Working attitude and school grades are subject to common genetic influences

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Pupils in class room
Pupils in class room
Pupils with a high level of self-control and grit generally achieve better grades. Many assume that this good working attitude results in better grades, but biological psychologists at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam (VU) have discovered that the relationship is less causal than thought. Children predisposed to a good work attitude also are also predisposed to good academic performance.

Work Attitude and Genetic Predispositions

We often assume that children’s good self-control and grit contribute directly to good grades in school. However, when taking into account the role of genetic influences on both school grades and working attitude, VU scientists discovered something surprising. Elsje van Bergen states: "It turns out that the genes that contribute to individual differences in grades also contribute to individual differences in working attitude." This study demonstrates that the connection between working attitude and school grades is largely attributable to genetic predisposition. The study, based on 8,000 twins in Grade 6, has been published in the journal Science of Learning .

Full siblings, including fraternal twins, who grow up together, can differ significantly in their working attitude. The predisposition towards a good working attitude correlates with the predisposition to perform well in maths and reading. In the study, teachers assessed pupils’ working attitude using questions about pupils’ self-control and the perseverance aspect of grit. Together, self-control and grit predicted 28% of the individual differences in school grades. However, after controlling for genetic predisposition, self-control and grit predicted only 4%. This shows that the causal relationship is weak, and that the relationship is mainly due to the genetic predisposition common to working attitude and grades.

Phone-Free Classes

"Some children may find it inherently more challenging than others to resist distractions and to concentrate on their schoolwork," says Sofieke Kevenaar. "But you can make it easier for children". Van Bergen adds: "Although we have not studied specific distractions, our findings align with the recommendation to create a class environment that requires less self-control from the children. For example, the temptation to check their phone is hard to resist." From the 1 of January 2024, smartphones and smartwatches are banned from Dutch classrooms. Also at home, it’s advised to keep phones away and notifications turned off when pupils do their homework.

Studying Heritability with Twins

Teachers of the twins in Grade 6 completed a questionnaire on their pupils’ self-control, grit, and school report grades for reading, language, and maths. The twins are enrolled in the Netherlands Twin Register. Identical twins are genetically identical, while fraternal twins are genetically like full siblings, that is, they share on average 50% of their genetic material. This allows researchers to examine the contribution of genes and the environment to individual differences in multiple traits and to study causal relationships among the traits. In addition to revealing the weak causal role of working attitude, the scientists found that individual differences in self-control and grit are about 70% heritable, while individual differences in academic skills are 80% heritable. Children have mastered reading and math through quality education and practice; the importance of that is undisputed, but children differ in how easily they pick it up.