Persistence Makes The Biggest Difference To School Grades, Study Finds

Persistence is the most important skill students can possess to help them get better grades, according to a new study.

Students who are determined to overcome challenges and ignore distractions get better grades in both reading and math than classmates who fall at the first hurdle.

But students who showed more empathy actually got worse grades in math than their less empathic peers.

The study is part of a growing body of research that recognizes the role social and emotional skills play in academic outcomes.

Where grades were once considered to be solely a product of academic ‘ability’, there is an increasing awareness of the importance of skills such as cooperation, tolerance, self-control, tolerance and assertiveness in determining academic outcomes.

Researchers at Rice University used data from the OECD’s survey on social and emotional skills to track the relationship between a range of skills and academic outcomes among 6,400 10 and 15-year-old students at Houston schools.

Students were asked a series of questions that then mapped onto a set of social and emotional skills, with 15 included in the study. To measure persistence, for example, students were asked to rate themselves on statements including whether they kept working on a task until it was finished and whether they hated leaving things unfinished.

The skills where students ranked themselves highest were tolerance, curiosity, creativity, co-operation and self-efficacy, the belief in their ability to achieve their goals.

But comparing these results with grades in math and reading found persistence had the strongest link with academic outcomes.

The 10-year-olds who reported the highest levels of persistence scored 10% higher grades in math and 12% in reading than classmates who reported the lowest levels of persistence.

For the 15-year-olds, the gap between the most and least persistent was 13% in math and 16% in reading, according to researchers at the Houston Education Research Consortium (HERC), part of Rice University’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research, who carried out the study.

This made persistence by far the most significant of the skills measured in terms of its link with academic outcomes.

Among 15-year-olds, students who reported the highest levels of trust – assuming that others generally have good intentions – also had significantly higher grades in math than those reporting the lowest levels of trust, though not in reading.

But the researchers found a negative link between empathy and grades among 10-year-olds. The students who reported the highest levels of empathy had grades 8% lower than those at the other end of the empathy scale.

Possessing social and emotional skills has benefits beyond the academic, the researchers found. Students who reported higher levels of skills also reported a greater sense of belonging, were less likely to be bullied at school and had better relationships with family and friends.

The researchers also looked at the link between social and emotional skills and a range of other education indicators.

Students who reported a high level of assertiveness and self-control were more likely to miss three or more weeks of school during an academic year, while those who had high levels of cooperation, emotional control and energy were less likely to miss school.

And Black and Hispanic children who reported high levels of assertiveness were more likely to be suspended or excluded from school, whereas those with high levels of self-control and persistence were less likely to be disciplined in that way.

The findings illustrate the importance of social and emotional skills and their link with a range of factors, from academic achievement to attendance, according to Erin Baumgartner, HERC director and a researcher on the study.

“So often, we focus on test scores and grades,” she said. “We hope this work encourages people to think more holistically about the support students need to be successful in school and beyond.”

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