Personality and Academic Performance: The Underlying Connections

Have you ever heard of the Big 5? The Big 5 is a theory that broadly categorizes personality traits into 5 distinct dimensions:

  • Openness,

  • Conscientiousness,

  • Extroversion,

  • Agreeableness; and

  • Neuroticism

Each person has a different combination of traits within each dimension that make up their personality. Based on these combinations, people tend to behave in certain ways that are in line with characteristics of each dimension. In addition to playing a role in influencing one’s behaviour, recent research out of The University of Texas at Austin suggests that these personality dimensions may also influence a child’s performance in math and reading in ways we might not expect.

Contrary to popular belief, dominating traits in the conscientious dimension like carefulness, self-discipline, organization, and efficiency are less likely to be related to the skills needed to excel in reading and math. Quite the opposite. Instead traits dominant in openness like adventurousness, imagination, curiosity and self-confidence have been found to be more linked to the complex set of skills needed for academic proficiency. This not to say that lower scores in openness automatically doom children to academic disappointment. While the goal-directed behaviour of a conscientiousness dimension certainly encourages the kind of diligence and perseverance required to excel in academic settings; openness has been found to encourage thoughtfulness, tolerance of unusual ideas, and the intellectual flexibility needed to adapt to different academic circumstances.

Research

Drawing connections between human behaviour and academic performance is no new exploration. However, prior studies only looked at the impact of self-regulation on academic skills. Despite the interesting findings from these studies, it became apparent that self-regulation is a very broad construct that incorporates personality traits and intellectual abilities. More recently, psychology associate professors, Elliot Tucker-Drob and Paige Harden expanded this focus in the Texas Twin Project. A twin-study was used because of its unique study design and focus on revealing the importance of genetic and environmental influences on academic achievement.

Under their direction, data was collected from over 1,000 twins between the ages of 8-14 years in an effort to examine the underlying factors of self-regulation with regards to observed difference in academic abilities. The study found that, even after accounting for processing speed and fluid intelligence, proficiency in math and reading was strongly linked to executive functioning. When compared to personality dimensions, the study revealed that children with higher executive function displayed more traits of openness than they did conscientiousness.

Outcomes and Impact

These findings have the potential to change the way we approach primary school education all together. Not only will the differences in student performance become normalized over time, and rather than promote rigid performance scoring traditions, educators will be in a better position to develop the necessary tools needed to identify and address educational problems with more efficiency and effectiveness.

References

Cherry, K. (2018). The big five personality traits. Retrieved January 10, 2019, from Very Well Mind: https://www.verywellmind.com/the-big-five-personality-dimensions-2795422

Eisenberg, N., Duckworth, A. L., Spinrad, T. L., & Valiente, C. (2014). Conscientiousness: Origins in childhood? Developmental Psychology, 50(5), 1331-1349. doi: 10.1037/a0030977.

Jain, S. (2018). Study shows academic performance is highly genetic. Retrieved January 27, 2019, from The Daily Texan: http://www.dailytexanonline.com/2018/09/24/study-shows-academic-performance-is-highly-genetic

Malanchini, M. L., Grotzinger, A. D., Harden, K. P., & Tucker-Drob, E. M. (2018). “Same but different”: Associations between multiple aspects of self-regulation, cognition, and academic abilities. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, doi: 10.1037/pspp0000224.

UT News. (2018). Intellectual curiosity and confidence help children take on math and reading. Retrieved January 10, 2019, from The University of Texas: https://news.utexas.edu/2018/12/19/intellectual-curiosity-and-confidence-help-children-take-on-math-and-reading/

Dr. M. Arnold Muller

Dr. M. Arnold Muller

Dr. M. Arnold Muller is a licensed School and Clinical Psychologist currently based in Toronto, Ontario, with 31 years of practice experience in two countries. Prior to his time in Canada, he spent the first half of his career in South Africa. Dr. Muller has a Ph.D. with specialization in Psychotherapy from the University of Pretoria, and a Masters Degree in Clinical Psychology. He also has a second Masters Degree in Practical Theology from the University of Stellenbosch.

Dr. Muller has worked in many settings including school boards, addiction centres, correctional institutions, the military, churches, and private practices. Spending time in these organizations has allowed him to gain an astounding amount of experience in psychological assessment, diagnosis, and treatment plan preparation and application.

Dr. Muller also has training and exposure to Neurofeedback Training, Somatic Experiencing, crisis intervention, conflict resolution and managing cultural differences. In his spare time, you can find him hiking, travelling, working on his photography, poetry, and spending time with his family and friends.

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