Evidence for the Relationship between the Big 5 and Academic Achievement

Many different personality traits have been linked to academic performance. Since the Five Factor Model, or “Big 5”, has enjoyed prominence in the personality literature (Digman, 1990), as well as being recognised by the economics literature (Borghans et al., 2008), we believe it is valuable to organise the findings of the research regarding personality and performance around the Big 5 framework. Here we review these findings, one factor at a time.

Openness (O)
Ackerman and Heggestad’s (1997) meta-analysis revealed a positive relation between O and standardised measures of knowledge and achievement. They suggested that crystallised intelligence (that is, previously acquired cognitive skills) may be one potential mediating factor in the relationship between O and scholastic ability.

O has been found to correlate modestly with cognitive ability; correlations typically ranging between 0.20 and 0.30. Of the Big 5, O has the highest correlations with SAT verbal scores, also falling in the 0.20 to 0.30 range (Noftle & Robins, 2007). Interestingly, O did not correlate with SAT math. O has also been positively associated with final grades, even when controlling for intelligence (Farsides & Woodfield, 2003). It is possible that O may facilitate the use of efficient learning strategies (for example, critical evaluation), which in turn affects academic success (Mumford & Gustafson, 1988). However, a meta-analysis (Crede & Kuncel, 2008) found that O correlated with study attitudes (r = .30), but not study habits (r = .08).

The correlation between O and academic achievement is not always found (e.g., Busato, Prins, Elshout, & Hamaker, 2000; O’Connor & Paunonen, 2007), leading to the suggestion that the creative and imaginative nature of open individuals may sometimes be a disadvantage in academic settings, particularly when individuals are required to reproduce previously acquired skills rather than display creative problem-solving (De Fruyt & Mervielde, 1996). Some of the ambivalence in findings concerning O may also be due to the loose nature of the O factor (deRaad, 2006; Hong, Paunonen, & Slade, 2008), which reflects both intellectual orientation and openness. That is, items used to measure O in one particular study may not be the same as the items used in a different study.

Conscientiousness (C)
C has consistently been found to predict academic achievement from preschool (Abe, 2005) through high school (Noftle & Robins, 2007), and into tertiary education (O’Conner & Paunonen, 2007) and adulthood (Ackerman & Heggestad, 1997; De Fruyt & Mervielde, 1996; Shiner et al., 2003). C measured in school children was found to predict academic achievement at twenty and eventual academic attainment at thirty (Shiner & Masten, 2002).

C has been found to predict college grades even after controlling for high school grades and SAT scores (Conard, 2006; Noftle & Robins, 2007), suggesting that conscientiousness may compensate for lower cognitive ability (Chamorro-Premuzic & Furnham, 2003). High C may be associated with personal attributes necessary for learning and academic pursuits such as being organized, dependable, efficient, striving for success, and exercising self-control (Matthews & Deary, 1998). For example, C was found to predict early completion of independent credit assignments as well as early sign-up for study participation (Dollinger & Orf, 1991). C might even affect achievement through its effect on the sleep schedule; that is, C is related to “morningness” (Randler, 2008; R. Roberts & Kyllonen, 1999) and high C individuals experience earlier rising and retiring times (Gray & Watson, 2002).

The effects of C on academic performance may be mediated by motivational processes such as expenditure of effort, persistence, perceived intellectual ability (Boekaerts, 1996; Noftle & Robins, 2007), effort regulation (Bidjerano & Dai, 2007), and attendance (Conard, 2006). There is also some evidence to suggest that certain facets of conscientiousness – achievement-striving, self-discipline, diligence, achievement via independence – may be particularly strong predictors of academic achievement, perhaps stronger than the broad C trait itself (Kuncel et al., 2005; Noftle & Robins, 2007; O’Connor & Paunonen, 2007).

Neuroticism (N)
In early studies, N was shown to predict poorer academic performance among school aged children. For example, Entwistle and Cunningham (1968) used data from 3000 13-year-olds and reported that emotional stability was related to academic success. Shiner and Masten (2002) reported results for a longitudinal study of 205 participants who were assessed around ages 10, 20, and 30. Negative emotionality at age 20 was correlated with poor adaptation both concurrently and ten years previously. Meta-analytical research has suggested a correlation of around -0.20 between N and academic achievement measures (e.g., Seipp, 1991), and there is evidence for the particular importance of the anxiety and impulsiveness facets of N (Kuncel, Hezlett, Ones, et al., 2005; O’Connor & Paunonen, 2007). A related meta-analysis by Crede and Kuncel (2008) has also suggested that the relationship may be due to N’s correlation with study attitudes (-.40). However, some studies of both school children (Heaven, Mak, Barry, & Ciarrochi, 2002) and university students (Busato et al., 2000) have failed to find any significant correlations between N and attainment. Two reviews and meta-analyses (Nofte & Robins, 2007; O’Connor & Paunonen, 2007) also did not find a consistent relationship. Such inconsistencies may reflect the role of moderator factors. For example, McKenzie and Tindell (1993) showed that N was related to lower achievement only in students with weak superegos. Self-control and focusing of motivation may compensate for negative emotionality.

Extraversion (E)
In general there does not seem to be a relationship between E and college performance (Kuncel et al., 2005; Noftle & Robins, 2008), although some studies have found evidence for a small, negative correlation (O’Conner & Paunonen, 2007). Age may moderate the effect of E on academic success. Before the age of 11 to 12, extraverted children have been found to outperform introverted children (Entwistle & Entwistle, 1970), while among adolescents and adults some research has shown that introverts show higher achievement than extraverts (e.g., Furnham & Chamorro-Premuzic, 2003). This change in the direction of the correlation has been attributed to the move from the sociable, less competitive, atmosphere of primary school to the rather formal atmospheres of secondary school and higher education, in which introverted behaviors such as avoidance of intensive socialising become advantageous. Extraverts and introverts also differ in parameters of information-processing such as speech production, attention, and reflective problem-solving (Zeidner & Matthews, 2000), with performance varying along meaningful dimensions. For example, extraverts have been shown to be better at oral contributions to seminars but poorer at essay-writing than introverts (Furnham & Medhurst, 1995).

Agreeableness (A)
Although the temperamental precursors of A, such as prosocial orientation, relate to better social adjustment, the relationship between A and academic attainment are consistently nonsignificant (Kuncel et al., 2005; Noftle & Robins, 2007; O’Conner & Paunonen, 2007; Shiner, Masten, & J. Roberts, 2003). However, antisocial personality traits associated with low A may have detrimental effects.

In sum, generalised personality traits constitute one of several noncognitive factors that may impact classroom learning and academic performance. Personality assessment may also be informative about a student’s strengths and weaknesses at the factor level. For example, high N students may need help with stress management, low C students with maintaining interest, and high E students with managing social distractions. Indeed, studies of anxiety-by-treatment interaction in education imply that educators ought to consider designing personalised learning environments matched with key personality factors (Snow, Corno, & Jackson, 1997). For example, students high in trait anxiety should benefit more from structured learning-teaching environments, whereas students low on trait anxiety (as well as those higher on E or O) should benefit from unstructured learning-teaching environments (Zeidner, 1998).