Who Am I and What can I Achieve? The Role of Identity in A-levels

Students working in a classroom

After 15 years as a psychology teacher it was noticeable that for many students A-levels were so much more than simply qualifications. Of course, they are high stakes examinations as the grades students achieve influence their life chances, their chances of entry into higher education and the options that are subsequently available to them, but it was also becoming apparent that, for many, they were high stakes because they were tied up to the way the individuals perceived themselves. It was of interest, as a psychologist, that A-levels were seemingly linked to a student’s sense of identity and their motivation and thus a DPhil was born.

Eccles (2009) believed that identity comprises three components;

  • A value component made up of the importance a person attaches to specific individual characteristics and groups to which they belong
  • A content component including beliefs about the activities and behaviours which allow successful enactment of identity
  • An efficacy, or expectancy, component which includes beliefs about the ability to enact these behaviours.

These components may be important in relation to A-levels and whether students’ attached value to them, believe they fit with their identity and will be successful in them.

Furthermore Eccles (2009) suggested that identity involved two basic sets of perceptions;

  • Perceptions related to skills, characteristics and competencies (the ‘Me’ self)
  • Perceptions related to personal values and goals (the ‘We’ self).

She assumed people have;

  • Personal identities which serve the psychological function of making one feel unique.
  • Collective identities which serve to strengthen ties to highly valued groups, e.g. on basis of gender, race, religion, social class, culture and family.

According to Eccles (2009) the process of forming these selves is fluid and dynamic and they develop over the lifespan. A-levels may permit a context in which such selves therefore begin to form or develop.  Eccles argued that personal and collective identities decrease the probability of engaging in inconsistent activities and increase the probability of engaging in ones central to identity. This has implications for the achievement of A-level students since the assumption of Eccles’ model of identity is that individuals seek to confirm possession of characteristics central to their self-image and place more value on tasks that provide the opportunity to fulfil their identity, or are consistent with their identity and goals. Essentially if specific identities are important to the individual then the (A-level) activities, behaviours and tasks associated with them will be valued and the individual will be motivated to act them out (Eccles, 2009).

In this research, twenty students were interviewed as part of a mixed method study involving 930 A-level students from 12 Oxfordshire schools. The results suggested that studying for A-level courses confirmed aspects of students’ identity, what interests them, what they enjoy and plan to do;

Christian:   “…I’ve always seen myself as a hands on person and my dad kind of said right you’re like quite good at making stuff…I asked to do engineering… it’s basically confirmed that what I want to do is what I’m doing now.

Daisy:      “I think they’ve confirmed the way I saw myself as someone who wants to succeed and wants to do well, cos I did well at my AS’s and I know I can do that and also that I am interested in science and those are the areas I’d much prefer to be doing than writing an essay.”

However, for others A-levels facilitated changes including revisions to students’ goals;

John:      “So before I did my A levels, I don’t think I did, I don’t think I did know, who, what I was going to be.”

Grace:      “They’ve changed me because at the start I thought I enjoyed writing essays and looking at research and I was really interested in psychology and then I think the grades I got in my first year was a bit like, mmm, maybe not, I need to look at what I’m actually good at and re-evaluate my decision.”

and also their academic skills;

Christian: “….being able to work on my own, like I’ve always been part of a team but I think it’s given me a bit more independence working in 6th form.”

Ian:          “I think they’ve made me more organised.”

Importantly A-levels were perceived to facilitate positive personal change;

Chloe:    “I think they’ve probably changed the way that I see myself as a lot more, like, confident in a way…I come to see myself as more like and open person, like I’ll happily just give my opinion on something.

Angela:    “… they (A-levels) make me want to study hard and become a better person get a good job, be able to become independent….no one’s really gone to university in my family or studied anything higher so… they’ve changed me. They’ve made me better.”

This work was exploratory, however the results of this study suggest that studying A-levels potentially both confirm aspects of students’ identity but also facilitate changes to their perceptions of themselves. It was interesting to find that students’ perceived there to be many positive rather than negative relationships between their identities, expectations and values for A-levels and these are important findings for those working with A-level students and contrary to the literature on the negative effects of assessment on students (e.g. Hanson, 1993; Reay & William, 1999). Further research in this area is therefore warranted.

Dr Carol Brown is a Senior Lecturer in Psychology and Education at Oxford Brookes University. Previously she spent 15 years as an A-level Psychology teacher.


Eccles, J. S. (2009). Who am I and what am I going to do with my life? Personal and collective identities as motivators of action. Educational Psychologist, 44(2), 78-89. doi: 10.1080/00461520902832368

Hanson, A. (1993). Testing testing: social consequences of the examined life: University of California Press.

Reay, D., & Wiliam, D. (1999). ’I’ll be a nothing’: structure, agency and the construction of identity through assessment. British Educational Research Journal, 25(3), 343-354. doi: 10.1080/0141192990250305



One thought on “Who Am I and What can I Achieve? The Role of Identity in A-levels

Comments are closed.