NON- COGNITIVE TRAITS IN EDUCATIONAL ATTAINMENT
Attainment related to ‘effort’
Later interventions can help too
Simon Burgess of CMPO, at Bristol University, notes that recent research by economists has broadened out from the previous focus on cognitive ability. A great deal of work now has investigated the role of non-cognitive factors in educational attainment. Non-cognitive factors can be identified with personality traits and one of the ‘big 5’ personality traits is ‘conscientiousness’, with the related traits of self-control, accepting delayed gratification, and a strong work ethic. Conscientiousness has been shown to be an excellent predictor of educational attainment and course grades. These aspects of self control and ability to concentrate are clearly related to the broad notion of effort.
Burgess notes that there is a great deal of policy interest in England arising from recent studies of US Charter schools with what is called a “No Excuses” ethos. This includes the KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program) network of schools and schools in the Harlem Children’s Zone. These schools all feature a long school day, a longer school year, very selective teacher recruitment, strong norms of behaviour, as well as other characteristics. Some of the profession’s very top researchers have produced evidence showing that such schools produce very powerful positive effects on student achievement. While this overall effect could be due to different aspects of the KIPP/HCZ ethos, says Burgess part of it is very likely to be increased effort from the students. CMPO published some research recently showing that students perform less well in their crucial GCSE exams in years when there is a major international football tournament taking place.(in effect, their effort slackens)
This matters for a number of reasons. First, unlike genetic characteristics, cognitive ability or non-cognitive traits, effort is almost immediately changeable. Burgess blogs on the results of the recent study- ‘Our results suggest that this could have a big effect. The fact that we find changes in student effort to be very potent in affecting test scores suggests that policy levers to raise effort through incentives or changing school ethos are worth considering seriously. Such interventions would be justified if the low effort resulted from market failures due to lack of information on the returns to schooling, or time-inconsistent discounting. Second, the importance of a manipulable factor such as effort for adolescents’ educational performance provides evidence of potentially high value policy interventions much later than “early years” policies. This is encouraging, offering some hope that low performing students’ trajectories in life can perhaps be effectively improved even after a difficult environment early in life.’
Most schools understand the importance of developing the non-cognitive skills. Education isn’t just about passing tests and exams, or shouldn’t be. But however you measure attainment and success at school self-disciplined students are the ones who succeed, even against the odds. The OECD has established in studies that ‘ resilient’ pupils can overcome their social backgrounds to succeed at school.
US academics Angela Duckworth and Martin Seligman looked at the importance of self-discipline in a group of 13- and 14-year-olds from a diverse mixed-ability school. Unsurprisingly, they found that highly self-disciplined adolescents out-performed their more impulsive peers, again and again. Self-discipline trumps IQ. They found ‘ Self-discipline….accounted for more than twice as much variance as IQ in ﬁnal grades, high school selection, school attendance, hours spent doing homework, hours spent watching television (inversely), and the time of day students began their homework. The effect of self-discipline on ﬁnal grades held even when controlling for ﬁrst marking-period grades, achievement-test scores, and measured IQ. These ﬁndings suggest a major reason for students falling short of their intellectual potential: their failure to exercise self-discipline.’. The message is that Pupils with self-discipline and resilience succeed at school, and in later life. And schools can help students develop these non-cognitive skills. But the way things stand too few do.