According to new psychology research, personality is at least as important as intelligence when it comes to school. Some personality traits are more important than others, according to the findings, and the study has led researcher Dr. Arthur Poropat of Griffith’s School of Applied Psychology to suggest that educators may do better to target the fluid, teachable capacities of personality rather than rely on the more static capacity of intelligence alone.

“Personality is at least, if not more important than intelligence for education,” Poropat told The Speaker. “And unlike intelligence, we can help people to develop their personality to improve their academic performance and life outcomes.”

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Dr. Arthur Poropat

Poropat conducted the largest ever reviews of personality and academic performance based on the five fundamental personality factors–Conscientiousness, Openness, Agreeableness, Emotional Stability, and Extraversion. He found that Conscientiousness and Openness have the biggest influence on academic success, and helpfulness was found to also be involved in scoring grades.

“Students who scored highest on the three most relevant personality factors scored a full grade higher than students who scored lowest on those factors. The three factors are: Conscientiousness, which reflects things like making and carrying out plans, striving to achieve, and self-control; Openness (also called Openness to Experience and Intellect), encompassing being imaginative, curious, and artistic; and Emotional Stability, covering calmness and emotional adjustment (as opposed to being anxious, fearful or unstable). The two personality factors that are not so strongly linked with academic performance are Agreeableness (reflecting likability and friendliness), and Extraversion (talkative and socially-dominant).

“What my reviews of the research on personality and academic performance found was that Conscientiousness is at the very least just as important as intelligence for predicting academic performance.”

Who was doing the assessing was also a matter of the research. A students self-assessment was found to be as useful as a predictor of success in university as intelligence rankings, but the assessments of other students–those who knew the individual in question well–were found to be much more accurate than either.

“If someone who knows the student well rates the student’s personality, Conscientiousness is nearly four times as important.

“So, students who habitually manage their effort, make and stick to plans, and stay motivated regardless of set-backs, do substantially better, and this is more important than how smart the student is. Likewise, both Openness and Emotional Stability are much more useful for predicting grades and GPA when rated by someone who knows the student well. In other words, the creative and intellectually-curious students, and the calm and emotionally well-adjusted students, will do better at school and university.”

In general, personality was found to be more important than intelligence when it came to academic careers. Poropat explained why this might be.

“One way of thinking about this is that intelligence is a bit like horsepower for a car: it gives a student their basic capacity to learn. Conscientiousness, Openness and Emotional Stability is more like the way in which the car is driven. With respect to cars, a great driver in an average car will outperform a bad driver in a great car. Similarly, a student with average intelligence but who is high on Conscientiousness, Openness, and Emotional Stability will outperform an intelligent student who scores lowly on these factors.”

Poropat commented on some changes that could be made to education to improve its benefits to students.

“One thing that surprised me when I completed the first of my studies was that teachers already ‘knew’ what the results were. The many teachers I have spoken with typically say that hard-working, intellectually curious, and well-adjusted students perform better than smart students, in part because they are easier to teach. However, there is clear evidence from independent research–i.e., not mine–that students can be taught to change their personality in ways that help their studies. What I would like to see is education actively targeting personality development in ways that are closely linked to study and work. We already know this is possible and it produces good outcomes for students but we need more attention to this, and more research on how best to achieve this. Some of my postgraduate research students are already exploring this area.”

Not only can good personalities be taught to some degree, but students may be setting themselves up for failure by depending on the static capacity of intelligence, which is different from the fluid capacity of personality, according to Poropat.

“Professor Carol Dweck has done a lot of research on why teachers and parents should never tell a student they have done well because they are smart,” he explained. “The reason is that the students seem to know what research tells us: despite the mind-training software, it seems that it is not possible to truly improve someone’s intelligence. So, if a student thinks they have done well because they are smart, they conclude there is no point in making an effort so they stop trying and their performance gets worse.

“However, there is clear evidence that personality does change over time, and that it is possible to train people to change their personality–at least as far as changing how they consistently behave. In contrast with intelligence, students seem to know that they can learn new ways of managing themselves, and new ways of exploring ideas and skills, and new ways of managing their emotions. People typically develop higher levels of Conscientiousness with age, but they can also be taught this. And, people can also be taught to be higher on Openness and Emotional Stability. So, students of any age can develop their personality to improve their academic performance: the challenge is for educators to show them how.”

Poropat concluded that much of classroom success depends on how teachers bring out the best in students.

“Teachers need to help students develop their personalities in constructive ways. That is because, unlike intelligence, teachers can guide students to be more conscientious, open to experience, and emotionally-stable, which are the three personality factors that have the biggest effect on whether students learn well. Teachers should pay attention to whether students’ personalities support learning, and use that to guide teaching of individual students.

The report, “Other-rated personality and academic performance: Evidence and implications,” was completed by Arthur E. Poropat, and was published in the journal Learning and Individual Differences.

By Justin Munce