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How Strong Is the Evidence for a Causal Reciprocal Effect? Contrasting Traditional and New Methods to Investigate the Reciprocal Effects Model of Self-Concept and Achievement

Abstract: The relationship between students’ subject-specific academic self-concept and their academic achievement is one of the most widely researched topics in educational psychology. A large proportion of this research has considered cross-lagged panel models (CLPMs), oftentimes synonymously referred to as reciprocal effects models (REMs), as the gold standard for investigating the causal relationships between the two variables and has reported evidence of a reciprocal relationship between self-concept and achievement. However, more recent methodological research has questioned the plausibility of assumptions that need to be satisfied in order to interpret results from traditional CLPMs causally. In this substantive-methodological synergy, we aimed to contrast traditional and more recently developed methods to investigate reciprocal effects of students’ academic self-concept and achievement. Specifically, we compared results from CLPMs, full-forward CLPMs (FF-CLPMs), and random intercept CLPMs (RI-CLPMs) with two weighting approaches developed to study causal effects of continuous treatment variables. To estimate these different models, we used rich longitudinal data of N = 3757 students from lower secondary schools in Germany. Results from CLPMs, FF-CLPMs, and weighting methods supported the reciprocal effects model, particularly when math self-concept and grades were considered. Results from the RI-CLPMs were less consistent. Implications from our study for the interpretation of effects from the different models and methods as well as for school motivation theory are discussed.
Keywords: Substantive-methodological synergy / Reciprocal effects model / Self-concept / Cross-lagged panel model / Entropy balancing

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