Cartoon of boy carrying books for homeworkA study to be published in the upcoming issue of the journal Learning and Individual Differences explored the relation between personality and homework behavior. Yes, of course, procrastination is a key variable here, and personality does make a difference in students' homework behavior and academic achievement.

Although cognitive ability is the key predictor of grades and overall academic performance, personality also plays a role. The question that researchers explored in this study was how personality affects academic performance. Their basic hypothesis was that the effects of personality on academic performance are mediated by homework behavior. For example, someone who is not very conscientious in terms of personality (lacking a sense of self-discipline, orderliness and need for achievement) would be less likely to do his or her homework, and this would negatively affect grades. In fact, previous research indicates that the personality trait of conscientiousness is the strongest personality predictor of academic performance (as important as cognitive ability in terms of prediction), and it's also a strong predictor of success in the work place.

When we speak of personality this way, we're taking a trait approach, and the most common of the trait models is known as the Big Five. I've written about this model before, so you can get a more detailed description of these traits at my previous post, Is Procrastination a Personality Problem: What is Personality?

The big five traits - that I like to remember with the very Canadian mnemonic of "CANOE " - are: Conscientiousness, Agreeableness, Neuroticism, Openness to Experience and Extraversion. A couple of things are important to note, however, in terms of the traits measured in this study. First, Neuroticism is also often phrased and measured as its opposite, "Emotional Stability" - which is expressing calmness and freedom for persistent emotions. The researchers used this in their study as opposed to Neuroticism. Second, the fifth factor in the model as it has been researched (not how we remember it with CANOE) is the Openness to Experience factor. This is interpreted differently in different studies and cultures. In this study, as is typical in many European studies, the researchers defined and measured it as Autonomy which reflects an individual's tendencies to form his or her own opinions and take independent decisions.

Details about the study
Researchers from the Groningen Institute for Educational Research at the University of Groningen in The Netherlands (a place that holds fond memories for me personally) collected data from a large, nationally representative sample of students in the equivalent of U.S. Grade 7 and above (the base-year sample in this longitudinal data set consisted of 19,391 students drawn from 825 classes). In addition to end-of-year grades for language and mathematics, the researchers had data from students' self-reports on homework behavior and personality (Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, Emotional Stability and Autonomy).

Homework behavior included single-item measures of time spent on homework and procrastination, as well as 18 items that assessed learning strategies. The learning strategies themselves were grouped into three types that capture: 1) Critical strategy - a tendency to do more work than is required and to form one's own opinions, 2) Integrative Strategy - a tendency to try to grasp the meaning of the material by relating and structuring it, and 3) Memorizing and Rehearsal Strategy - a tendency to use simple forms of self-regulation. The researchers also controlled for a number of variables in their analyses including things like cognitive ability, gender, and ethnicity.

Their analyses
Basically, they tested two hypotheses. The first was that personality would be related to homework time, procrastination and learning strategies. Their second hypothesis was a refinement of these relations where they predicted that homework behaviors would mediate, at least partially, the relation between personality and school grades. In other words as I noted above, personality would affect academic achievement by affecting achievement-related behaviors like homework (which includes learning strategies and procrastination).

What they found
I think the easiest way to communicate their findings is to list them briefly in point form below. I'm going to take the time and space to list these because many research-oriented parents may be interested in these details.  I discuss the main findings and their implications below (if you want to skip these individual findings).
Personality predicted homework behavior (after controlling for things like cognitive ability, gender, and ethnicity).

  • Conscientiousness and Agreeableness were positively related to homework time. The more self-disciplined and cooperative students are, the more time they spend on homework
  • Emotional Stability (the opposite of Neuroticism) negatively related to homework time.  The more emotionally stable students are, the LESS time they spend on homework. Interesting, isn't it?

Procrastination was predicted most strongly by Conscientiousness (a finding that is consistent in the literature, see for example my previous blog Personality: A risk and resilience factor for procrastination).

Other traits were related to procrastination: higher scores on Agreeableness and Extraversion were related to lower procrastination while higher Emotional Stability and Autonomy meant higher procrastination.

In terms of grades:

  • Higher Conscientiousness and Agreeableness predicted higher end-of-term grades.
  • All homework variables predicted grades. Surprisingly, the authors note that “The MORE time students spend on homework (even with similar cognitive ability) and the more they procrastinated, the lower their grades (pp. 3-4; emphasis added).
  • Integrative strategy use positively predicted higher grades while the memorizing and rehearsal strategy scores were negatively related to grades.
  • The mediation models varied depending on the personality trait with evidence of both full and partial mediation (the details are beyond this blog entry)

The authors summarize their findings writing, "First, conscientious students spent more time on homework, procrastinated less, and used all three types of learning strategies more than less conscientious students. A similar pattern was observed for Agreeableness, although its relation with procrastination was far less strong. Also, Agreeableness was not related to critical strategy use. Third, as expected, extraverts used more surface strategies and less critical strategies than introverts. However, extraverts did not differ from introverts in homework time and procrastinated less than introverts. Fourth, emotionally stable students spent less time on homework than neurotic students, and procrastinated more. However, they used their time more efficiently than neurotic students, as their strategy use revealed. Finally, autonomous students procrastinated more and used all strategies more than less autonomous students, most notably the critical strategy, as could be expected" (p. 4).

In terms of the mediation expected, the results indicate that homework behavior and personality independently contribute to academic performance, at least to some extent. Personality has both direct effects on grades as well as effects that are expressed through homework behaviors.

Implications of this study
There are a number of important limitations to this study which the authors duly note such as the use of single-item measures of procrastination and homework time, however the results provide some food for thought as we consider how personality plays itself out in our children's (and our own) education. As the authors note in their own discussion,

"students with different personalities learn in different ways, some of which are rewarded within secondary education and others not, and this partly determines why they perform at different levels" (p. 5).

Clearly, educators, parents and students themselves need to take personality into account in relation to the context for learning. Of course, the interactions and individual differences are varied, so it is important to also remember what Christopher Peterson wrote in a recent blog posting about scrabble, "There are no bad racks" . In scrabble, there are no bad racks, it's how we use the tiles we have.

Many things predict academic achievement, but none of this is deterministic. Awareness of one's relative resources and limitations, as well as strategic use of what we have is of the outmost importance.

As Chris summarized one of his lessons for a good life based on his analysis of scrabble, "The value of anything is contingent and contextualized. A productive play is purposeful and pragmatic. What are we doing with it, where are we doing it, and why are we doing it?"

I think that the present research reflects how contingent and contextualized the expression of traits are in terms of academic achievement. The relations of personality to homework behavior and academic achievement are complex. How we "play" the "tiles" of personality in the context of our own learning is the important thing.

Lubbers, M.J., Van Der Werf, M.P.C., Kuyper, H., & Hendriks, A.A. J. (2010). Does homework behavior mediate the relation between personality and academic performance? Learning and Individual Differences, doi: 20.1016/j.lindif.2010.01.05

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