Neurotic and anxious students do better in school

February 5, 2013 - 06:35

Students who are motivated by a fear of failure need help – even when their grades are excellent. This kind of motivation will lead to stress and poorer mental health.

Conscientious, nervous and meticulous pupils excel academically during their three years of high school. (Photo: Colourbox)

A Swedish study followed 200 students, aged 16 to 19 years old, through three years of high school.

Before starting high school, when they were still 16, they all took a personality test that revealed basic dominant character traits. After completing their final exams at age 19 the personality test results were compared against their grades.

The more nervous and orderly pupils with a strong sense of duty and a more acute awareness of expectations were the ones who wound up with the best grades.

“So we have a school system that rewards conscientious and anxiety-driven pupils,” concludes the researcher behind the new study, Pia Rosander of Lund University in a press release.

Five personality traits

The charting of the pupils was based on the five-factor model, a psychological categorisation of types of behaviour and traits which explain variations in personalities.

The five dimensions are extraversion, neuroticism, openness in experience, agreeableness and conscientiousness. 

Emotional stability will often involve being robust and remaining reasonably calm under pressure, while on the other end of the scale are anxiety, nervousness and vulnerability. These three traits are often lumped together as neuroticism.

Openness can include creativity, curiosity and also rather practical and handy persons.

IQ, control and extraversion explains

Rosander controlled against IQs in the three studies for her doctoral dissertation and found a clear, strong association between personality type and academic performance: 

It is important for teachers to be aware of pupils who are driven by fear of failure, no matter what grades they get. (Photo: Colourbox)

After IQ, control was the personality dimension giving the best indicator of what kind of grades a pupil would be getting.

The more meticulous, controlled and conscientious a person was, the better their chances of getting good grades on their artium degree.

Extraversion correlated negatively with academic performance – the more extraverted a person was the less chance they had of getting top grades. This is probably because the more socially active pupils spend less time studying than introverts.

Rosander writes that she was surprised that pupils with neurotic personalities are more apt to get good grades than some of their more emotionally stable peers. 

She sees a possible explanation:

It is quite reasonable that teens with more anxiety and stronger vulnerability are more afraid of failing in an academic situation – and this motivates them to study harder.

Dutiful daughters did well

Rosander also found a gender-based explanation for performance in her tests: As expected girls got better grades than boys. This is probably because girls are often instilled with a greater sense of dutifulness and anxiety than boys.

The boys are propelled more by desire and curiosity – but that doesn’t always pay off as much in our current school systems.

Rosander says she was surprised to find an inverted relationship between conscientiousness and IQ among the boys: Dutiful boys had lower IQs than those who were less deferential.

Extraverts spend more time cultivating friendships and less on homework. This lowers their odds of getting top grades. Photo: Colourbox)

“Being extra meticulous about avoiding tardiness, delivering homework on time, etc. can be a way in which boys compensate for a lower IQ,” says Rosander.

Anxiety is a bad kind of motivation

Rosander thinks teachers and school authorities should give her results some careful consideration.

For instance how should they help gifted pupils who have the “wrong” type of personality – smart teens who are unstructured and extraverted and who in this study were getting poorer grades than their IQs would suggest? 

“Another thing is that it surely cannot be good to be driven by anxiety,” says Rosander.

She points out that it is important to pick out the pupils, most frequently girls, who are motivated by a fear of failure – even when their grades are excellent.

This kind of motivation will more often lead to stress and poorer mental health in the long run.

“This motivation undermines so-called deep learning, one in which you comprehend contexts and get a comprehensive understanding. Deep learning is easiest for the open personality types, those who are driven by curiosity,” says Rosander.

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Read a Norwegian version of this article at forskning.no

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Translated by
Glenn Ostling

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