The Psychology of Academic Achievement

If you’ve taken any Psychology 101 course, the age-old “nature vs. nurture” debate was likely covered. While the debate has yet to be settled (spoiler alert: it will never be settled), we can apply the same principles to the psychology of academic achievement and why some individuals are apt for more success in the classroom.

While the process of education has evolved tremendously over time, and varies widely from nation to nation, it seems obvious that environmental factors – the nurture side of the debate – play an incredibly large role in predicting achievement.

When looking at schools with historically low achievement, studies cited in this Psychology Today article, noticed that poor infrastructure and appalling classroom conditions indicate higher dropout rates across the board. On the flipside, when we think about the campuses of Ivy League schools and other elite educational institutions, it’s not only the state-of-the-art facilities and that predict achievement, but also the amount of greenery outside the classrooms, access to natural light and other happiness-inducing and stress-relieving factors that contribute to academic success.

Further supporting the nurture perspective, learned biases and stereotypes can both improve and put staggeringly low limits on a child’s ability to achieve, depending on which side of the narrative a child falls.

Take the classic, “boys are better at math and science” stereotype. Though this claim is far from factual, what really makes a difference is whether or not a child believes it to be true. Research noted by the National Science Foundation shows that stereotypes like these affect girls as early as six years old. By learning such false notions and believing them to be fact, children perceive them as insurmountable limits that are out of their control, thus subconsciously stunting their ability to achieve academically.

However, when we eliminate these biases and teach children that they are capable of achieving, the playing field is level for boys, girls and children of all races and socioeconomic backgrounds, as indicated by minority students studied by researchers at Stanford and the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Though there seems to be more research to back the nurture side of the psychology of academic achievement, it could be because studying genes – indicators of our inherent psychological nature – is a more challenging process. However, researchers cited in BBC Education used DNA tests to identify a child’s likelihood of developing reading problems. Tests like these make it possible for educators to identify children or groups of children who could benefit from early intervention programs, thus preventing setbacks to longer-term academic success.

With all of this information – and much more available to teachers and educators – we can’t necessarily settle the “nature vs. nurture” debate. However, we can better understand the nuances that exist in human psychology and perhaps focus more of our energy on creating curriculum and classrooms that show students what’s possible and help them to believe in their ability to achieve.

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