by Lazar Stankov
For many years, schools and teachers have focused almost exclusively on student performance. The teaching community is starting to realize the importance of non-cognitive factors such as school climate and family background. Professor Lazar Stankov enlightens us on this often overlooked aspect of teaching.
The list of important attributes that psychologists think students should have to succeed in school is growing.
For many years, the emphasis was on cognitive variables like memory, verbal abilities and aptitudes for reasoning. These can be measured using performance and achievements tasks, where the answers given can be grouped as correct or incorrect.
While these cognitive factors remain important, of interest recently have been non-cognitive factors that affect learning. In fact, it has emerged over the years that these factors are equally important for learning.
An extensive literature review by Lee and Shute (in press) in the fields of educational, social, and cognitive psychology has led them to identify about a dozen variables that demonstrate direct empirical links to academic achievement at the primary and secondary school levels.
Three major groups of psychological variables – student engagement, perceived school climate, and social-familial influences – appear to be most relevant.
Student engagement is classified as a personal factor. It has three components: behavioural, cognitive-motivational and emotional engagement.
- Behavioural engagement is manifested in students attending classes, following rules, and participating in school activities.
- Cognitive-motivational engagement is expressed in a preference for challenge, intrinsic motivation, investment in learning, academic self-beliefs and confidence.
- Emotional engagement is displayed as interest, curiosity, a sense of belonging, and the feelings of students.
Evidence from longitudinal studies of school achievement indicates significant correlations between student engagement variables at an early age with school performance 3 or 4 years later.
School climate is a social-contextual factor, and includes: academic emphasis, teacher variables and principal leadership.
- Academic emphasis refers to expectations that schools have of their students as well as positive reactions from the school community. Measures of academic emphasis in schools have been found to account for up to 50% of variability in the school’s overall achievement scores.
- Teacher variables such as teacher empowerment (teachers’ belief that they play a critical role in school-wide decisions) and affiliation (their sense of belonging to the school) contribute to creating a positive school climate. Teachers in a positive environment are committed to their students’ learning, possess high drive and self-confidence, and feel good about their teaching and the professional support system provided to them. In addition, positive feelings such as trust, collegiality and closeness are likely to be shared among teachers.
- Principal leadership is important for developing collegiality among the teaching staff, setting high morale, and clearly conveying goals. (You can read more about the important role of school leadership in “Leadership and Its Relationship with Teaching and Learning“, SingTeach Issue 23.)
Another category of social-contextual factors is the influence of family and peers.
- Parental involvement encompasses parents’ attitudinal, behavioural and stylistic approach to their child’s rearing and education. When sub-components of parental involvement were examined, parental expectations/aspirations showed the strongest correlation to academic achievement. This variable had larger correlations than other aspects of parental involvement, such as home supervision, communication, and school participation (Fan & Chen, 2001).
- Peer influences include peer support, norms, attitude and behaviour, including achievement. In one study (Johnson, 2000), peer attitude was assessed via one item, “My friends make fun of people who try to do well in school.” Johnson reported that 4th-graders who agreed with this statement scored significantly lower on the reading test compared to the 4th-graders who disagreed with the statement.
It has become clear through some of the new research that in addition to teaching students how to achieve and how to solve problems, we have to take into account the psychological makeup of a child.
Some of them are introverts, some of them are extroverts. Some might have better knowledge and better motivation, while some are extremely anxious when they have to solve problems and their anxieties can impede their performance during exams.
Research is showing that these non-cognitive factors are much more important than in the past. We need to find out which factors are more important in order to help teachers teach their students in a more effective way.
Fan, X., & Chen, M. (2001). Parental involvement and students’ academic achievement: A meta-analysis. Educational Psychology Review, 13(1), 1-22.
Johnson, K. A. (2000). The peer effect on academic achievement among public elementary school students: A report of the Heritage Center for data analysis. Washington, DC: Heritage Foundation.
Lee, J., & Shute, V. (in press). Personal and social-contextual factors in K-12 academic performance. Educational Psychologist.