The importance of conscientiousness, responsibility, aspiration as a student for later life (study)

This morning I found this study via Larry Ferlazzo and Dirk Van Damme shared the study also on twitter. Larry stated that this won’t come as a surprise for many teachers, but still. New research by Marion Spengler and her colleagues show that being a responsible student, maintaining an interest in school and having good reading and writing skills will not only help a teenager get good grades in high school – no surprise there – but they could also be predictors of educational and occupational success decades later. And before you start shouting anything, more important: regardless of IQ, parental socioeconomic status or other personality factors!

These personality factors got me a bit confused at first, but the researchers explain the differences with what they wanted to single out in relation to school behavior:

Personality traits and student characteristics can both be considered part of the domain of personality. Prototypical student characteristics include factors such as self-concept of ability, self- efficacy, academic persistence, test anxiety, and interest in school and specific school topics. The narrower constructs that emerge out of contextualized assessment systems are typically thought of as social–cognitive or motivational constructs (see Rieger et al., 2017). Traits, in contrast encompass constructs like conscientious- ness and grit, and are presumed to be more stable and lead to a consistent response and behavior across different situations (e.g., Mischel, 2004). Social–cognitive constructs are presumed to be less stable and are often constrained to specific contexts, such as school or even a topic within school (e.g., math self-efficacy).

And so the researchers state:

It highlights the potential importance of what students do in school and how they react to their experiences during that time. It also highlights the possibility that things that happen in specific periods of one’s life may play out in ways far more significant than we expect.

While this quote from the conclusion hints an important element of nurture, I do think the most important question actually remains: what is the influence of the schools themselves in this and what is the influence of the students, aka nature-nurture. In their introduction the researchers mention a lot of elements such as perseverance and impulse control that we’ve known already from executive-function research. How these functions can be trained with a long standing effect has still to be proven without any doubt.

Still I think this study will deliver a lot of food for further thoughts!

From the press release:

“Educational researchers, political scientists and economists are increasingly interested in the traits and skills that parents, teachers and schools should foster in children to enhance chances of success later in life,” said lead author Marion Spengler, PhD, of the University of Tübingen. “Our research found that specific behaviors in high school have long-lasting effects for one’s later life.”

The research was published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

Spengler and her coauthors analyzed data collected by the American Institutes for Research from 346,660 U.S. high school students in 1960, along with follow-up data from 81,912 of those students 11 years later and 1,952 of them 50 years later. The initial high school phase measured a variety of student behaviors and attitudes as well as personality traits, cognitive abilities, parental socioeconomic status and demographic factors. The follow-up surveys measured overall educational attainment, income and occupational prestige.

Being a responsible student, showing an interest in school and having fewer problems with reading and writing were all significantly associated with greater educational attainment and finding a more prestigious job both 11 years and 50 years after high school. These factors were also all associated with higher income at the 50-year mark. Most effects remained even when researchers controlled for parental socioeconomic status, cognitive ability and other broad personality traits such as conscientiousness.

While the findings weren’t necessarily surprising, Spengler noted how reliably specific behaviors people showed in school were able to predict later success.

Further analysis of the data suggested that much of the effect could be explained by overall educational achievement, according to Spengler.

“Student characteristics and behaviors were rewarded in high school and led to higher educational attainment, which in turn was related to greater occupational prestige and income later in life,” she said. “This study highlights the possibility that certain behaviors at crucial periods could have long-term consequences for a person’s life.”

Abstract of the study:

In this study, we investigated the role of student characteristics and behaviors in a longitudinal study over a 50-year timespan (using a large U.S. representative sample of high school students). We addressed the question of whether behaviors in school have any long-lasting effects for one‘s later life. Specifically, we investigated the role of being a responsible student, interest in school, writing skills, and reading skills in predicting educational attainment, occupational prestige, and income 11 years (N 81,912) and 50 years (N 1,952) after high school. We controlled for parental socioeconomic status, IQ, and broad personality traits in all analyses. We found that student characteristics and behaviors in adolescence predicted later educational and occupational success above and beyond parental socioeconomic status, IQ, and broad personality traits. Having higher interest in school was related to higher educational attainment at years 11 and 50, higher occupational prestige at year 11, and higher income at year 50. Higher levels of being a responsible student were related to higher educational attainment and higher occupational prestige at years 11 and 50. This was the first longitudinal study to test the role of student characteristics and behaviors over and above broad personality traits. It highlights the potential importance of what students do in school and how they react to their experiences during that time. It also highlights the possibility that things that happen in specific periods of one’s life may play out in ways far more significant than we expect.

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