Do Personality Traits Influence Academic Achievement?

The notion of acknowledging the individual is often considered when evaluating the effectiveness of teaching pedagogy and educational communication, in order to provide optimal learning and academic performance. Individuals’ personalities differ in a multitude of ways, including the way they prefer to learn. Due to this many students, parents, teachers, and even researchers feel that we should tailor teaching, learning situations and learning materials to those individual differences identified by Kolb’s learning styles (Kirschner, 2017). Yet, some research has shown that Kolb’s learning styles are more the individual’s preference of learning, instead of their pathway to optimal learning, and that there is no benefit to tailoring instruction to preferred learning style (Dembo & Howard, 2014). However, studies have shown that although matching Kolb’s learning styles to instruction does not necessarily lead to optimal learning, individual personality traits still influence learning and should be considered. Evidence suggests that students who possess specific personality traits and learning preferences tend to have higher academic accomplishments (Felder et al., 2013). According to research, the Myer Briggs Type Indicator can be paired with matched instruction for higher academic performance, Schmeck, Ribich, and Ramanaiah’s (1977) model of learning styles can help predict student success, and specific characteristics in the Big Five Personality traits are found to be linked to greater academic performance.

The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) is a psychometric test based on Carl Jung’s theory of psychological. The MBTI is a useful tool that aids individuals in identifying their personality preferences by classifying them into 4 indexes, which are perceiving: sensing (S) or intuition (N), judging: thinking (T) or feeling (F), the E-I index: extraversion (E) or introversion (I), and the J-P index: judgement (J) or perception (P) (Opt & Loffredo, 2000). Research has found that by identifying individuals’ MBTI type, students and instructors can work together to adapt and design instruction that can benefit all students (Felder et al., 2002). According to Myers and McCaulley (1985), judging types prefer learning from workbooks, lectures and demonstrations and perceptive types are typically efficient in experiential situations, but tend to procrastinate on assignments. Multiple studies conducted on engineering education found that introverts, intuitors, thinkers, and judgers generally performed better than those who are extraverted, sensing, feeling, and perceiving (Felder et al., 2002). Based off these results, another study was conducted where instructors utilized multiple teaching methods. These instructors used a mixture of lectures and interactive learning experiences in class, as well as individual and group work (cooperative) assignments. As opposed to the initial study, which used almost exclusively formal lecturing and individual assignments (Felder et al., 2002). Results showed the use of active and group learning in the second study helped both extraverts and feelers, “who would not be expected to respond well to traditional instruction that discourages interactions among students” (Felder et al., 2002).

The inductive aspects of instruction had helped sensors, “who tend to be disadvantaged when abstract material is not firmly anchored to real-world experience” (Felder et al., 2002). Adapting the course instruction to include multiple learning techniques, that take all personality types into consideration, had led to a significant increase in the GPA of students who classified as extraverted, sensing, feeling, and perceiving, compared to their low GPA in the initial study (Felder et al., 2002). Another study involving hospitality education determined key characteristics for student success, as well as teaching techniques that gave students with different personality types an increased chance of academic achievement (Horton et al., 2009). The incorporation of cooperative learning, the process of learning from peers, was found to help both introverts and extroverts. Cooperative learning “provides the introvert time to think before responding and the extrovert an opportunity to voice his/her learning” (Horton et al., 2009). Personalized story telling had helped the thinker and feelers, and structured or discovery learning (the uncovering of new information either individually or as a group), had aided sensors and intuitives (Horton et al., 2009). Evidence suggests that if instructors try to address each MBTI type, at least part of the time, there is an increased chance of improved teaching and student performance (Felder et al., 2002).

Schmeck, Ribich, and Ramanaiah’s (1977) model of learning styles has been found to better predict educational success compared to Kolb’s, because it uses the framework of effective information processing to identify the learning strategies that are likely to benefit learning (Komarraju et al., 2011). This model views memory as a product of cautious thinking and depth of processing (Craik & Lockhart, 1972). Schmeck, Ribich, and Ramanaiah’s (1977) model of learning styles is found to better enhance learning than Kolb’s model, as rather than trying to classify individuals into mutually exclusive categories, their model suggests that students “tend to adopt either agentic/shallow processing (with the performance goal of doing well on a test) or reflective/deep processing (with the mastery goal of deep understanding and long-term retention)” (Komarraju et al., 2011). Schmeck et al.,’s theory states that what students remember depends on how they process information from lectures, readings, or discussions. Students that think more deeply about the learning material are usually able to encode information more thoroughly, and therefore remember it longer (Komarraju et al., 2011).

The four learning styles in Schmeck et al.,’s (1977) model are: synthesis-analysis (processing information, creating categories, and organizing them into hierarchies), elaborative processing (connecting and applying new ideas to existing knowledge as well as to the individual’s personal experiences), methodical study (“what is traditionally emphasized in most academic environments, such as being careful and methodical while completing all assignments on time” (Komarraju et al., 2011), and fact retention (memorizing main concepts in order to do well on tests, rather than understanding the meaning of information). Komarraju et al.,’s (2011) study had shown that all four learning styles had some relation to an increased GPA, that these styles all have some value for learning. However, there was a greater correlation between reflective styles and deeper and more thoughtful learning (Schmeck, 1999). This suggests that synthesis-analysis was the learning style resulting in the most significant GPA, which gives rise to the idea that instructors who utilize instruction techniques that encourage synthesis-analysis are more likely to greater engage students’ interest and increase achievement (Komarraju et al., 2011). Evidence also suggests that individuals with certain traits in the Big Five are more likely to utilize specific learning styles that are shown to increase educational success (Komarraju et al., 2011).

The Big Five Personality states that there are five core personality traits: openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism; and each trait represents a range between two extremes (Cherry, 2018). For example, “extraversion represents a continuum between extreme extraversion and extreme introversion” (Cherry, 2018). Research has found certain traits within the Big Five are correlated with higher academic achievement compared to others (Komarraju et al., 2011). Conscientiousness has been identified as a strong predictor of exam performance and GPA (Chamorro-Premuzic & Furnham, 2003), “while combinations of Big Five traits have been found to predict various educational outcomes” (Komarraju et al., 2011). Conscientiousness and openness determine course performance (Paunonen & Ashton, 2001), while agreeableness, conscientiousness, and openness have been found to predict overall academic success (Farsides & Woodfield, 2003; Poropat, 2009). Openness, extraversion and conscientiousness have also been shown to be associated with a higher GPA, especially when students applied what they learned to real life settings (Lievens, Ones, & Dilchert, 2009).

On the other hand, neuroticism, or emotional instability, has a negative impact on academic achievement (Chamorro-Premuzic & Furnham, 2003). Conscientiousness was was discovered to be the personality trait most significantly associated with all four learning styles, as well as demonstrated the strongest association with a high GPA (Komarraju et al., 2011). Komarraju et al., (2011) also found that agreeableness and openness were both positively correlated with GPA. This information is important for education and communication, as instructors who are aware of the importance of acknowledging these personality traits as determinants of academic success could design course assignments and testing methods that encourage conscientiousness, agreeableness and openness.

While it may be true that learning styles, when using Kolb’s model, does not result in optimal learning (Dembo & Howard, 2014), research shows that other personality traits and associated teaching methods still have an effect on students’ academic success. When trying to strive for educational success, it is important to consider individual differences in personality traits and utilize this knowledge to incorporate a variety of instruction methods that benefits students with all different personality types. It is also beneficial for instructors to acknowledge the different personality traits associated with high academic achievement and incorporate teaching methods that encourage students to utilize and build upon those positive characteristics. It is evident that personality does play a role in learning and individual personality traits should be taken into consideration in order to achieve optimal education and communication, for both the student as well as the teacher.