Is there a learning personality?

We tend to identify different personalities intuitively. Some people we might describe as ‘live wires’ while others are more contemplative; others, still, might be prone to worry or are avidly curious. We often describe these differences using folk theories with a light smattering or psychology, so we might call the quiet people introverts and their more outwardly confident peers extravert. Or we might describe ourselves using the categories derived from the most popular (and controversial commercial) personality questionnaire, the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, or MBTI. But our experiences of personality psychology are often confined to those entertaining on-line questionnaires where we can discover what Game of Thrones or Harry Potter character we are. 

The existence of several different personality theories and tests does tend to muddy the waters, but the almost universal adoption of the Five Factor Model of personality (or the Big 5) has managed to rein in not only the number of personality traits, but has also elevated personality theory to one of the two most reliable areas of psychology in terms of consistent and replicable findings (the other being cognitive psychology). 

Personality theory was born out of a lexical hypothesis, or the words we use to describe ourselves and others. The Big 5 (unsurprisingly) list five of them – openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism (or emotional stability). It’s generally believed that these descriptors (or personality traits) are heritable and remain pretty stable over time. This means that a child who scores high on conscientiousness at age eight should still score high at eighty (although some studies do cast doubt on this notion).

We can also distinguish personality traits from character traits. Character traits like kindness tend to be learned from other people, while personality traits are viewed as innate. Some characteristics, specifically resilience, are more problematic and are sometimes seen as a personality trait and sometimes a character trait. Because of these inconsistencies, it’s best to confine the discussion of personality to a single overarching theory, such as the Big 5. Learning and the Big 5

So are there certain Big 5 traits that are more associated with academic success than others? The research is surprisingly consistent on this, even though we always have to remain mindful of the success criteria we’re setting. For example, a report published in 2016 by the Sutton Trust linked extraversion with success in terms of higher earnings potential (De Vries & Rentfrow, 2016). The report suggested that schools should encourage those personality traits (such as extraversion) that result in occupations that command higher salaries. Nurses and teachers, on the other hand, are more likely to score higher on traits like openness and agreeableness, yet their potential earnings are much lower than those of lawyers and bankers who are more likely to be extraverts. Indeed, extraversion doesn’t always appear to correlate particularly well with exam scores (O’Connor & Paunonen, 2007).

Conscientiousness is the trait that appears to have the biggest impact on academic success, partly because it’s linked to lower levels of procrastination and a heightened ability to cope with setbacks (or higher levels of academic buoyancy). High levels of conscientiousness may also compensate for lower IQ. 

But what do we mean by conscientiousness? Michael Mount and Murray Barrick define it as ‘a combination of a desire to be dependable and reliable and a desire to be achievement oriented and persevering’ (Mount & Barrick, 1995). There are similarities here with the ‘grit’ model developed by psychologist Angela Duckworth and, indeed, there is a strong argument to indicate that they are identical traits. 

Sub-domains of trait conscientiousness

Studies consistently find that conscientious students have a higher Grade Point Average (GPA), although openness is a good trait in relation to verbal SAT scores in US samples (Noftle & Robins, 2007).

There’s no doubt that conscientiousness is important to academic success, yet the dependable and reliable component can lead to inflexibility. Conscientious students can have difficulty changing direction when things divert from the plan and it’s more likely that successful learners possess a particular combination of traits rather than a single overriding one.

These combinations can also help and hinder us. Introverts (those who score low on measures of extraversion) may be quieter and seem less confident than extraverts, but their contemplative nature and careful deliberation can be beneficial, while extraverts often get things done in double-quick time to the detriment of accuracy and detail. The downside for introverts arises when they also score high on measures of agreeableness, which tend to make it easy for people to take advantage of them.

Low emotional stability (or neuroticism) is perhaps the biggest hindrance to academic achievement, at least in terms of personality. Those who are prone to worry and anxiety encounter additional barriers to learning. Anxiety can impact not only confidence but also our ability to cope with setbacks, meaning that anxious students display lower levels of academic buoyancy. In addition, anxiety can increase the load (or pressure) on working memory (see here for an explanation of cognitive load), making it harder to concentrate on the task in hand (I’ve discussed this relationship here).

Practical implication

But what practical implications does personality theory have? Educators rarely have the time nor the resources to adapt to different types of student, yet classrooms, seminar rooms and lecture theatres remain a hive of individual differences. Furthermore, any practical solution would involve being able to identify personality types accurately. An added complication is that traits such as conscientiousness can have both positive and negative impacts due to their discrete components and while a conscientious student might be efficient when things are going to plan, they are more likely to falter if they don’t.

There are, therefore, no preferred or ‘superior’ traits, just those that are better suited to particular outcomes. If we attempt to encourage some traits at the expense of others, we’re likely to lose more than we gain.

Free Traits

Oxford University psychologist Brian Little proposes the idea of free traits, essentially short-term targeted behavioural changes linked to our goals (Little, 2008). I’m a classic introvert – I score low on extraversion on measures of Big 5 traits. I also score similarly using the MBTI and on another well-known scale called the EPQ-R (the Eysenck Personality Questionnaire). While encouraging introverts to be extraverts is unlikely to reap any benefits, Little suggests we can temporarily suspend our overarching traits in order to fulfil short-term goals. I could then feign extroversion to, for example, give a talk at an event or some other task that might be best suited to a more extravert personality style. 

Free traits don’t attempt to change our personality. Indeed, the nature of personality traits means that any such behaviour is likely to result from compliance than genuine change. Free traits are tools that, when finished with, can be put away until they are required again.  

We can make our traits work for us or we can temporarily suspend them in order to complete a specific task. In other words, we may not be able to change our tendencies, but we can change our behaviour, even if it’s temporary. There are three main ways we can accomplish this.

Identify a niche

All traits are useful, but it often depends on the circumstances. While students should always be encouraged to experience life beyond their normal limits, sometimes it’s more practical for them to play to their strengths. For example, is it vital that the anxious introvert stands in front of the class to give a presentation? Sometimes we need to think about the utility of the task and if a particular student would benefit more from carrying out the activity in some other way.

Use goals and free traits

Goals encourage us to pursue something we see as important or meaningful and often require us to act out of character. Goals also encourage commitment and planning so setting and implementing goals can encourage us to behave in ways that are more conducive to success (I have a free eBook on goals here for you to download). Free traits allow students to act out of character for a limited time; they won’t turn an introvert into and extravert, but will encourage them to alter their behaviour in the pursuit of their goals. This is more effective when goals are broken down into smaller sub-goals.

Nurture curiosity

Curiosity is linked to trait openness and has been found to increase motivation and performance, as well as reducing fear of failure (Sansone & Thoman, 2005). Recent research has discovered that the key to curiosity appears to be discovering that what we thought we knew isn’t accurate, suggesting that we can nurture it by interrogating current knowledge (Wade & Kidd, 2019). 

Personality, therefore, may not be as restricting as was once believed and it’s worth emphasising that behaviour is a combination of different traits – there are no pure extraverts, for example. Setting and pursuing goals can encourage both us and our students to experiment with temporary personality hacks and free traits to push us beyond our normal limits and to get things done.

References:

De Vries, R., & Rentfrow, J. (2016). A WINNING PERSONALITY The effects of background on personality and earnings, (January). Retrieved from http://www.suttontrust.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/Winning-Personality-FINAL.pdf

Little, B. R. (2008). Personal Projects and Free Traits: Personality and Motivation Reconsidered. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 2(3), 1235–1254. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1751-9004.2008.00106.x

Mount, M. K., & Barrick, M. R. (1995). The Big Five personality dimensions: Implications for research and practice in human resources management. Research in Personnel and Human Resources Management, 13(3), 153–200.

Noftle, E. E., & Robins, R. W. (2007). Personality predictors of academic outcomes: Big five correlates of GPA and SAT scores. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 93(1), 116–130. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-3514.93.1.116

O’Connor, M. C., & Paunonen, S. V. (2007). Big Five personality predictors of post-secondary academic performance. Personality and Individual Differences, 43(5), 971–990. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.paid.2007.03.017

Sansone, C., & Thoman, D. B. (2005). Interest as the missing motivator in self-regulation. European Psychologist, 10(3), 175–186. https://doi.org/10.1027/1016-9040.10.3.175

Wade, S., & Kidd, C. (2019). The role of prior knowledge and curiosity in learning. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review. https://doi.org/10.3758/s13423-019-01598-6

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