When adults try to measure success, metrics vary widely, from financial wealth to professional distinction to emotional satisfaction. We usually evaluate success in children more narrowly: grades. Excellent grades imply accomplishment in school that may translate to mastery in the workplace. For better or for worse, great grades mean a lot to many of us, parents and kids alike.
While asking how much academic achievement should matter deserves consideration, a more practical question asks how to achieve academic success. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development digs deep into that issue in its Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) Survey of the educational performance of 15-year-olds in reading, mathematics, and science in OECD countries. Surprisingly, this research finds that simple and direct correlations between students’ academic achievement and their attitudes toward school were near zero. From developed countries to developing ones, across genders and socio-economic backgrounds, there is no real relationship between academic achievement and passion for school. So, if maintaining a positive attitude about school doesn’t guarantee academic success, what does?
How about maintaining a positive attitude about yourself?
Researcher Jihyun Lee explored the OECD PISA data to discover that what sets academically able and less able students apart is self-belief about their own strengths and weaknesses:
“Individual psychological variables such as self-efficacy, anxiety and enjoyment of learning in itself explain between 15 per cent and 25 per cent of the variation in students’ academic achievement. Collectively, research shows that students’ self-belief in their own problem-solving abilities is far more important than their perception of school itself.”
While Professor Lee doesn’t seem entirely thrilled with these findings, those of us closer to the point where teens meet tests might find great value in this research. Instead of fruitlessly trying to get kids to feel better about school, we might instead focus on the important work of building their confidence in themselves. Self-confidence can can vary over time but becomes particularly volatile during adolescence. Since healthy quantities of self-esteem can help teenagers not only make safe, informed decisions, but apparently also excel at school, building out students’ confidence in themselves really can promote success in both the present and future. And for added achievement, work on their happiness too!