Trying to overcome Loss Aversion in PE

I felt my frustration rising. I had watched this group for a while now. There was a lack of willingness to put in any meaningful effort into the task. All the individuals in the group were not working at a level that was needed for learning to occur, let alone just get some benefit from physical activity. At times they focused on the task and the success and quality shot right up. There wasn’t a lack of ability. Then as quickly as it appeared, it disappeared. Gone. Spooked by the distraction of one or more of the group to something insignificant. I fought back the frustration and questioned the task. Was it too easy? Too demanding? Did they understand the purpose? What could I do to change it? I was brought out of my deliberation by laughter. There was plenty of laughter. Laughter at the mistakes they made, especially the simplest of ones. The feeling of frustration came rushing back. It took every fibre of my being not to raise my voice at them. I had learnt from previous experience this approach only ever got a short term bump in performance, never an increase in long term learning. I gained their attention and slowly walked over to speak to them.

This moment has played out over and over in my career and continues to pose me a problem with no real solution. In every year group there is a group of students whose motor competency makes little to no progress because they fear failure so much they are unwilling to take the risk of making the effort required for any success or learning. They embrace failure from a lack of effort, because I believe this is easier for their ego to deal with then actually trying and failing. This group, to protect themselves from embarrassment, employ a huge range of avoidance techniques. As the years progress, the gap widens between them and their peers. Even those who started with less prior ability with them start to pull away. Perhaps it wouldn’t matter as much if they still enjoyed movement or found some meaning in it. However they see the gap grow and this only increases their anticipation of failure, anxiety and stress, leading to the employment of even more avoidance techniques.

In Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman explores human behaviour and decision making processing. One of the many theories that is put forward in the book is that of Prospect Theory. Prospect Theory attempts to explain the process of how people decide between the potential choices that involve risk, usually where the probabilities of the outcomes of those choices are known in advance. The theory states that people make decisions based on the potential value of losses and gains rather than the final outcome, and that people evaluate these losses and gains using certain principles. There are three main principles of prospect theory. The first two principles are that the evaluation of the choice is relative to a neutral reference point and also there is diminishing sensitivity. The third principle is that of loss aversion. Simply put loss aversion is that the response to losses is stronger than the response to corresponding gains. Whilst loss aversion is mainly to do with financial rewards and gains I wonder if a version of it is at play within PE? Are the students in the scenario outlined above driven more strongly to avoid losses than to achieve gains? In acquiring a new skill in PE; not achieving it is a loss, exceeding it is a gain. As Kahneman puts it “...the two motives are not equally powerful. The aversion to the failure of not acquiring a new skill is much stronger than the desire to exceed it.

Wordle of Social Targets
Wordle of Social Targets

Wordle of Affective Targets
Wordle of Affective Targets

Without our students willing to take the risk of failure, how are we able to help them develop their movement competency? This means we need to reduce the cost of the risk of trying. The above wordles have given me some possible avenues to explore in the future to solving the issues of loss aversion. They have been made from 450 co-constructed targets of Year 7 to 9 students within my school. We have moved to a narrative based style of assessment that focuses on the physical, cognitive, social and affective development within PE. Two key areas emerge from looking at the targets as a whole. Students feel they give up too easily and that they don’t treat peers positively when mistakes are made. These need to be addressed to try and create a ‘have a go’ culture within PE lessons and where my focus will be directed in the future. How we try to overcome loss aversion is a big question that needs to answered if we want to empower our students to move on their own terms.

I continue to believe that the best thing we can do for our students to make them confident in our subject, is to make them more competent. Movement is at the heart of physical education, but without spending time on the social and affective aspects of movement then competency will not develop as well for all. Learning in the cognitive, social and affective domains is not meant to replace learning in the physical but support it. To help those students who are risk adverse we must also look to develop the behaviours of movement and build a community of movement within lessons for them to have a go and see that trial and error is an essential part of learning to move.

“It is not because things are difficult we do not dare; it is because we do not dare that they are difficult.” Seneca 


7 thoughts on “Trying to overcome Loss Aversion in PE

  1. Very interesting – students with ability who are unwilling to take risks to improve is being discussed by some of my colleagues as well (along with the frustration this causes for the instructor). One issue that seems to arise is the value of the outcome to the student. There seem to be more students who are content to get enough passing grades to be able to graduate, and getting a higher grade by putting in more effort isn’t an outcome that is valuable to them. Is this “good enough” perspective happening in your scenario too?


    1. Hi Fiona, we’ve moved away from any sort of grading in PE within our school almost two years ago. There is no pass and fail. Just an ipsative assessment of targets that are co-constructed between student and teacher (still lots of work to get this right). I wouldn’t consider this group of students ‘good enough’. The purpose of PE, in my opinion, is to empower children to move on their own terms. This group withdraw from movement either due to a lack of meaning or that they aren’t willing to put in the effort and feel uncomfortable to get to a level where they could. After 16 years of teaching I’m still at a lost of what to do with children who come to us like this, who have been failed by the system, their previous school, their parents and aren’t willing to take the risk to try and enrich their lives through movement.


    1. A combination of observation, dialogue and of course some assumption. The biggest indicator though is the co-construction of learning targets. Over half of the students have written for their social target: to treat others with kindness/respect when they make mistakes. For their affective target a majority have written: to stay positive when I make a mistake or not to give up easily when things are challenging. I think these two combine to make a culture where children are afraid to really try and fail. This is something I feel I need to address in my context. Cooperative Learning has been good at allowing social skills to be taught explicitly. I’m still unsure of the way forward for the affective skills needed to create the positive behaviours needed for movement.


  2. I have been there with those type of groups so many times! I wanted to know what they were thinking about my lessons and not always what they were learning- these are two very different things with any group, in particular a mixed ability year 10 class.

    I completed a football drill and asked them to rank it accordingly to the type of challenged it had provided for them. I sectioned of a square shape with some cones and the students literally had to stand by a sign saying social, cognitive, technical or physical. This particular class stood in different places – I had a mini breakthrough and it surprised me (I did have to explain the terms to them). I had created dialogue about the drill and we now talked about changes to the drill that would cause cause them to selected differently if we did the same task.

    For the technical focus, I amended the task and delivered whole- part- whole enabling them to master tiny fractions of technical work. I played with failure, I made some parts so difficult everyone failed and I purposely did this. I started to get a shift in mindset because I looked at the drill differently, I had asked their opinion- it rejuvenated me!


    1. Hi Fiona. Thanks for sharing this experience with me. With PE being a unique subject within school (in that it isn’t focused on qualification, but empowering movement beyond school) I think we all easily fall into the trap of not asking students their thoughts about their learning experiences from our teaching. How has this experience shaped your practice? What do you now do differently that you didn’t before. I would be keen to learn what insights you have gleaned.


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