of Adults, 20, 16-28.

Hughes, M., & Demo, D. (1989) "Self-perceptions of Black Americans: Self-esteem and personal efficacy." American Journal of Sociology, 95, 132-159.

Marsh, H. (1990) "Influences of internal and external frames of reference on the formation of math and English self-concepts." Journal of Educational Psychology, 82, 107-116.

McGivney, V. (2001). Fixing or Changing the Pattern? Reflections on Widening Adult participation in Learning. Leicester, UK: National Institute for Adult and Continuing Education (NIACE).

Mezirow, J., Darkenwald, G. G., & Knox, A. B. (1975). Last Gamble on Education. Washington, DC: Adult Education Association of the U.S.A.

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Quigley, B.A. (1990). "Hidden logic: Reproduction and resistance in adult literacy and adult basic education." Adult Education Quarterly, 40, (2). 103-115.

Quigley, B.A. (1997). Rethinking Literacy Education: The Critical Need for Practice-Based Change. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Rosenberg, M. (1965). Society and the Adolescent Self-Image. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Scanlan, C. (1986). "Deterrents to participation: An adult education dilemma." (ERIC Information Series No. 308). Columbus, OH: The ERIC Clearinghouse on Adult, Career, and Vocational Education, The National Center for Research in Vocational Education, The Ohio State University.

Schafer, R., & Keith, P. (1999). "Change in adult self esteem: A longitudinal assessment." British Journal of Social Psychology, 38, 303-314.

Steele, C. M. (1988). "The psychology of self-affirmation: Sustaining the integrity of the self." In Berkowitz, L. (ed.). Advances in Experimental Social Psychology. New York: Academic Press.

Stolin, V. V. (1985). Knowing Oneself and Relating to Oneself: Structure of Self Concept. Moscow: Moscow State University.

Valentine, T., & Darkenwald, G. G. (1990). "Deterrents to participation in adult education: Profiles of potential learners." Adult Education Quarterly, 41, 29-42.

Vogt, P. (1993), Dictionary of Statistics and Methodology, Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications.

Vygotsky, L.S. (1991). "Cultural development of children." Psychology, 4, 5-18.

About the Author
Anastasiya Lipnevich is a PhD student in educational psychology at Rutgers University. She has a master's degree in counseling psychology from Rutgers University and a master's degree in psychology and education from the University of Minsk. Her research interests include self-esteem, motivation, and self-regulation.

Updated 7/27/07 :: Copyright © 2005 NCSALL