Exploring the role of personality in the processes and pathways of learning and achievement

Exploring the role of personality in the processes and pathways of learning and achievement was the title of a session given by David Mcilroy and Sue Palmer-Conn at the Association of NTFs Symposium, recently held at Birmingham City University. Here they provide a ‘taste’ of what you may have missed! Now read on….

Those pictured represent politics, religion, music, sport, film and chat hosting. What shapes the choices and direction of individuals towards these pathways? What do they have in common and what are the differences? Does their projected public persona represent their underlying disposition? When individuals act out a role do they internalise that to become part of them?

This session at the Association of NTFs Symposium, focused on learning and teaching with reference to the Five Factor Model of Personality (acronyms: CANOE or OCEAN], given that research has established the role of Personality in learning and achievement. Audience members offered insightful observations around Einstein’s famous quote: “I never teach my pupils; I only create the conditions in which they can learn”. It was agreed that the teacher should create the context and climate for learning and should structure and ration learning to maximise its effectiveness, although the tutor imparting knowledge is inevitable. However, it was agreed that well designed questions facilitate effective learning – encapsulated within openness – “I kept six honest serving men, they taught me all I knew; their names are what, and why, and when, and how, and where, and who” (Rudyard Kipling).

The presenter highlighted the central role of conscientiousness (alliterated as rhythm, regulation and routine). “It is not what you do once in a while that matters, but what you do day in and day out that makes a difference”(Jenny Craig). Ability and personality together are necessary (but not sufficient individually) in learning and achievement, with the former as what you can do and the latter as what you will do. One participant observed that students from a particular culture take conscientiousness to the maladaptive extreme. A good work-life balance is required and the audience agreed that spaced rather than crammed learning is effective and efficient.

Extraversion and agreeableness are advantageous in education as pro-social traits. Extraverted qualities are good for group work, discussions, presentations, seeking help, asking and answering questions etc. The downside is “distractibility” as extraverts may be impatient about investing the quality time needed to develop mature understanding. Extraverts prefer to study with others in the library and to take frequent breaks, whereas introverts may be more likely to book a personalised study carrel. Also, extraverts can monopolise discussion and the audience agreed that this should be regulated. Some audience members were aware of books written on themes such as the power of introversion. Both Extraverts and Introverts can learn useful qualities from each other, and most of us are a mixture (Eysenck) of the two (“ambiverts” – a little like the chameleon pictured below!). Although personality traits are stable (like the compass needle we come to rest at our “magnetic north”), we can learn to regulate our natural predisposition in practice.

Agreeableness is typically weakest in predicting achievement, but has real educational value. An agreeable student is likely to attend, follow instructions and receive good references from tutors. They are inclined to help others, become mentors and thus learn well by being teachers, but should be wary of manipulation and naivety in cooperation. Jane Austen recognised agreeableness is one of the defining and overarching traits of personality some 200 years before psychologists came to the same conclusion (cf. Mr Darcy and Mr Willoughby)!

Finally, all agreed that Neuroticism/Emotional Stability (and emotional regulation), are of primary concern in education. All emotions stem from evolutionary processes and individuals can use negative emotions adaptively, and there was consensus that negative emotions are an essential aspect of the student experience. The growing emphasis on mental health does not imply that we should wrap our students in cotton wool, and the speaker reminded the audience of Aristotle’s golden mean – every virtue is the mean between two extremes. Individuals can channel energy from negative emotions into constructive outcomes. A useful quote suggests that whereas stress is the body’s call to action, anxiety is a maladaptive response to that call. Also, anger can be channelled into assertiveness rather than aggression or being left to congeal into malice.

Aristotle’s Golden Mean Chart

In general, the audience was lively and engaged and there was consensus that engaging students in interactive activities like this is the way forward: perhaps more important is for tutors to stimulate interest in the topic rather than finish all their session slides. Lively, good quality interaction is more likely to come from thorough preparation. We should not be afraid to be a little vulnerable by admitting that we are not all-knowing! We may gain rather than lose respect by this and students may feel less fear about feeling ignorant themselves in public discussion.

Participants completed a short, validated version of the FFM, and this provided a quick understanding of the FFM model. This might be a good exercise to use with students in a tutorial to help with self-awareness and self-presentation – email (d.mcilroy@ljmu.ac.uk) for a copy. From a pedagogic standpoint, it is best to let students formulate their own personality profiles. Also, when we design and deliver our educational content, it is enlightening to be aware of the individual differences in personality in any class.

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