What qualities do high-achieving students have in common? Many college admission offices focus on test scores and assessments of students’ personality, but there is a third, often-overlooked factor that is essential to predicting academic achievement: self-efficacy.
In a series of studies I conducted with my co-authors—Albert Bandura of Stanford University, Edwin Locke of the University of Maryland, Dongseop Lee of Korea University, and Kayla Sergent, a doctoral student at the Wisconsin School of Business at the University of Wisconsin–Madison—I looked at whether self-efficacy predicts academic achievement above and beyond personality.
Personality was measured by the Big Five traits: conscientiousness, agreeableness, extroversion/introversion, openness to experience, and emotional stability. General mental ability and grade-point average were controlled for in the analyses. Academic performance was assessed over a semester.
The traits are defined as innate dispositions. The behaviors they predispose one to can vary across activities, social milieus, and time; they are uniformly coherent with the trait. Self-efficacy, a personal can-do belief, is the focal determinant of behavior in social cognitive theory.
Although the predictive powers of the Big Five traits and self-efficacy are well documented, their joint influences have traditionally received little attention, leaving these relationships only partially explored. We examined both the separate and joint influences of these variables on students’ final semester grades.
Our study collected data from five independent samples across three universities and two countries (the U.S. and South Korea), totaling 875 participants. We examined three models of influence, each in two instances that included variables with different causal paths.
Three of the Big Five traits (agreeableness, extroversion, and openness) decreased in significance across the models tested. Conscientiousness and emotional stability were predictive of self-efficacy and performance in half of the analyses. However, self-efficacy was predictive of academic achievement above and beyond personality in all of the analyses.
This new finding has practical implications for students, parents, and educators looking for ways to effectively use limited resources. If one buys the notion from previous research that inborn personality traits outweigh self-efficacy strengths, then student selection becomes the only important aspect of education. In this view, performance is mostly unaffected by teachers, mentoring, modeling and verbal persuasion. Yet, our findings indicate the opposite.
This is good news for students trying to cultivate skills to garner a better future, parents laboriously shepherding their children through transitional phases of development, teachers striving to promote learning in students who are disengaged from the educational system, or social reformers battling under tough odds to affect change in the educational system. These are some of the examples of the types of formidable educational endeavors in which students can use the power of their self-efficacy beliefs to aid their functioning.
Read the paper “Test of Three Conceptual Models of Influence of the Big Five Personality Traits and Self-Efficacy on Academic Performance: A Meta-Analytic Path-Analysis” published by Personality and Individual Differences.
Alex Stajkovic is the M. Keith Weikel Distinguished Chair in Leadership and an associate professor in the Department of Management and Human Resources at the Wisconsin School of Business.
This short AudioSlide provides an overview of the study, “Test of Three Conceptual Models of Influence of the Big Five Personality Traits on Self-Efficacy on Academic Performance: A Meta-Analytic Path-Analysis.”