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Predicting School Performance: Effects of Cognitive and Non-Cognitive Student Characteristics

April 24, 2020

Personality traits and student motivation predict school achievement

Jennifer Meyer

The role of cognitive and non-cognitive skills in predicting school achievement is currently a much discussed topic in educational research. Studies often investigate effects of non-cognitive  characteristics (e.g. personality traits and expectation-value beliefs) in addition to cognitive abilities. However, the interaction of cognitive and non-cognitive skills also plays an important role. The investigation of this interplay was a central aim of the study presented here. The study focused on the role of different achievement measures used to assess school performance and on differential effects in several school subjects. Findings on this topic from previous studies were replicated in large samples and further elements added (e.g. written final exams as another measure of achievement, inclusion of interaction terms).

The expectancy value model by Eccles & Wigfield (2002)

The expectancy-value model by Eccles et al. describes motivational tendencies in the context of performance. Both expectancy and value beliefs can predict performance-related decisions (e.g., course selection) and achievement. Value beliefs can be divided into four sub-components: intrinsic value, attainment, utility value and cost. Furthermore, the expectancy-value model postulates an interaction effect of expectancy and value beliefs, which has been neglected for a long time in empirical educational research.

A replication of the study by Trautwein and colleagues (2012) has shown that these interaction effects play a role and, going beyond replication, that the pattern of findings differs depending on school subjects and achievement measures.

Interactions of intrinsic motivation with expectancy beliefs in predicting written final examinations in English

The results show interaction effects, shown here as examples for the written final exam performance in English. Here, the interaction effect means that high value beliefs and low expectancy beliefs can lead to lower performance. Conceivably, this negative interaction effect indicates a mental contrast that arises when students consider a subject to be important but assess their own probability of success in that subject as low. The mental contrast can lead to a lower learning effort and thus to lower performance. This interaction effect was particularly evident in school-related performance measures such as grades and written final examinations.

Interaction of cognitive skills with conscientiousness in predicting written final examinations in mathematics

Interaction effects of cognitive and non-cognitive abilities were investigated with a focus on the personality trait conscientiousness. Conscientiousness is one of the five personality traits described in the five-factor model (see Costa and McCrae). The dimension of conscientiousness describes the tendency towards organized, self-disciplined and ambitious behavior. Previous studies have already shown stable effects of conscientiousness on academic performance in different subjects, especially when considering school grades. However, interaction effects of cognitive abilities with conscientiousness have hardly been investigated in large datasets, and the studies available to date tend to show inconsistent patterns of findings.

Regarding this research question, the moderating effect of conscientiousness on the effect of cognitive abilities when predicting academic achievement could be shown as amplified for school-based measures of mathematics as well as for the final grade point average (GPA). This means that the effect of cognitive abilities on school performance also depends on the degree of conscientiousness: Students with high conscientiousness scores may be able to make better use of their cognitive resources and convert them into school achievement.


The study shows the importance of personality traits and motivation as non-cognitive student characteristics in predicting school achievement with differential effects considering the role of different achievement measures and subject domains. This work emphasizes the importance of the interaction of non-cognitive predictors with cognitive abilities as well as the contribution of systematic replication of previous research results using large scale data.

"Students with

high conscientiousness

could potentially make better use of their cognitive

resources and convert them

into school achievement. «