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Addressing unrealistic optimism with counterfactual reasoning in an employability module in higher education

Jill Hanson (iCeGS, University of Derby, Derby, UK)
Ciaran Burke (Department of Sociology, University of the West of England Bristol, Bristol, UK)

Journal of Applied Research in Higher Education

ISSN: 2050-7003

Article publication date: 31 August 2020

Issue publication date: 7 June 2021




The study aimed to explore the effect of second year business students engaging in counterfactual reasoning on their unrealistic optimism regarding attainment on an employability module.


Using an experimental design, the study compared the module performance of those who generated reasons why they would and would not achieve a series of specific grades. A control group who did not generate any reasons also took part.


Students who generated reasons why they would not achieve a good grade were less likely to be unrealistically optimistic and more likely to attain a good grade on their assessment.

Research limitations/implications

This is a small sample of students from one form of programme, so replication with a greater sample drawn from other programmes would increase reliability.

Practical implications

The results suggest an easily applied and practical way of engaging students in employability modules to support their development of a range of capitals.

Social implications

The findings are considered in relation to the theory of possible selves, the value for students, particularly widening participation of students, of improved engagement with employability modules and the possibility of applying this technique in wider educational settings.


This paper extends Hoch’s (1985) original study by considering the use of counterfactual reasoning for assessment performance and offering a an easy-to-apply tool for module leaders to support student attainment in employability development modules.



Hanson, J. and Burke, C. (2021), "Addressing unrealistic optimism with counterfactual reasoning in an employability module in higher education", Journal of Applied Research in Higher Education, Vol. 13 No. 3, pp. 830-848.



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