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Does personality trump intelligence?

personalityWhat can guarantee academic success? This is a question that students, teachers and parents have been asking for years, but the answer remains inconclusive. Many studies have examined the multiple factors that could be considered, but mainly focusing on intelligence levels. Latest research takes a different approach that teachers may want to consider.

Any teacher will tell you that a brilliant IQ or a batch of top marks doesn’t assure a student’s academic success. But, if you asked them what did, you might find the answers differ. Can a student’s enthusiasm for a topic outweigh a lack of natural talent? Will a student who takes special care over their work actually be better off than their classmates who race through projects?

Research from the 1970s by the University of Illinois in the USA found that students with a growth mindset – one where they believe intelligence is a learnt, not inherent, trait – performed better academically than those with a fixed mindset. But, more recently, studies are indicating that other personality traits can have a huge impact on school performance.

Organized and inquisitive

A 2013 study from Rice University in Texas, USA, found a link between conscientiousness, and grade point average.

“Conscientiousness reflects several different characteristics,” explains Sam McAbee, who authored the study while a psychology graduate student at the university. “The trait covers being focused on achievement, organized with your work and thoughtful. It also relates to being prudent and a little bit of a perfectionist.”

And, more recently, research from Griffith University in Queensland, Australia, has found that conscientiousness and openness, which both measured on the popular ‘Big Five Personality Test’, positively impact academic performance.

Openness refers to somebody’s general appreciation of experiences and knowledge, their willingness to try new things and their intellectual curiosity.

“In practical terms, the amount of effort students are prepared to put in, and where that effort is focused, is at least as important as whether students are smart,” says Dr Arthur Poropat, who conducted the study.

A healthy dose of curiosity was linked to strong school performance in a study published in the journal of the Association for Psychological Science. This study noted that, when conscientiousness and academic curiosity were combined, the impact on academic performance could be immensely beneficial. Although the two traits are independent of each other, it is possible to possess both.

“If a topic interests you, you’re also willing to invest time and effort so you can master it,” says Dr Sophie von Stumm, who co-authored the research.

Aptitude vs attitude

But, if your students show no signs conscientiousness, resilience or curiosity, there is still hope. Dr Poropat and his team at Griffith University believe people can learn personality traits linked to academic success.

McAbee agrees, explaining that teachers can help to influence their students’ behaviours. This could include teaching study skills, such as speed reading, to help maximize efficiency for students who struggle to focus for long periods. “But it’s more about recognizing the capabilities of the student and then trying to find ways to get them to a suitable place,” he says.

He adds that conscientiousness is a trait that develops over time. “Your prefrontal cortex [located in the very front of the brain] is developing as you get older, which means you develop better impulse control and means you’re better able to focus on your job or your schooling,” he explains.

Von Stumm says curiosity can also be encouraged through teaching methods. She encourages de-emphasizing the perceived importance of grades as much as possible so students feel free experimenting without risking punishment for failure.

But it is possible to have too much of a good thing, as personality trait extremes can be detrimental. McAbee explains that extreme conscientiousness can lead to perfectionism, which can adversely affect school performance.

And von Stumm adds: “At the high end of curiosity, students risk being easily distracted or, for students who are interested in many topics, never finishing what they start,” she says. “There is a fine line.”

It seems academic performance relies on many aspects, not just intelligence or personality alone. “We need to try to get a more holistic view of a person,” says McAbee. “This includes both their personality characteristics and their investment in that topic. Their intelligence, of course, is part of that, too.”

He adds: “The things that lead to academic success are never just one thing, it’s not just about intelligence. Intelligence tells me what somebody can do at their maximum potential but it doesn’t tell me how they’re going to typically behave in the classroom.”

Interaction opportunity: Thinking about your students, what observations have you made? Let us know: email


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