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PERSONALITIES OF STUDENTS’ PEERS INFLUENCE THEIR ACADEMIC ACHIEVEMENT

  • Published Date: March 2018

New research investigates how university students’ achievement is influenced by the personalities of their fellow students. The study by Bart Golsteyn, Arjan Non and Ulf Zölitz, to be presented at the Royal Economic Society's annual conference at the University of Sussex in Brighton in March 2018, analyses personality data on 2,375 first-year students at Maastricht University – their persistence, self-confidence, anxiety and risk attitude.

The results indicate that students who are exposed to more persistent peers and less risk-tolerant peers achieve higher grades. Low-persistence students seem to benefit from interacting with more persistent peers without any additional preparation efforts on their part. And highly persistent students do not seem to be significantly harmed by working with less persistent peers.

These results suggest that mixing low- and high-persistence students in study groups would increase overall achievement. They also suggest that policies aiming to improve social and emotional skills can be more effective than previously thought, affecting not only the performance of treated students, but also of others in their social environment.

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It is well-known that students’ personality predicts their academic success. Several studies show, for example, that conscientiousness is as important for predicting course grades as intelligence.

At the same time, a widely held conjecture is that students’ achievement is influenced by their fellow students. A number of studies have indeed shown that students perform better when their peers are high-achieving.

This study is the first to combine these two strands of research. The authors investigate how students’ achievement is influenced by the personality of fellow students.

Establishing a causal relationship is challenging because students, parents and teachers typically influence group composition. This may give rise to a spurious correlation between academic performance and the personality of fellow students.

For example, suppose neuroticism impairs good performance and neurotic students choose to be in groups with emotionally stable peers. As a result, it may appear that having emotionally stable peers negatively affects performance, while this effect is actually driven by the individual’s own neuroticism.

The authors address this issue by analysing unique data from 2,375 first-year Bachelor students at Maastricht University. They collect information on all first-year students’ personality at the beginning of the academic year.

Specifically, they measure students’ persistence, self-confidence, anxiety and risk attitude. Each course period, teachers and students are randomly assigned to tutorial groups of 14 students on average. Because assignment is random, it is possible to rule out that teachers or parents interfere with the group composition, or that students choose their preferred classmates.

As a result, students are by chance exposed to groups of students with different personalities. This makes it possible to estimate whether students who are by chance exposed to a group with, for example, many persistent students perform better than when they are exposed to a group with few persistent students.

The results indicate that students who are exposed to more persistent peers and less risk-tolerant peers achieve higher grades. There is no evidence that peers’ self-confidence or anxiety affect performance.

These effects are distinct from other observable peer characteristics, such as gender and previous academic performance. Interestingly, students who have little persistence themselves benefit most from having highly persistent peers, while highly persistent peers do not seem to be significantly harmed by working with less persistent peers.

A natural next question is why peer personality matters. Analysing data on self-reported study hours, the researchers find no evidence that students change their study effort when exposed to persistent or risk-tolerant peers. Low-persistence students thus benefit from interacting with more persistent peers without any additional preparation efforts on their part.

These results have important policy implications. First, they suggest that mixing low- and high-persistence students in study groups would increase overall achievement.

An important second implication is that policies that aim to improve socio-emotional skills can be more effective than previously thought. The reason is that such policies not only affect the performance of treated students, but also of other people in their social environment. The social returns will therefore be underestimated if positive spillovers on individuals outside the studied environment are neglected.

ENDS


Bart Golsteyn: Department of Economics, Maastricht University. b.golsteyn@maastrichtuniversity.nl.
Arjan Non: University of Bonn and Research Centre for Education and the Labor Market, Maastricht University. arjannon@gmail.com
Ulf Zölitz: University of Zurich (Department of Economics & Jacobs Center for Productive Youth Development), IZA and Maastricht University. ulf.zoelitz@econ.uzh.ch