Which character strengths lead to good achievement?

An article previously published in Frontiers in Psychology by Lisa Wagner and Willibald Ruch reported on two studies conducted with 179 primary pupils from three schools, and 199 secondary pupils from four schools in Switzerland to examine whether character strengths are important to school success for primary and secondary pupils.

The authors measured character strengths by the Value in Action Inventory of Strengths for Youth (VIA-Youth,) and positive classroom behaviours with the Classroom Behavior Rating Scale (CBRS), which cover positive achievement-related behaviour and positive social behaviour. For primary pupils, achievement was obtained by teacher ratings; for secondary pupils, the schools’ administration offices provided their grades. The findings showed that:

  • Perseverance, prudence, hope, social intelligence and self-regulation were positively related to positive classroom behaviour for both primary and secondary pupils.
  • Perseverance, prudence, hope, love of learning, perspective, zest and gratitude were positively related to school achievement for both primary and secondary pupils.
  • Perseverance, prudence and hope were associated with both positive classroom behaviour and school achievement across primary and secondary sectors.

According to the authors, these findings indicate there is a rather distinct set of strengths most relevant in schools. The authors also suggest that further research could explore whether teachers and pupils value these strengths.

Source: Good character at school: positive classroom behavior mediates the link between character strengths and school achievement (May 2015), Frontiers in Psychology, Volume 6    

Positive effects of a healthy debate

Johns Hopkins University’s Daniel Shackelford has conducted the first quantitative study examining the effects of participation in an extracurricular debate club during pre-adolescence on pupils’ later academic and engagement outcomes, including entry to selective-entrance high schools.

Dr Shackelford examined a 10-year sample of 2,263 4th to 8th grade pupils (Year 5 to Year 9) participating in Baltimore City’s Baltimore Urban Debate League (BUDL) between the 2004 to 2013 school years, comparing their standardised maths and reading scores, attendance, and entry to selective-entrance high schools to 81,906 peers who did not participate in BUDL. Ninety-one percent of both groups were African American, and 96% of both groups received free and reduced-price lunch.

It is of note that these two groups were not matched at baseline: pupils who became debaters differed from controls prior to their participation in BUDL, with higher standardised test scores and attendance, so no true causal conclusion can be drawn from comparing groups. Yet among the debate pupils themselves, results showed that pre-adolescent debate participation yielded more than a 6% increase in reading scores and a 4% increase in maths scores on standardised testing. While debate inherently involves reading and might be accountable for increased reading achievement, Dr Shackelford observes that debaters were 10% more likely not to be chronically absent than non-debaters, and this increased engagement in school may have yielded the improvements in maths scores. BUDL pupils were also more likely to attend a selective high school (+0.12) or selective career tech high school (+0.01) than to attend a traditional high school.

Source: The BUDL effect: Examining academic achievement and engagement outcomes of preadolescent Baltimore Urban Debate League participants (February 2019), Educational Researcher. 

Is social-emotional learning linked to academic performance?

A study published in Contemporary Educational Psychology looks at the benefits of a school-based social and emotional learning (SEL) intervention in relation to academic achievement by examining how the four main components that underlie the SEL model (children’s social-emotional competence, school connectedness, mental health problems and academic achievement) interact over time.

Margarita Panayiotou and colleagues from Manchester Institute of Education used data drawn from a major cluster randomised trial of the Promoting Alternative Thinking Strategies (PATHS) curriculum to present a three-wave (annual assessment, T1, T2, T3) longitudinal sample. The sample included 1,626 pupils from 45 primary schools in north-west England. They examined the relationship over time between social-emotional competence (T1), school connectedness (T2), mental health difficulties (T2), and academic achievement (T3), and whether exposure to an SEL intervention (in this case PATHS versus usual provision) had any effect on these relationships.

Social-emotional competence at T1 had a positive influence on school connectedness and mental health difficulties at T2. However, SEL was only a significant predictor and mediator of academic achievement at T3 after controlling for gender and prior academic performance. Pupils who had greater social-emotional competence at T1 were reported to experience fewer mental health difficulties at T2, and this in turn predicted higher academic achievement at T3 (p<0.01). However, greater connectedness to school at T2 did not predict later academic achievement. Intervention exposure did not appear to influence these relationships.

Source: An empirical basis for linking social and emotional learning to academic performance (January 2019). Contemporary Educational Psychology, Volume 56

The impact of web-based coaching on mathematics instruction

A new working paper, published by Brown University, reports on an online coaching programme that aimed to support maths teachers.

Mathematical Quality of Instruction (MQI) is an observational instrument that helps structure teachers’ and coaches’ reflections about maths teaching. There are four “dimensions” of the instrument – richness of the mathematics, Common Core-aligned pupil practices, working with pupils and mathematics, and teacher errors. In several studies, teachers’ scores on MQI have predicted pupils’ academic achievement gains.

In MQI coaching, teachers selected an element of their practice to work on and filmed one of their lessons. A coach then selected a couple of extracts and chose a comparison stock film clip. The teacher watched the clips and then the two discussed them and developed a plan for improvement.

In the current trial, 142 upper elementary and middle school teachers (Years 4-9) from 51 schools in a mid-western state in the US were assigned to MQI coaching or a control condition. Teachers assigned to MQI coaching took part in a two-day summer school, followed by a bi-weekly coaching cycle for the following academic year.

At the end of that year, the coached teachers showed substantial improvements in their scores on the MQI instrument. They also had improved scores in pupil perceptions of classroom practices. However, there was no measurable impact on state achievement tests (the Smarter Balance Assessment Consortium (SBAC)). In the follow-up year, there were still large impacts on the four MQI dimensions, but none were found on pupils’ assessment of teachers or pupil achievement.

Source: Developing ambitious mathematics instruction through web-based coaching: A randomized field trial. (November 2018). Brown University Working Paper

Reform needed for early years initiative

As part of their Straight Talk on Evidence initiative, the Laura and John Arnold Foundation (LJAF) has released a report that discusses new findings from a randomised controlled trial (RCT) of Tennessee’s voluntary pre-kindergarten programme for low-income children.

The Voluntary Pre-K (VPK) initiative provides Tennessee’s four-year-old children—with an emphasis on four year olds who are at-risk—an opportunity to develop school readiness skills (pre-academic and social skills). The study randomly assigned 3,131 eligible children who applied for admission at one of 79 oversubscribed VPK programmes across the state to either a programme group that was offered admission or a control group that was not (but could access other available child and family services in the community). Pupil achievement and other outcomes were measured in third grade (Year 4) using state educational records.

According to the LJAF report, the study found positive short-term effects on achievement (at the end of the pre-k year), but these effects dissipated as children entered elementary (primary) school and turned modestly negative by third grade (Year 4). At the third-grade follow-up, the control group scored significantly higher in maths and science achievement than the pre-k group.

The report offers possible reasons for the adverse effects, and suggests that the programme be reformed by incorporating evidence-based funding criteria aimed at improving its effectiveness over time.

Source: Large randomized trial finds state pre-k program has adverse effects on academic achievement. Reform is needed to increase effectiveness. Straight Talk on Evidence, The Laura and John Arnold Foundation

Urban violence and pupil performance

A new study published in Sociology of Education finds that children who attend school with many pupils from violent neighbourhoods can earn significantly lower test scores than peers with classmates from safer areas. The lead author of the study was sociologist Julia Burdick-Will from Johns Hopkins University.

Burdick-Will studied pupils who attended Chicago Public Schools from 2002 to 2010, analysing administrative data from the school system, crime statistics from the Chicago Police Department and school surveys from the University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research. She looked at five cohorts of pupils who were freshmen (Year 10) between the autumn of 2002 and 2006, and followed each pupil for up to four years. Results indicated that in schools where more pupils have a high exposure to violence, their classmates score as much as 10 percent lower on annual standardised maths and reading tests.

According to the report, the study shows that when pupils experience higher levels of neighbourhood violence, the whole school reports feeling less safe, having more disciplinary problems and feeling less trust in their teachers.

Source: Neighborhood violence, peer effects, and academic achievement in Chicago (June 2018), Sociology of Education DOI: 10.1177/0038040718779063