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Student Characteristics and Academic Performance in Higher Education: A Review


Author(s): Susan A. Margrain
Source: Research in Higher Education, Vol. 8, No. 2 (1978), pp. 111-123
Published by: Springer
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/40195141
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RESEARCHIN HIGHEREDUCATION
Volume8, pages 111-123
1978APS Publications,Inc.

STUDENT CHARACTERISTICSAND
ACADEMIC PERFORMANCE IN HIGHER
EDUCATION:A Review
Susan A. Margrain, The Northern Ireland Polytechnic, Jordanstown

This is a review of the recent literature on student characteristics and their predictive
potential for academic achievement. Results are not optimistic, often contradictory, and
on the whole account for little variance beyond that accounted for by tests of intellectual
ability. Researchers often use different performance criteria and so results are not comparable. However, there has been much complex, diverse, and unique work done on
personality and motivational factors but no clear trends have emerged. Other factors
investigated have been home and class background, study habits, previous withdrawal,
and expectations. The review concludes by demonstrating the usefulness of the cluster
analysis approach which indicates groups of students with similar patterns of characteristic criteria.

Key words: background characteristics; introvert; study habits; cluster analysis

Attempts to construct a profile of the successful student over a wide


range of background characteristics have proven largely disappointing.
"In the prediction of student performances . . . efforts have produced
rather unexciting conclusions" (Wilson, 1971). Entwistle, Entwistle,
and Cowell (1971), using students from universities, polytechnics, and
colleges of education, found that although the correlation between Advanced Level, General Certificate of Education (AL) and academic performance was .32, the addition of other characteristics only boosted the
value by .06 and this is in agreement with American studies. Smithers
(1972), using more sophisticated statistical methods, was able to account for 25% of the variation in student performance. Miller (1973)
summarized research results: "Most have not been found to account
for much variance not accounted for by tests of intellectual ability."
It is disquieting to find that these undramatic results can also be conAddressreprintrequeststo Dr. Susan A. Margrain,Faculty of Social and HealthSciences, Ulster College, The NorthernIrelandPolytechnic,Jordanstown,NorthernIreland.
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tradictory, e.g., Iliffe (1968) found that AL's showed a small significant
positive correlation with performance but in general the level of correlation was low and even lower when the sexes were separated. Hamilton (1968) concluded that prior academic performance was unreliably
correlated with achievement compared to nonscholastic variables. Yet
Entwistle (1974) found that it was the best predictor.
Some confusion arises because different performance criteria have
been used, e.g., in one case, degree class or mark, in another first year
grades, while some researchers use less academic estimates of success,
such as the withdrawal or dropout rate (Miller, 1970), or the student's
own estimation of success (Mehryar, Hekmat, and Khajavi, 1975). Also
the universal comparability of marks and fail rates is illusory- the
range of marks used depending on subject, faculty, and institution.
Another factor in research comparisons in higher education is the
variability associated with different student groups (these hold the key
to more meaningful prediction of academic performance), e.g., Entwistle (1972) surveyed the differences between students from different institutions. While 68.5% of university students had 3 Cs at AL, only
8.4% of those at polytechnics (and there were only degree students in
the sample), and 5.7% of those at colleges of education had. On a test
of academic aptitude 44.2% of the university students were in the top
two groups and 4% in the bottom. At colleges of education 10.5% were
in the top groups and 23.5% in the bottom.
Nonscholastic differences were found between the three groups. Half
of the polytechnic students lived at home while only 5% of students at
other institutions did. Students at colleges were more extroverted than
those at universities (see Hendry and Whiting, 1972). College of education students scored higher on social values, but lower on political values than university students. Compared with students in other sectors,
polytechnic students scored higher on neuroticism and economic values, but lower on religious values.
Young apprentices at technical colleges were found to be more extroverted, authoritarian, and prejudiced than university students (Venables, 1967). Warburton, reported by Hendry and Whiting (1972), found
students in colleges of advanced technology less anxious than those at
universities, but Entwistle (1972) reported that there were no consistent
results for personality factors in students at technical colleges or colleges of education.
Differences between students seem to be greatest among those studying different subjects. Horn, Turner, and Davis (1975) found Social
Science students were significantly more neurotic than engineers and
they also tended to join radical political groups. Payne, Halpin, and Ellett (1973) found students in Drama and Social Science described them-

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Student Characteristics and Performance

113

selves as more independent, aggressive, and stubborn than students in


music and Foreign Languages. The Social Science group were also
more toughminded than the Art and Foreign Language group, and were
more calculating and shrewd than all other groups. Math and Science
groups were more reserved, detached and critical than any other student group. Academic talent was characterized by higher IQ, toughmindedness, the experimenting approach, expediency, and stability.
Conversely, the artistic student was tenderminded, conservative, tense,
and less intelligent and conscientious. However, apart from these differences the personality profiles of artistically and academically gifted
students were similar. Entwistle (1972) found the pattern of abilities,
values, and attitudes of Science students was almost the mirror image
of Arts students. Language students had high verbal ability, high esthetic values, radical social attitudes, and were emotionally unstable. They
also had low economic, political, and theoretical values. The scientists
were just the opposite. Applied scientists were neurotic and unstable,
yet pure scientists were stable. Entwistle (1974) found scientists were
more stable than Arts students. In a study by Higgins and Rossmann
(1973) to determine the most preferred nominee students in a Liberal
Arts College, faculty staff chose those that were "most like
themselves - male, bright, high academic achievers, desiring to pursue
graduate work." These students also tended to succeed, but there was
a high percentage of overlap with the nonnominees on performance.
Hendry and Whiting (1972) found that Physical Education students
were more extroverted and stable than other students, as well as more
muscular, more authoritarian, and had driving aggressive social responses of low insight, but had a high achievement drive.
The complexity and diversity of results on student characteristics associated with different institutions, subject groups, and research studies
are reflected in studies on the relationships between characteristics and
achievement.
Jones, Mackintosh, and McPherson (1972) found that school standards were better predictors in science than nonscience subjects. Entwistle (1972) found that successful linguists had higher verbal aptitude
than those who did less well. They were also more introverted and
neurotic, but less ambitious. Social Science students who did well were
emotionally stable and had low religious values. Among scientists,
numerical aptitude was related to achievement as well as high theoretical and low aesthetic values. (However, as far as aptitude tests in general are concerned, Entwistle (1974) found their contribution beyond
AL's was random.)
Ironically, Wantowski (1972) found that although scientists were
neurotic introverts, the science department's losses were greatest

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among students who exhibited these characteristics.


Brennan and Entwistle, reported by Entwistle (1972), found that successful Science students were introverts, had only moderate AL's, but
saw themselves as hardworking. Wilson, in the same publication, found
extroversion related to failure in the Arts faculty. Furneux (Entwistle,
1972) found neurotic introverts made good engineers and linguists but
stable introverts did better in the pure sciences and history. However,
among the Social Science students the correlation between personality
variables and attainment was almost zero. Entwistle (1972) found that
although neuroticism correlated positively with success for engineers
and linguists, it correlated negatively for scientists and Social Studies
students. In different terms, Stringer (1972) found the more successful
engineering student was authoritarian, rigid, lacking in creative interests, conservative, and neither impulsive or verbally aggressive.
Venables (1976) found a larger proportion of successful extroverts in
the mechanical rather than electrical trades at technical colleges. Unlike Entwistle (1972), she found aptitude tests were helpful. The best
predictive tests were a mathematical attainment test, a nonverbal IQ
test, and the space perception test.
For first-year Psychology students, Banreti-Fuchs (1975) found that
high achievers were conscientious about attending lectures, reading,
and keeping up with the subject. Strangely, they regarded themselves
as having poor physical health; they went to fewer parties and dances;
they tended to be first-born children; they spent less time day dreaming; and they postponed marriage until the future. They reported that
they preferred subjective rather than objective exams. Kline and Gale
(Entwistle, 1972) found neither neuroticism nor introversion correlated
with success in an introductory psychology course. Lin and McKeachie
(1973) found sex differences, using the Achiever Personality Scale,
Gough's Achievement via Independence Scale and study methods.
They found their criteria made independent contributions beyond IQ to
the prediction of course grades on an introductory psychology course
for men, but not for women. They suggested that Fricke's Social Sciences Interest Scale would be useful in predicting success for women.
In Architecture, Stringer (1972) found that degree class related to organization and leadership, but that all students who got firsts were a
distinct group: they were less authoritarian, less rigid, had greater creative interests, and were more feminine. However, failing students had
half their scores in the opposite direction and half in the same direction. Thus, there was a "U"-shaped relationship between personality
and degree. Stringer concluded that students should opt for studies
linked with their personality. However, this would not have been useful advice for Architecture students.

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Student Characteristics and Performance

115

Recently, Rowell and Renner (1975) found that for the postgraduate
diploma in education, introverts were found to be more successful in
structured courses and extroverts in unstructured courses.
On the whole the introvert seems to do better in higher education
(Entwistle, 1972) while the stable extrovert does better at the school
level. However, Wankowski and Cox (1973) reported that at the school
level, higher grade General Certificates of Education were obtained by
the less extroverted male. Lynn (Miller, 1970) found that good students
were most often neurotic introverts. However, the relationship of
stability-instability to good performance is controversial. Ryle (1969)
reported that students who failed were highly neurotic and more introverted. Kelvin, Lucas, and Ojha, reported by Entwistle (1974), found
that first class honors and failed students showed high neuroticism
scores while students with high or low instability scores did worse than
those with moderate scores. Correlations between introversion and
achievement for polytechnic students were lower than for students
from any other institution. The diversity of "all-over" views about the
personality of the successful student reemphasizes the inappropriateness of this approach. However, the excellent study done by Wankowski and Cox (1973) at Birmingham does make generalizations. Essentially high neuroticism and extroversion combined to inhibit
academic achievement and boost failure and withdrawal. The likelihood
of stable introverts successfully completing a course was more than
three times that for overall course population and six times greater than
for the melancholies. However, there were differences between male
and female populations. Among female students the stable extroverts
gained high honors degrees, but for males it was the stable introvert
who gained First Class Honors.
Wankowski and Cox (1973) also found that although the correlation
between admission grades and degree was over .50 for stable introverts
for both sexes, it disappeared to nonsignificance for students with other
temperamental dispositions.
Interestingly they also found that on a teacher dependence scale,
withdrawals scored highest and First Class Honors lowest. There was a
negative correlation (r = -.50) between this score and degree among
stable and introverted females and among males in the physical sciences (r = -.36), but this trend was not evident among students with
intermediate degrees. The social transactions of tuition are complex
and devious indeed.
Apart from personality factors, students' background characteristics
have been used to predict performance. Ryle (1969) found that excessive parental pressure, a bad early relationship with parents or their divorce influenced the student to withdraw. Morris (1964) found a higher

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failure rate among those who felt their parents were keen on them coming to the university than among those who felt their parents were hostile or neutral. But Wankowski and Cox (1973) found this was not the
case for the neurotic and introverted (melancholic and guilt prone).
"
They flourished under advice" from their elders. Miller (1970) found
that unstable and discordant families tended to make the student less
persistent, but financial problems made no difference. He found that
birth, rank, and family size were also unimportant. However, being
used to social interaction did help, This suggests that institutions of
higher education should inquire about a student's parents' activities.
Children from democratic homes tended to have inquiring minds while
punitive, autocratic parents produced the opposite. Achievers came
from families that were harmonious and stable, and where everyone
had freedom of thought and communication.
A student's class background also appears to be of mixed importance
for achievement. Smithers (1972) found that working class students did
well at a technological university and Morris (1964) found the same at
an ordinary university. He found that upper middle class students from
public schools were as successful as grammar school pupils. Prediger,
reported by Miller (1970), found that details of a student's background
were of little use as predictors for students of low ability but they did
help for students of high ability. Smithers and Dann (1974) found relationships between social class and degree among engineering and science students were low, but in languages the successful students came
from nonmanual backgrounds. Among apprentices (Venables, 1976)
achievement was associated with socially and educationally superior
working class families, with the father most usually in a manual engineering job for which he had attended further education classes after
school. The apprentice underachiever tended to have a father in a
nonmanual managerial job. He would also have come from a grammar
school, tended to be fat, and extroverted. The achieving apprentice
tended to be anxious and introverted, the first or only child, and had a
muscular physique. He also tended to be the employee of a large,
rather than a small, firm. However, practical ability was independent of
course success.
Dale and Miller (1972) compared the influence of an urban or rural
background on academic performance. They found that urban Arts students from single-sex schools did better than their rural counterparts.
Overall, the city students did better at first- year level and students
from intermediate sized towns did less well than city or rural students.
Miller and Dale (1974) found similar results from students originating
from single-sex or coeducational schools, but there were more firstyear dropouts from single-sex schools.

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Student Characteristics and Performance

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Bluhm and Couch (1972) investigated the effect of previous withdrawal from higher education, i.e., the relative academic performance
of various groups of readmitted students. The typical readmitted student was male, 24 years old, and unmarried. Upon their return, all
readmitted students earned higher grades; however, females and upper
class students performed even better. Interestingly, students who had
withdrawn for reasbns of Church Mission or to be a housewife performed better than those who withdrew for reasons of employment or
military service. The length of time a student was out of school made
no difference in his academic performance.
The following are more unusual background characteristics that relate to success.
(1) There is a positive effect of previous experience with children for
trainee teachers and a small advantage to being female (Waviott and
Pollard, 1974); (2) Cohn (1972) found that for a course in economic
statistics a greater background in economics was not a prerequisite for
success and could be a handicap. However, a greater background in
math was significantly related to success in this area. (3) Students with
high mobility and high intelligence were more successful than low mobility students of high intelligence. High mobility students of low intelligence did less well than low mobility students with low intelligence.
(Whalen and Fried, 1973); (4) Judging oneself as hardworking correlated with success at universities and polytechnics but not at colleges
of education (Entwistle, 1972); (5) Sportsmen have been found to be as
successful as nonparticipants, although they were more extroverted and
stable (Hendry and Douglass, 1975); (6) Calhoun (1975) found that
background and experiences were less important than initial goals and
expectations in predicting performance on a Keller-type (1968) course
(which is characterized by self-pacing, repeated examination, immediate performance feedback, and optional lectures). Background and experience have no relationship to performance on review quizzes, times
to mastery, or rate of progress.
Other factors relating to academic performance include study habits
and methods. Entwistle et al. (1971), found they correlated with success more highly at polytechnics than at universities or at colleges of
education, but hours spent studying did not correlate with success. At
Birmingham, Wankowski and Cox (1973) found the same. They also
reported that attendance at lecturers' tutorials showed no relationship
to success except in the medical, dental, commerce and social sciences
faculties where the correlation was high but negative (-.54 and -.62,
respectively). However, good study habits apart from attendance, or
contact with lecturers, seem to facilitate performance (Smithers, 1972;
Jones et al., 1972).

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There has been great hope for motivational measures in the prediction of academic performance, but results have been mixed. Maxwell,
reported by Miller (1970), found motivational characteristics operated
differently according to the discipline studied. Vocational orientation
helped in Science but made no difference in the Arts. Wankowski and
Cox (1973) found that overall motivation and short- and long-term goals
showed significant positive correlations with achievement. These were
highest for males in commerce and social science and among stable, introverted females. A high failure rate occurred for students whose reasons for entering a university were "indeterminate."
Miller (1970), and later Dunham (1973), found the concept of need
achievement useful. Venables (1976) found that motivation rather than
ability indicated success for apprentices once they had passed their
first-year examinations. This motivation was in turn influenced by the
state of trade in their industry, the value placed on their studies by
their employers and the appropriateness of the syllabus. Smithers
(1974) found that a student's occupational motivation at a technological
university correlated with his degree performance and withdrawal level,
but even so gave no better prediction than AL's. Jones et al. (1972)
found that successful students had a high degree of academic
"singlemindedness." Wankowski (1972) found that withdrawal rate was
discriminated by goal orientation rather than admission grades. Entwistle et al. (1971) found motivation was more highly correlated with success at polytechnics than at colleges of education or universities. However, it is ironic that although success in higher education is associated
with introversion, and highly motivated students with good study habits
tend to do well, Entwistle et al. (1971) found that there was a tendency
for highly motivated students to be extroverted and those with good
study habits to be introverted.
There have been attempts to combine personality and motivational
factors in predicting performance. Hamilton (1968) found the most frequently occuring characteristics were: the need for social aggression
and social role playing, heterosexual interest, proness to day dreaming,
the balance of the need to be socially dominant and independent with
the need to be submissive to authority and dependent, giving a good
social impression, persistence, achievement motivation, being restless
and impulsive or their opposites, and a need for neatness and organization in one's personal life. Confirming the importance of some of these
characteristics, Haley and Lerner (1972) found that successful premedical students had submissive and uncritical attitudes to authority, but a
relatively cynical view of human conduct. They were also ambitious to
achieve personal, political, or economic power; and they were persistent. Interestingly, they were also less bright and less socially con-

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Student Characteristics and Performance

119

cerned than students who did less well. Wankowski and Cox (1973)
found that low extroversion, low neuroticism, high General Certificates
of Education, Advanced Levels, and clear goal orientation indicated a
ten times greater chance of success than an opposite orientation. Lavin, reported by Miller (1970), found that together social maturity,
emotional stability, achievement motivation, cognitive style, curiosity,
flexibility, abstraction, achievement via conformance and achievement
via independence, all related to academic performance.
Brawer (1973) developed the concept of "functional potential" as an
indicator of personal success for college students. This describes the
degree to which a student is able to tolerate ambiguity, delay gratification, exhibit adaptive flexibility, demonstrate goal directedness, relate
to oneself and others, and have a clear personal identity. It was conceived as "a hypothetical construct built upon psychodynamic principles of human functioning." Brawer found that the level of functional
potential was inversely related to dropout rate and positively related to
persistence.
Pandey (1973) found that dropouts were similar to good students,
being intelligent, conscientious and of high superego strength, but were
unlike them in being assertive, stubborn, and independent- good students were humble and submissive.
Stringer (1972) found that Architecture students who failed their
exams had higher drive, creative interests, femininity, greater obsessiveness, and were more authoritarian and rigid, while degree class related to organization and leadership.
Although the interaction and grouping of a number of student characteristics appears to result in a more complete picture of the successful
student, the correlations involved are often very small and the idiosyncratic variable differs with the investigator and the study.
The real problem lies in the nature of the statistical approach. Correlational techniques and factor analysis average out traits or characteristics across a population for a particular test or characteristic dimension, ignoring the patterns of similarities between people. Hamilton
and Freeman (1971) felt that complex patterns or profiles of personality
and motivation which differ for groups or subgroups need to be considered systematically for prediction to be successful.
Entwistle and Brennan (1971) have attempted to rectify the faults of
earlier statistical techniques by using cluster analysis. In this classification, procedures compare similarities between people and indicate
groups of people that have the same pattern of scores. Automatic interaction detection allows subgroups to be produced on the basis of
these interactions rather than on arbitary or subjective decisions.
Entwistle and Brennan (1971) found 12 such clusters of students:

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three associated with high achievement (1 to 3), through clusters of average achievement to those associated with students of low attainment
(10 to 12). Cluster 1 included male scientists with good AL's and high
numerical ability, high motivation, good study methods and examination techniques, and who were introverted but stable. These were empirical rationalists, toughminded, conservative, and ambitious with high
academic and political values. Cluster 2 included male working class
scientists with good AL's and numerical ability, with only average
study methods and motivation, who were tenderminded with an absence of esthetic values but with strong religious values. In contrast,
cluster 3 included women studying humanities. In ability and study
methods, they resembled cluster 1, except that they had high verbal
rather than numerical ability. They were religious with low political and
economic values, were radical and tenderminded. Clusters that involved students of low attainment were: cluster 10, male students with
below average entry qualifications, low motivation and study habit
measures, extroverted, not neurotic but toughminded radicals with high
social values; Cluster 11 included extroverted male scientists who were
toughminded conservatives with average scores on motivation and
study habits, and rigid attitudes- they were impulsive rather than sociable; Cluster 12 consisted of women with low entry qualifications but
average ability, with poor examination techniques. They were tenderminded with high religious values combined with low theoretical, political, and economic values.
An alternative statistical technique which has the ability to reveal inherently types or groups of students was favored by Smithers (1972).
This is principle component analysis (he also used regression analysis).
Smither's study discovered types of successful students related to different subjects, e.g., in the Physical Sciences these were students of
high intelligence who were syllabus-bound and uninterested in creative
original work. On the other hand, there were equally successful Physical Science students with poor AL's, but good study habits and practical interests. Another group included students with high loadings on
divergent thinking tests, high academic motivation, and scientific interest. Those successful in languages included students with special
abilities, who had good AL's, were highly motivated, and adventurous.
But another languages type was neurotic, of high intelligence, and had
good first-year examination results. Yet a third successful languages
group had good study habits, were helpful, highly motivated, and had
good first-year examination results. Unfortunately, Smithers (1972) was
unable to isolate successful types of Social Science or Pharmacology
students.
Either of the above approaches would seem to be more meaningful

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and successful in assessing the relevance of different student characteristics for the prediction of academic performance, especially when
applied within subject areas. However, the large amount of still unaccounted for variance in student performance suggests that the students
might not be the sole arbiters of their success. Their teachers' ability,
personality, bias, methods, and numerous variables associated with the
institution attended must also be conconsidered for complete and accurate prediction of academic performance.

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