What it takes to succeed: academic success


What it takes to succeed: academic success

  • By Ian Bradley
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For the last three years, I had the dream of teaching assignments at McGill University.   The course content was perfectly aligned with my 40-years of clinical experience that ranged from running a treatment center with autistic children to directing a department of psychology in large Montreal teaching hospital.  Besides talking about something that I knew, the best thing about the course was interacting with a small group of fourth year students who vied for the very limited number of classroom places.  In my opinion, they were truly the brightest and most talented of the bunch.

Interacting with them got me thinking about what we know about predictors of academic achievement–something that more than interests me as a part-time university professor.   Since my day job as a workplace psychologist often involves helping people either obtain, or advance, in real world jobs, I wonder about whether these predictors of university success held true in the real world of work.

Both questions were recently tackled in an interesting article by Dr Robert Hogan and colleagues entitled: “Employability and Career Success: Bridging the gap between theory and reality published in the Industrial and Organizational Psychology, 6, 2013, 3-16.

In this first post, I will examine some of the determinants of academic success.  It should not be surprising that intellectual or cognitive ability is highly associated with school grades and outcomes. In fact, the game is somewhat rigged to have this association.

One of the first practical uses of intellectual testing was the French psychologist Binet’s attempt to identify those school children who might not succeed in the Parisian school system of 1905.  Subsequently, many developers of intellectual tests validated their scales on their correlation with academic success.  Even today, verbal fluency and mathematical operations continue to be central pillars in the determination of IQ.  Research by Deary et al (2007) has shown that the correlation between mental abilities and school success can attain a whopping 0.81 – a truly astonishing association.

Here’s the more interesting aspect – personality, at least personality as assessed in now accepted Five Factor model, also predicts success.

What underlies that success is the factor labeled conscientiousness.  Understanding some of the basic ingredients of conscientiousness such as the ability to plan, displaying a sense of duty and self-discipline – can easily been seen as factors that might separate those undergraduates that actually follow our professorial advice to study early, regularly and make play contingent upon work.

Besides intellect and conscientiousness, there is an all important third ingredient that, at least according to research by von Stumm and others (2011) predicts university success.  Its operation was regularly on display in our weekly student-led seminars that ran a gamut of topics from Asperger’s to Zoophobia.  Hardly a student missed the talks, and the lively discussions that followed the presentations often exceeded the time limit of the class.

Why? Because the topics were interesting.  Or, more accurately, the students were intellectually curious!  Aristotle defined curiosity as “ an intense intrinsically motivated appetite for information; Dewey referred to it as “a constantly exploring ..and seeking material for thought..”   Von Stumm’s recent research revealed that this intellectual curiosity combined with conscientiousness accounted for as much of the academic success as intelligence.

IQ, discipline and a hungry-mind –those seem to be the best predictors of getting a top GPA, but do they predict what happens afterwards?