Ulterior Motives

How goals, both seen and unseen, drive behavior

Does Early Academic Prowess Predict Later Success?

Early achievement in school predicts later success in life.

As you probably know, I am interested in smart thinking.  I spend a lot of time writing about how to improve your thinking skills.  I also argue that anyone can get smarter by learning more about the mind and how it works.

One of the things we value in the modern world is academic success.  The people we think of as smart are often the ones who do well in school settings.  An open question is how early success in school settings affects success in later life. 

Early in the history of the study of intelligence testing, Lewis Terman followed the careers of a number who scored at the genius level on the IQ tests that he helped to develop.  Many of these high-IQ individuals were quite successful in their careers, though others were not.  And there were also very successful individuals who did not score highly on the IQ tests. 

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As interesting as the Terman Genius study is, there are few studies that have looked at people who score well on tests of achievement and aptitude early in life.  So, it is hard to get a clear sense of how early academic success predicts later performance in life.

A fascinating paper in the May, 2013 issue of Psychological Science by Harrison Kell, David Lubinski, and Camilla Benbow does just that.  They tracked a group of people who took the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) at the age of 13.  The SAT (as it was given back then) had two scores—a verbal score and a math score.

The people they tracked were those who got a score that placed them in the top 0.01% (that is 1 in 10,000) on either the verbal or math portion of the test (or both).  So, these individuals were not just high-scorers for their age group, but extremely high-scorers.  Twenty years after taking the SAT, this sample of 320 people was surveyed about their achievements.  In addition, the researchers used databases to get additional information about employment, publications, patents, and awards.

Several interesting things emerged from this analysis.

The people who did extremely well on the verbal section of the SAT tended to go into careers in the arts, the humanities and the social sciences.  Those who did well on the math portion of the test tended to go into STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) fields.  Many of those who became lawyers did very well on the verbal section of the SAT, and moderately well on the mathematics section of the test at age 13.

This group was highly accomplished in their fields.  The group that did well in mathematics generated large numbers of patents and large numbers of publications in journals in the STEM disciplines.  Those that did well on the verbal section of the test went on to publish books, plays, short stories, and publications in the humanities at a high rate.  These individuals also received a number of grants and awards to support their work.  Finally, many of these individuals went on to get tenure prestigious research universities.

There is no comparison group in this study.  The researchers just tracked the accomplishments of this group. However, the rates of publication and achievement of tenure are higher in this group than in the general population, so this group of individuals was clearly operating at a high level.

What kinds of conclusions should we draw from data like this?

On the one hand, kids who show high levels of academic achievement early in their careers are on a path toward greatness.  If we nurture those students, they have the study skills and interest in learning that will allow them to work at the highest levels of the fields they choose.  It is well-worth finding ways to help these students to continue their studies and to make their contribution to the world.

On the other hand, that does not mean that we should focus selectively on high achievers at the expense of everyone else.  Smart thinking is ultimately a skill that anyone can acquire.  Anyone who is motivated to learn can ultimately do great things in a field of study.  Early success may be a marker of great things to come in the future.  But, a person who is not in the top 0.01% at the age of 13 is not destined for mediocrity. 

One danger in labeling certain kids as “gifted” early on in their lives is that the kids who do not get that label can believe that they do not possess the talents required for greatness.  With effort and guidance, there is greatness in all of us.  And for a fascinating discussion of this issue, check out Scott Barry Kaufman’s new book Ungifted.

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Check out my books Smart Thinking and Habits of Leadership.

Art Markman, Ph.D., is a cognitive scientist at the University of Texas whose research spans a range of topics in the way people think.

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