Can Genetics Sway Academic Success?

Pharmacy students' academic success may be partially rooted in their genes, according to research out of The University of Texas at Austin (UT Austin).

Pharmacy students’ academic success may be partially rooted in their genes, according to research out of The University of Texas at Austin (UT Austin).

Although academic achievement is contingent on cognitive abilities like logic and reasoning, researchers believe that the motivation to learn, which plays a big role in success in school, is actually driven by specific character traits. UT Austin associate professor Elliot Tucker-Drob, PhD, and his colleagues theorized and ultimately determined that characteristics such as the desire to learn are influenced by genetics, so students’ genes play a critical role in their academic success.

“Until now, parenting and schooling have been suggested by research as likely explanations for character, but our study suggests otherwise,” stated Dr. Tucker-Drob in a press release.

In order to study how genetic and environmental factors influence character and relate to academic achievement, the researchers consulted data from 811 third- to eighth-grade twins and triplets. Twin studies, such as UT Austin’s Texas Twin Project, can compare similarities between identical and fraternal twins in order to estimate how much genetics influence character traits such as personality, interests, behavioral problems, and school grades. By studying siblings, researchers can learn which characteristic variations result from unshared environmental factors, as well as genetic similarities.

For the current study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, researchers examined 7 academically based character measures that represented work ethic, enjoyment or desire to learn, attitudes toward education, and self-appraised abilities. They also took into account how character measures were associated with the “big 5” personality traits—openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism—which have been used in past research to predict academic achievement.

The results showed genetics accounted for 69% of an individual’s general character, while the remaining 31% varied by environmental influences outside of school. Each character measure was heavily associated with openness (48% heritable) and conscientiousness (57% heritable). Character measures that encourage intellectual curiosity were linked more heavily to openness, which strongly correlated with academic achievement, whereas those representing work ethic were modestly associated with it.

“This may indicate that aspects of character that are associated with interest and desire to learn may be stronger drivers of academic achievement than aspects of character associated with diligence and hard work,” Dr. Tucker-Drob suggested.