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Context  During clinical rotations, students move from one clinical situation to another. Questions exist about students’ strategies for coping with these transitions. These strategies may include a process of social comparison because in this context it offers the student an opportunity to estimate his or her abilities to master a novel rotation. These estimates are relevant for learning and performance because they are related to self-efficacy. We investigated whether student estimates of their own future performance are influenced by the performance level and gender of the peer with whom the student compares him- or herself.

Methods  We designed an experimental study in which participating students (n = 321) were divided into groups assigned to 12 different conditions. Each condition entailed a written comparison situation in which a peer student had completed the rotation the participant was required to undertake next. Differences between conditions were determined by the performance level (worse, similar or better) and gender of the comparison peer. The overall grade achieved by the comparison peer remained the same in all conditions. We asked participants to estimate their own future performance in that novel rotation. Differences between their estimates were analysed using analysis of variance (anova).

Results  Students’ estimates of their future performance were highest when the comparison peer was presented as performing less well and lowest when the comparison peer was presented as performing better (p < 0.001). Estimates of male and female students in same-gender comparison conditions did not differ. In two of three opposite-gender conditions, male students’ estimates were higher than those of females (p < 0.001 and p < 0.05, respectively).

Conclusions  Social comparison influences students’ estimates of their future performance in a novel rotation. The effect depends on the performance level and gender of the comparison peer. This indicates that comparisons against particular peers may strengthen or diminish a student’s self-efficacy, which, in turn, may ease or hamper the student’s learning during clinical rotations. The study is limited by its experimental design. Future research should focus on students’ comparison behaviour in real transitions.