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Higher grades awarded to students seen as agreeable, research finds

Teachers grading their students’ work may be influenced by their perceptions of the students’ personalities, according to the findings of an international research collaboration

Led by academics from Queen’s University Belfast, Goldsmiths, University of London and Sirius University of Science and Technology in Russia, the research was published in a special issue of The Journal of Personality and Individual Differences.

It found that teachers awarded higher grades to Russian students with more ‘desirable’ personality traits such as agreeableness and conscientiousness.

One of the lead researchers, Dr Kostas Papageorgiou from Queen’s University Belfast, said it is worth considering that in a small, but significant, number of cases what differentiates student grades is not only actual ability but perceived personality characteristics.

He suggests that some students could have their options for the future affected, either in a positive or, more worryingly, in a negative way.

The study is the first of its kind to explore and compare the connection between students who are selected for their exceptional performance and their personality and behavioural strengths and difficulties.

Dr Kostas Papageorgiou, from the School of Psychology at Queen’s University Belfast, said: “It was interesting although perhaps not surprising that some teachers seem to award higher grades to students with more ‘desirable’ personality traits such as high agreeableness.

“These results suggest that teacher ratings might reflect some conscious or unconscious biases, such as judging more leniently the students that they perceive as more focused on school tasks, who are well behaved in interpersonal contexts and who are more emotionally fragile.

“It is worth considering that in a small number of cases what differentiates student grades is not only actual ability but perceived personality characteristics. However, the results of the study are not marked enough to say that this bias is making a huge difference to outcomes. Marking exams blindly and having a moderation system in place will definitely reduce the negative impact of this bias.”

Researchers looked at almost 1,200 Russian students between the ages of 14 and 18 who were participating in an educational programme at the Education Centre for adolescents excelling in science, arts, sports and literature, based at the prestigious Sirius University of Science and Technology in Sochi.

Over 2019-2020, the study compared Russian and Maths grades assigned to students by teachers with grades awarded anonymously in state exams the following year.

Another key finding of the research is that while scoring highly for narcissism did not show a direct link to achievement, it did predict a lower likelihood of behavioural problems, which are linked to lower achievement. So researchers believe narcissism may have a positive influence on achievement through protecting against behavioural problems.

The research also suggests that too much of any particular personality trait relates to negative outcomes whether that trait is seen as positive, for example emotional stability, or negative, for example Machiavelianism.

In other words, having scores higher than average on any trait may be problematic for academic achievement.

Professor Yulia Kovas, from the Department of Psychology at Goldsmiths University of London, said: “Investigating personality, behaviour and achievement in gifted adolescents is a powerful tool for understanding complex networks of associations among these characteristics.  Our study shows that personality and behaviour contribute to achievement via multiple causal, evocative and mediating processes.”

Personality, Behavioral strengths and difficulties and performance of adolescents with high achievements in science, literature, art and sports was published in a special issue of The Journal Personality and Individual Differences to celebrate 40 years of the International Society of the Study for Individual Differences.

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