Every student is unique. And their different personalities tend to show themselves in the classroom – whether it be the enthusiastic students who frequently raise their hands, or the ones who prefer to stay quiet.
The question is: how do these individual differences impact their grades? Is achievement all about using the best studying strategies, or does student character also play a part?
The Big Five of personality
Most research on the relationship between personality and achievement mainly focuses on the “Big Five” personality traits. So, before we look at the research, let’s go through them:
- Openness – Being open-minded, insightful and curious
- Conscientiousness – Being goal-directed, delaying gratification, controlling impulses and following norms
- Extraversion – Being social, energetic, assertive and excitement-seeking
- Agreeableness – Being prosocial, empathetic and putting others first
- Neuroticism – Being tense, nervous and anxious
Now that we’ve established what these traits are, let’s dive into the research…
How does personality influences grades?
A very recent meta-analysis that investigated over 500,000 students looked at how each of the Big Five related to grades and test scores. The researchers also considered whether each personality trait was associated more with STEM subject grades or humanities subject grades. Here were the results…
The researchers found that openness correlated with high achievement in both humanities and STEM subjects, but it had a stronger correlation with the former.
It is not clear why this difference was found, as openness is strongly associated with intelligence in general. However, it could be that the qualities of openness are most suited to achievement in subjects that allow students to be more creative with their responses.
Conscientiousness was positively associated with achievement, but this time, the type of subject didn’t make a difference. This could be because it involves self-regulation behaviours, which are necessary for academic success in all subjects.
Conscientiousness was also more associated with high grades than high test results. The reason for this might be that following rules and controlling impulses are behaviours that teachers appreciate, and they could consider this when grading their students. But in a test, it’s all down to student performance.
So, conscientious students may particularly find success in subjects that involve the input of teachers for their overall grades.
In the meta-analysis, extraversion was correlated with overall achievement but students who were more extraverted had higher achievement in humanities subjects than in STEM subjects.
Typically, extraverted students are quite social, which supports progress in humanities subjects that encourage discussion. Also, research has shown that students who are more extraverted are admired by their classroom peers. This could make extraverted students more willing to engage in discussion-based tasks, which are more present in humanities lessons.
There was a positive association between agreeableness and students’ test results in humanities subjects, but for STEM subjects, students who were more agreeable performed worse on tests.
Like extraversion, agreeableness involves social traits such as strong communication skills, which are important for engagement in humanities classes.
On the flip side, agreeable students could struggle with performance in STEM subject tests due to the competitive nature of STEM in general. Research has shown that agreeableness is less beneficial for a competitive working environment, but this could also relate to educational settings in which there is pressure to perform well – if students see STEM as competitive, this could hinder their performance.
So far, we’ve mainly seen positive associations between personality type and achievement – however, neuroticism was negatively associated with achievement in both STEM and humanities subjects. Specifically, students who were more anxious and tense performed especially poorly in STEM subjects compared to humanities subjects.
Anxiety and emotional instability can hinder academic achievement, which explains why students in the meta-analysis had lower achievement overall. One of the reasons why students had lower outcomes in STEM subjects could be because these tend to be anxiety-provoking, and students who are more neurotic tend to find it harder to cope with high-stress scenarios, leading to poorer results.
There are many factors that influence students’ grades, and personality alone doesn’t determine their results, but we can see that it is correlated with some subjects that students thrive in.
Even though personality isn’t something that you can necessarily change, you can support your students by encouraging them to have qualities, such as curiosity and self-regulation, that are associated with achievement. It is also essential to help more anxious students to manage stress and text anxiety so that they can perform in all subjects to the best of their ability.
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