What Predicts Academic Performance?

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Synopsis

There is a growing movement to measure and build social-emotional skills to help students succeed. But which of these skills best predict academic performance?

Recently in the field of education, there has been growing interest in measuring and building students’ non-cognitive skills, sometimes referred to as social-emotional skills or soft skills, to help students succeed in school, their future careers, and in life.  Educators, researchers, and policy-makers are beginning to place more emphasis on these factors as an increasing amount of research is illustrating the importance of these skills from the classroom to the labor market. 

Using the Intrinsic Profile, a psychometric assessment designed to measure a synthesized model of non-cognitive skills, we studied 368 high school students to explore whether there is a relationship between students’ non-cognitive skills and academic performance, as measured by their grades. 

The Intrinsic Profile measures whether a person is likely to be highly self-motivated, has high levels of discipline and perseverance, and can adjust to change as well as bounce back from adversity - all while doing so with a high level of integrity.  

When comparing students’ composite scores on the Intrinsic Profile to their grades, we found students’ non-cognitive skills were clearly related to academic performance.  In fact, the students’ composite scores on the assessment correlated with their grades at a rate of r = .47.  Our analyses illustrated that all the constructs within the model correlated with academic performance at statistically significant levels (p < .001).  As outlined in the table below, we found that some non-cognitive factors correlated with students’ grades better than others. 

Non-cognitive Skill

Description

Correlation to Student Grades

Self-awareness

possessing an understanding of our strengths and weaknesses

.33

Growth mindset

holding the belief that our potential can be cultivated through effort

.32

Self-efficacy

having confidence in our ability to accomplish our goals

.43

Self-determination

possessing and pursuing self-generated and very meaningful goals that align with our values and greater sense of purpose

.26

Grit

having the passion and perseverance to complete our long-term goals

.44

Conscientiousness

being organized, careful, and dependable in the completion of our work

.47

Self-discipline

possessing the ability to complete mundane activities and other tedious work we simply do not want to do

.46

Self-control

maintaining the ability to control our impulses and delay gratification for a larger reward in the future

.28

Adaptability

possessing the ability to acclimate to the changing environment

.30

Hope

possessing the ability to actively pursue our goals while navigating around obstacles as they arise

.37

Situational Awareness

being aware of the larger environment around us and grabbing opportunities when they come

.28

Resilience

having the ability to bounce back from setbacks and emerge from adversity stronger than before

.29

Honesty

being truthful and trustworthy

.32

Integrity

doing the right thing, even when no one is watching

.32

Ethical Behavior

acting with beneficence (doing good) and nonmaleficence (doing no harm)

.31

 

Based on these findings, students that were highly conscientious and disciplined tended to perform the best academically. These students reported having a strong work ethic and being highly reliable. Likewise, they described themselves as being able to do work when most other students choose to do more enjoyable activities.  Similarly, grit showed to be a strong predictor of student grades. Those that were pursuing their goals with passion and perseverance tended to do better in school. 

At the same time, those students with more confidence that they could complete their goals (i.e., self-efficacy) were performing better. Specifically, we found the group of students who said they constantly pushed themselves to do their best and were in pursuit of personal excellence were actually performing the best in school. 

As we obtained this evidence that non-cognitive skills were predicting current grades, we then asked ourselves…can these skills predict students’ future grades?  With this question in mind, we tested students in August and then waited around all year.  In May, we then re-tested them while also collecting data on their 4th quarter grades.  In correlating their scores on the Intrinsic Profile from when the students first took the assessment in August to their 4th quarter grades collected in May, we found a correlation of r = .48.  The students’ non-cognitive skills predicted their academic performance – nine months later. 

As Sir Francis Bacon once said, “Knowledge is power.”  Equipped with knowledge on students’ non-cognitive skills, educational institutions can utilize this information about their students to be much more proactive in their attempts to help students succeed.  Instead of the reactive approach often found in schools today, where educators wait to address students’ needs once the student begins to show academic struggles, educational institutions can utilize non-cognitive student data to ensure students get the resources and support they need to succeed in school in a much more proactive and preventative manner. 

With all of this data in hand, we then combined all of the non-cognitive constructs together in a regression analysis to see which factors might independently predict academic performance, while controlling for the students’ year in school, gender, and race.  This analysis showed there were four factors that continued to predict academic performance at statistically significant levels.  These variables were:

-Conscientiousness

-Self-efficacy

-Self-discipline, and

-Gender

As has been found in earlier research, we were not that surprised to see that females were doing better academically than their male counterparts.  In our data, we found that females had an average grade point average (GPA) of 3.36/4.0 while males had an average GPA of 3.03/4.0. 

Based on these results, it might appear that the only social-emotional factors we should be working to cultivate in school would be conscientiousness, self-efficacy, and self-discipline - since these are the factors that best predict academic performance.  While it is vital we work to cultivate these skills, we must also not neglect the others.  The grading system utilized in schools tends to reward the students that are highly organized and obedient, those that get their work done in a timely manner, and those that put forth tremendous effort in their studies.  The students high in these qualities excel academically. 

But to succeed in life beyond the classroom, it is important we possess these other non-cognitive skills too. Each of them serves as a tool in a person’s toolbelt, which must be utilized when the world demands it. For example, there are times in our lives when life throws us a curve ball – requiring us to adapt when we least expect it.  At other times, we are faced with incredible adversity which requires tremendous levels of resilience and hope to overcome those challenges. Likewise, as often seen in the daily headlines, individuals lacking in honesty and integrity can see things quickly fall to pieces. 

Students also need skills beyond what is measured in our own model.  In addition to being highly motivated, disciplined, perseverant, resilient, and honest, we also believe it is crucial for students to have empathy, strong multicultural awareness, as well as the ability to communicate and work well in a team.  On top of these skills, we also recognize that cognitive ability is equally essential – so we must continue to cultivate the traditional 3 R’s (reading, writing, and arithmetic) alongside these non-cognitive factors. 

In conclusion, these non-cognitive skills are important.  Within this study, we found that each one of these skills was correlated with academic performance, but when combined together, only a few were left standing as optimal predictors of students’ grades.  If it is our primary goal to get our students to become the next valedictorian, we might just want to focus our efforts on cultivating their self-efficacy, conscientiousness, and self-discipline.  If, however, we want our students to be prepared for the world ahead of them outside of the classroom, we advocate for cultivating each and every one of these vital skills. 

© 2017 Intrinsic Institute, All Rights Reserved. 

Tags: academic achievement, brian davidson, education, grit, performance, psychology, resilience, student, success

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