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What Does it Take to Succeed in School?

New research for back-to-school success

There was a time when getting an “A” meant you were the smartest in class. Not so, according to a recent scientific study. What does it take to succeed in school? Researchers in Germany studied 697 eighth graders to find the answer and their data indicate that “smarts” is not the most important factor: personality is.

The researchers gave the kids a series of well-established psychological tests and tests of intelligence, and then checked their report cards to see what measures correlated best with getting good grades. To measure cognitive ability the researchers gave the students the Berlin Intelligence Structure test which measures different aspects of intelligence. This includes general intelligence, reasoning, memory, mental speed, and creativity, as well as numerical and verbal ability. They also assessed the student’s level of self-control using an established Child Self-Control Rating method. They also measured how the students structured their time, with questions like “I do my schoolwork at fixed times,” or “I always decide spontaneously what I will do in my free time.” In addition they rated each student on a scale of tendency to procrastinate, for example by scoring responses to questions like: “I always plan to study but somehow I am not able to get around to doing it,” or “I do not study for exams until the very last moment.” Finally, they assessed the student’s ability to resist other temptations during studying. These tests included questions such as: “I will start to study but then switch to another activity quickly.” Clearly all of these different aspects of personality and intellect are important components for success in school, but which ones matter most?

The data show that the most important factor in getting good school grades was the student’s score on psychological tests of self-control. Cognitive ability was the next best predictor of grades, but in fact, it was not a very strong one. On math achievement tests, rather than school grades, cognitive ability was the most important factor, however. The bottom line from all their research is that self-control is a better predictor of grades than cognitive ability and the reverse is true for predicting test scores. Among all four personality traits they measured, only procrastination (in addition to self-control) had a significant influence on grades.

What are the implications? One interpretation is that success in school is more about self-control than it is about cognitive ability. Self-control is required to do what is necessary to obtain good grades. That is, getting good grades may not be the same thing as learning. A student might be pretty poor at turning in homework completed and on time, but nevertheless masters the material. His or her grades will suffer. Alternatively, learning suffers without the self-discipline required to study. Regardless, the authors suggest that students could easily improve their grades if they improve their capacity to protect long-term goals from short-term impulses. Students face many challenges managing time for study in a world burgeoning with an enticing mix of leisure temptations competing for their attention. Schools that bar students from participating in sports if their grades slip already know about this. Educators and coaches apply a solution that both removes a distraction and increases time for study—ineligibility to participate in sports.

Interestingly, the researchers found that cognitive ability and personality variables contributed differently to report card grades vs. test scores. If the researchers corrected for cognitive ability, the personality variables that portend high grades in class did not predict performance very well on achievement tests. The researchers conclude that self-control is necessary for academic achievement in a class, but in contrast to school, an achievement test requires students to transfer what they learned at school to the test—a one-time challenge. Here cognitive ability predicts the best outcome.

Thus, grades and achievement tests are both good measures of academic achievement, but they measure different abilities. It is important for teachers to recognize these new findings and determine if their underachieving students are suffering from insufficient intellectual ability or lack of self-control. Either one can be improved. It is the teacher’s calling and difficult job to identify the student’s weakness and help the child succeed.


Hofer, M., Kuhnle, C., Kilian, B., and Fries, S. (2012) Cognitive ability and personality variables s predicors of school grades and test scores in adolescents. Learning and Instruction 22, 368-75.

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