Personality and Academic Performance
Personality refers to individual differences in the way we feel, think, and behave. Personality is the unique combination of characteristics and qualities that makes you “you” across situations and contexts. As such, personality is both fundamental for our understanding of and engagement with the world. Academic performance is the assessment of the extent to which an individual – typically a student – has achieved an educational goal. Most often, academic performance is operationalized as grades (e.g., grade point average (GPA)), or, alternatively, highest level of educational attainment.
A high educational level is desirable not only for the individual but also their societies and associated economies. Educational success commonly leads to enhanced occupational status and high earnings (Pascarella and Terenzini 1991), and societies with well-educated workforces tend to enjoy both greater economic growth (Hanushek and Woessmann 2012) and social gains such as greater civic engagement and reduced crime rates (Bloom et al. 2007). This value accruing to educational success places a premium upon the identification of factors predicting academic performance. The following sections provide a brief historical overview of this research with an emphasis on the role of personality in academic performance.
Cognitive Predictors of Academic Performance
Historically, the search for predictors of academic performance began with a strong focus on cognitive abilities. The influential work of Binet and Simon (1916) aimed at measuring students’ differential academic potential by means of intelligence tests, while Spearman (1904) identified a general intelligence factor, g, by applying an early version of factor analysis to academic performance measures. These works inspired considerable educational research throughout the twentieth century and led to findings that intelligence can reliably predict academic performance (for an overview, see Chamorro-Premuzic 2007).
Early Research on Personality Predictors of Academic Performance
In parallel with this research has been a long tradition of research on non-cognitive predictors of academic performance. A notable early study was reported by Webb (1915), who examined the importance of students’ “character” for academic performance and provided early evidence that intelligence was not the only individual difference associated with academic performance. Specifically, Webb identified a will factor, which he labeled w, implying a comparison with Spearman’s g. Like g, Webb’s w effectively summarized a range of measures of students and had an important association with academic performance, yet this association was independent from g. However, Webb’s w factor received little attention in subsequent research until relatively recently. Instead, reviews during the twentieth century concluded that research on personality and academic performance was hampered by the use of inconsistent approaches to and measurements of personality, leading to inconsistent results that were difficult to interpret (De Raad and Schouwenburg 1996). De Raad and Schouwenburg (1996) particularly argued for the adoption of a consistent personality framework, making use of the five-factor model (FFM) of personality to organize their review. This advocacy has been reflected in subsequent research, and the widespread use of FFM-based measures in educational research has enabled a reassessment of the relationship between personality and academic performance, leading to the recognition of reliable and important estimates of the role of personality in education.
The Five-Factor Model and Academic Performance
The history of the FFM is dealt with elsewhere in this encyclopedia, but it is important to note its components here. Put simply, the FFM includes the most frequently appearing lexical personality dimensions on which people vary (Poropat and Corr 2015). These dimensions can be summarized as agreeableness (reflecting qualities of being friendly, modest, and accommodating); conscientiousness (dutiful, diligent, and orderly); emotional stability (relaxed, balanced, patient), though often denominated by its opposite pole, neuroticism (moody, ruminating, irritable); extraversion (outgoing, sociable, active); and openness (curiosity about and tolerance for diverse cultural and intellectual experiences), sometimes denoted intellect (Saucier and Goldberg 1996). Recent meta-analyses of educational research based on FFM measures (Poropat 2009; Richardson et al. 2012) have shown that there are indeed consistent associations between personality and academic performance.
Encompassing facets such as achievement striving and self-discipline, conscientiousness has much in common with Webb’s w factor, and conscientiousness is indeed the FFM factor showing the strongest correlations with academic performance (Poropat 2009; Richardson et al. 2012). Conscientiousness consistently predicts grades in primary, secondary, and tertiary academic education, rivaling intelligence (r = 0.21: Richardson et al. 2012) in predictive validity in tertiary education (r = 0.23: Richardson et al. 2012). These correlations are substantially stronger when conscientiousness has been rated by a knowledgeable other-rater, such as students’ parents, peers, and teachers, both in primary education (r = 0.50: Poropat 2014a) and in secondary and tertiary education (r = 0.38: Poropat 2014b).
The exact processes by which conscientiousness is linked with academic performance are incompletely understood, but research has linked conscientiousness to a wide range of behaviors and abilities conducive to academic performance, which may explain part of the association. Importantly, conscientiousness is strongly associated with effortful control (Poropat 2016), a dimension of temperament-reflecting self-regulatory abilities such as the ability to willfully direct attention to and sustain focus on a task, as well as the ability to intentionally initiate or inhibit actions (Rothbart 2007). These self-regulatory abilities are fundamental for goal-directed behavior, planning, impulse control, and norm following, which are all defining features of conscientiousness (Roberts et al. 2009).
In the educational context, more conscientious students score more highly on learning-related factors such as persistence (Komarraju and Karau 2005), achievement motivation (Richardson and Abraham 2009), class attendance (Chamorro-Premuzic and Furnham 2003; Conard 2006), and use of self-regulatory learning strategies (Bidjerano and Dai 2007; McKenzie et al. 2004) than their non-conscientious counterparts. Each of these factors reliably predicts student achievement (Hattie 2009), so these associations may account for much of the association between conscientiousness and academic performance. Further, conscientious students have been shown to be more highly task focused and employ more problem-focused coping strategies, which facilitates their learning and academic performance in the face of adversity (MacCann et al. 2012; Saklofske et al. 2012).
Ultimately, conscientiousness is associated with retention (e.g., Alarcon and Edwards 2013). More conscientious students are more likely to complete their educational programs, which is likely to be due to the same conscientiousness-related abilities and behaviors promoting academic performance.
Apart from conscientiousness, openness is the FFM factor most strongly associated with academic performance (Poropat 2009, 2014a, b; Richardson et al. 2012). In primary education, self-rated openness is almost equally effective as conscientiousness in statistically predicting academic performance, though less effective in secondary and tertiary education (Poropat 2009).
However, as with other-rated conscientiousness, other-rated openness is more closely linked with academic performance than intelligence, at least in secondary and tertiary education (r = 0.28: Poropat 2014b).
Among the FFM dimensions, openness is probably the most complicated and certainly the most highly debated. The reason for this indeterminacy is that the openness factor includes both a creative component reflecting artistic and contemplative interests, and an intellect component that reflects curiosity and approach to learning. It is the intellect-curiosity component in particular that drives the correlations between openness and academic performance (von Stumm et al. 2011), and the intellect-curiosity component also seems to account for the correlations between openness and intelligence consistently found (Ackerman and Heggestad 1997; Goff and Ackerman 1992). Individuals who score more highly on openness tend to seek out and enjoy new and cognitively stimulating activities, apparently resulting in cognitive growth and accumulation of knowledge. As such, openness, and especially the intellect aspect of openness, belongs among the “intellectual investment traits” (von Stumm and Ackerman 2013).
Research on motivational constructs supports the notion that openness facilitates academic performance partly through self-imposed “intellectual investment.” Students high on openness are more curious and investigative; more intrinsically motivated to know, think, and analyze; and more interested in improving mental abilities and increasing competencies (Bernard 2010; Clark and Schroth 2010; Komarraju and Karau 2005; Komarraju et al. 2009). Such students also tend to have a deep learning approach (Chamorro-Premuzic and Furnham 2009) and reflective learning styles and learning strategies, such as elaborative processing and critical thinking (Bidjerano and Dai 2007; Komarraju et al. 2011), all of which have been shown to mediate the relationship between openness and academic performance (Komarraju et al. 2011; Swanberg and Martinsen 2010). Additionally, openness is the FFM factor most strongly associated with learning goal orientation (Payne et al. 2007). Learning goal orientation is itself reliably associated with academic performance (Richardson et al. 2012) and also mediates the relationship between openness and academic performance (Steinmayr et al. 2011). These motivational aspects to openness appear to affect not only short-term academic outcomes: openness also predicts overall educational attainment, so that individuals high on openness are more likely to achieve a high educational level during their lives (e.g., Costa et al. 1986).
Self-rated agreeableness has positive correlations with academic performance (Poropat 2009; Richardson et al. 2012), but these correlations are modest except in primary education (r = 0.30: Poropat 2009). When other-rated, correlations between agreeableness and academic performance are unaffected by level of education but remain relatively modest (r = 0.09: Poropat 2014a; r = 0.10: Poropat 2014b). Agreeableness is associated with accommodating and cooperative attitudes toward the social environment and a compliant response to social demands. As such, the agreeable student’s desire to “get along” with others (e.g., teachers and parents) manifests itself in academic motivation and in behaviors aimed at improving academic performance, predominantly through surface learning (Vermetten et al. 2001). Likewise, agreeableness is associated with extrinsic types of academic motivation, meaning that more agreeable individuals tend to choose to identify with and integrate socially accepted values they meet in academia, leading more agreeable students to value academic performance because it is the socially accepted value in educational settings (Clark and Schroth 2010; Komarraju et al. 2009). Consistent with this, agreeableness has been associated with academic persistence motivation, interest in self-improvement, and grade orientation (Komarraju and Karau 2005).
This social compliance is reflected behaviorally, with more agreeable students spending more time on homework and procrastinating less (Lubbers et al. 2010), employing more self-regulatory learning strategies and learning styles, such as time management, effort regulation, elaborative processing, and fact retention (Bidjerano and Dai 2007; Komarraju et al. 2011). These motivational and behavioral factors help to explain why agreeableness has a positive, though limited, association with academic performance.
In primary education, there is a noteworthy association between self-rated emotional stability and academic performance (r = 0.20: Poropat 2009), but in secondary and tertiary education, this correlation is negligible (r = 0.01 and −0.01, respectively: Poropat 2009). However, as with agreeableness, correlations between academic performance and other-rated emotional stability remain stable across educational levels (r = 0.18 at all levels: Poropat 2014a, b). This difference in correlations appears to be due to the fact that emotional stability is the FFM dimension that is most subject to rater biases (Poropat and Corr 2015).
Emotional stability encompasses a relaxed and calm mode of feeling, thinking, and behaving, and it is a robust predictor of subjective well-being (Steel et al. 2008). Emotionally stable individuals have lower levels of negative affect and higher quality of life, and they are less prone to suffer from psychological disorders (Kotov et al. 2010; Steel et al. 2008). Emotional stability is also associated with performance self-efficacy (Judge and Ilies 2002), which in turn is strongly predictive of academic performance (r = 0.59: Richardson et al. 2012).
In light of this, one might expect that emotional stability would translate into purely positive motivations and outcomes in academia. However, the relationship between emotional stability and academic performance has proven to be more complex. Demonstrating this complexity, more emotionally stable individuals are more likely to willfully focus on and learn from errors (Zhao 2011) and employ learning styles and strategies conducive to academic performance in general, such as analyzing, organizing, and integrating new material with previous knowledge (Komarraju et al. 2011; Lubbers et al. 2010). However, emotional stability is also associated with being less likely to rehearse material, and more emotionally stable students allocate less time to homework (Bidjerano and Dai 2007; Lubbers et al. 2010). Adding to this complexity, low levels of emotional stability are associated with academic amotivation, debilitating anxiety, withdrawing, and feeling discouraged about school (Clark and Schroth 2010; Komarraju and Karau 2005; Komarraju et al. 2009) but also with an orientation toward achieving good grades (Komarraju and Karau 2005). The latter possibly reflects fear of failure, since low emotional stability is associated with goals of avoiding negative evaluations and the perception of incompetence relative to others (Payne et al. 2007).
So, it appears that because individuals who are higher on emotional stability are less motivated by such avoidance goals, they are less inclined to spend time on homework and rehearsal.
Extraversion has only modest correlations with academic performance overall (Poropat 2009; Richardson et al. 2012) with the strongest relationship being between self-rated extraversion and academic performance in primary education (r = 0.18: Poropat 2009). Correlations of other-rated extraversion with academic performance in primary (r = 0.11: Poropat 2014a) and secondary and tertiary education (r = 0.05: Poropat 2014b) are also relatively modest when compared with the other FFM dimensions. So, extraversion has some relevance to academic performance, but care should be taken to avoid over-interpreting these modest associations.
However, extraversion has been reliably linked with a range of learning-relevant variables.
More extraverted individuals generally have higher subjective well-being such as positive affect and quality of life, most likely due to the creation of positive life experiences facilitated by the sociability component of extraversion (Steel et al. 2008). This sociability, assertiveness, and active engagement with the social environment characterizing extraverted individuals may be beneficial for learning that involves frequent interactions with teachers or peers. Consistent with this, more extraverted students are better at seeking help from peers and instructors, when they encounter learning difficulties (Bidjerano and Dai 2007). This enables better understanding, but it also makes the student more visible to the teacher (Poropat 2014a). Being visible can have a positive effect on the student’s academic standing, because teachers in primary education, where interaction between students and teachers is most frequent, have the tendency to perceive shy children as less intelligent and less academically gifted than their more talkative counterparts (Coplan et al. 2011). This may explain the positive association between extraversion and academic performance found at this educational level. However, these same characteristics of sociability and orientation toward the social environment may also pose a challenge to the extraverted student. Students high on extraversion are generally more academically motivated and have higher learning goal orientation (Clark and Schroth 2010; Payne et al. 2007), but they are also motivated to spend time with friends, participate in societies and events, explore the social environment, etc. (Bernard 2010). This sociability-induced distractibility may partly explain why the association between extraversion and academic performance is reduced at higher academic levels, where students have more responsibility for their own learning.
Alternative Personality Models and Academic Performance
The past few decades have seen the domination of research on personality and academic performance by the FFM, but other trait constructs and personality models have been employed as well. The biologically based Eysenckian personality model (Eysenck and Eysenck 1975) has been an influential alternative to the FFM, in educational research as in psychology in general. Two of the personality factors in the Eysenckian personality model, extraversion and neuroticism, are very similar to extraversion and emotional stability (reversed) in the FFM and show similar associations with academic performance. Furthermore, the psychoticism factor in the Eysenckian model partly overlaps with conscientiousness (reversed), but unlike conscientiousness, psychoticism shows only limited predictive validity for academic performance (Poropat 2011). Taken together, the Eysenckian personality model does not offer incremental validity for academic performance when compared to the FFM.
Various isolated personality constructs have also been associated with academic performance, though much less frequently studied. Notably, need for cognition and emotional intelligence has shown positive correlations with GPA, whereas procrastination is negatively associated with GPA (Richardson et al. 2012), which is consistent with the strong negative association between procrastination and conscientiousness (Steel 2007).
One of the limitations of the FFM is that it was developed on the basis of factor-analyzing common-language descriptors of personality (Saucier and Goldberg 1996), rendering it largely atheoretical, even if it has been shown to be highly useful. It is for this reason that so much attention has been paid to efforts at explaining why these empirically derived personality factors should be associated with academic performance. By contrast, reinforcement sensitivity theory (RST) provides a model of personality that is rooted in behavioral learning theory (Corr 2004), which makes RST appealing as a model that potentially could explain the associations between personality and academic performance. However, research on RST in academic settings is scarce (Poropat 2016), and it remains uncertain what utility RST has in educational research in relation to individual differences in learning and performance (Matthews 2008).
As indicated earlier, academic level moderates the relationship between the FFM and academic performance. Only conscientiousness is consistently associated with academic performance across primary, secondary, and tertiary education. Openness, agreeableness, emotional stability, and extraversion all have lower correlations with academic performance in secondary and tertiary education (Poropat 2009, 2016).
However, the moderating effect of educational level interacts with the way personality is measured. For the past half-century, personality has typically been assessed using self-ratings, and most research on relationships between personality and academic performance therefore reports results based on self-rated personality. But as summarized previously, use of other-rated measures of the FFM produce markedly different correlations of FFM traits with academic performance.
Some of the explanation for the discrepancies in predictive validity between self-rated and other-rated personality may originate in self-raters’ desirability biases. A recent study has found that more educated individuals perceive openness as more desirable and are also more prone to overstate their level of openness in self-reports (Ludeke 2014), while self-raters tend to assess emotional stability in ways that make it less useful for predicting academic performance (Poropat 2014b). In research on academic performance, this bias would not only make self-reported levels of openness unreliable, it would also result in an underestimation of the true correlation between openness and academic performance. Other-ratings are less influenced by desirability bias, and they have the additional strength that they are based on observed behavior, not on intentional behavior.
Finally, academic major has been shown to moderate the associations between the FFM traits and academic performance in tertiary education (Vedel 2014; Vedel et al. 2015). Conscientiousness, for example, appears to be a comparatively stronger predictor of GPA for psychology and law students than for economics students. And whereas openness seems to benefit political science students academically, the opposite seems to be the case for law students (Vedel et al. 2015). Research has consistently shown that students in different majors differ from each other at the group level on the FFM traits (Vedel 2016), and it seems likely that different personality traits are beneficial in different academic disciplines. This would parallel findings from job performance research showing differential predictive validity of the FFM traits in different occupations (Barrick and Mount 1991; Barrick et al. 2001). However, academic major is a little studied moderator, and our current knowledge about its effect on the associations between the FFM traits and academic performance is limited.
A century has passed since Webb (1915) highlighted the need to look beyond cognitive abilities in the search for predictors of academic performance, but it is only in recent reviews that it has become clear that personality is at least as, if not more, important than intelligence in educational settings. Conscientiousness has emerged as the personality factor most strongly correlated with academic performance, but both openness and emotional stability have important associations with educational success. It is now clear that Webb was right to look past intelligence to “character” when attempting to understand academic performance. Personality matters in important life outcomes from health to occupational attainment and romantic relationships (Roberts et al. 2007) – it is clear that academic performance is no exception.
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