Psychological Factors in School Success

Why do people succeed or fail? For example, why do some students perform better in school than others? Some people believe that success and failure are determined by ability. Consistent with this, intelligence test scores predict performance at school and work moderately well. On the other hand, in two important books reviewing decades of psychological research, Daniel Goleman suggested that emotional and social intelligence predict success or failure better than cognitive ability. In this entry, I review research on some of the most important psychological factors that explain success and failure: Mindset, self-discipline, and motivation. Although these factors help to explain success and failure in many domains of life, I concentrate this discussion on success and failure in school.


One of the primary psychological determinants of success and failure concerns how people explain success and failure to themselves. In over 30 years of research, Carol Dweck, Professor of Psychology at Stanford University, consistently has found that individuals with a “fixed mindset” – who believe that success and failure reflects a certain level of ability that is unlikely to change – often show lower levels of performance over time. Dweck finds that this may be due, in part at least, to the fact that people with fixed mindsets are less likely to seek challenge (perhaps as a way to avoid threatening information about their perception of fixed ability) and are less likely to persevere when challenged (perhaps because they believe that difficulties arise from too little ability, which cannot be changed). In contrast, individuals with a “growth mindset” – who believe that ability can be developed through hard work or effort – often show higher levels of performance over time. People with a growth mindset are more likely to seek challenge and believe that they can overcome challenge with perseverance.

For some, Dweck’s research may raise questions about the extent to which ability actually can change. After all, intelligence is a fairly stable trait across the lifetime. However, there is some research that suggests that biological changes may result from exposure to particular environments. For example, decades of studies conducted by Marian Diamond at the University of California – Berkeley have shown that rats randomly assigned to an enriching environment (consisting of toys and a playmate) show more developed brains at death than rats randomly assigned to an unenriching environment (devoid of toys and a playmate). Similarly, individuals randomly assigned to psychotherapy show neurological changes similar to the changes people show while taking medications. If the brain responds to exposure to environments such as these, or to hard work, it seems plausible that ability can change. For instance, I remember being told when I was in my first year of college that I wasn’t a very good writer. I remember often working much harder than my roommates on college papers. However, I really worked at writing during the college years; I wrote a lot and modeled my writing after people I was told were excellent writers. By the time I was a Senior, I was told that I was an excellent writer. Now, people tell me that they can’t believe how quickly I can write about complex ideas. Often times, they attribute this to my writing ability; however, I know that any writing ability I now have was developed through considerable work and effort.


A second psychological factor that may play an important role in determining success and failure concerns self-discipline. In one study, for example, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania showed that 8th graders’ academic success was predicted twice as strongly by self-discipline as by intelligence test scores. Consistent with this, I have observed many students over the years who seem to have amazing ability, yet still perform very poorly because of their lack of self-discipline. On the other hand, I remember a student once who I thought was doomed to failure. She was a recent immigrant from Ethiopia and seemed to know very little English. She miserably failed the first two exams in one of my courses, but in response, disciplined herself to study almost every waking moment. She sought tutoring from multiple people. She re-read chapters over and over to master material. Amazingly, this student earned a “B” on the third exam, an “A” on the fourth exam, and an “A” on the final. I thought to myself that if this woman – who barely spoke English – could turn around her performance through this level of work and effort, almost anyone could –  provided they matched her self-discipline.

Some of the classic psychological research conducted on self-discipline has been performed by Walter Mischel at Stanford University. In his famous “marshmallow studies,” Mischel gave 4-year-olds one marshmallow to eat. The kids were told that they could eat that marshmallow at any time, but if they waited for 20 minutes, they would be given a second to eat. These individuals then were followed into their 20s and 30s. The results showed that those who delayed gratification in the marshmallow test at age 4 revealed a long-term history of fewer attention, behavioral, and drug/alcohol problems; higher grades in school; higher standardized test scores; lower body mass index; and better quality of interpersonal relationships. Mischel suggests that the kids who delayed gratification at age 4 possessed a skill that helps them to succeed in many different kinds of situations. In this way, he shows how important self-discipline in determining success and failure in many domains of life.

Mischel has tried to understand what explains why some individuals show self-discipline in a moment of temptation while others do not. He proposes that there are two fundamental systems of self-regulation that are used. Individuals who give into temptation tend to rely on a “hot” system that is emotional and reactive. This system is most likely to be used when an individual is stressed in some way or when they focus on the most seductive elements of the temptation. In contrast, individuals who are more successful in self-discipline tend to rely on a “cold” system that is more reflective. People who are able to reflect in a moment of temptation tend to be aware of their long-term goals and are able to shift their attention to less seductive elements of the situation. For instance, if a student had started to complete a reading assignment and heard their cell phone signify the arrival of a text message, they are most likely to stop studying and text a reply if they become emotionally invested in a thought process about who texted and how they would reply. The student who ignores the text message and continues to study is most likely to be aware of their long-term goals related to studying and to be able to shift their attention away from the emotional aspects of who sent them the message and how they would reply. Stress also is likely to play a role in whether a student is able to be self-disciplined in this situation or not. For example, if a student is tired or had a long-day at work, they are more likely to favor responding to the text message than studying. Perhaps most ideally, a successful student minimizes the possibility of temptation in the first place; in this case, a student might shut off their phone until they take a study break.


A final factor that may help to explain success and failure concerns people’s interests. Ask people their reasons for acting as they do, and you’re likely to hear a variety of responses. For example, most honest students probably would admit that the primary reason why they complete homework assignments is a sense that they “have to” in order to earn points for a course. Ask a student such as this why they care about points, and the student may say that they seek to pass the course, “get their generals out of the way,” graduate from college, get a good job, make good money, support their family, or have a nice house someday. Others may say that they complete a homework assignment because they “want to” learn. Ask why and the student may say that they believe that understanding certain ideas is important to their development as a thinker and as a person or that they just enjoy learning for its own sake because they are interested in the material.

These examples reveal a classic distinction made by motivation researchers concerning the difference between extrinsic motivation (where behavior is pursued because of the desire for secondary gain) and intrinsic motivation (where behavior is pursued for its own sake). In general, decades of psychological research shows that extrinsic motivation is associated with negative emotions, such as anger, fear, and sadness. Related to this, many students feel bitter about completing homework assignments when they are extrinsically motivated. Although sometimes contributing to short-term performance benefits (such as when a student completes a homework assignment to earn points), in the long-run, extrinsic motivation also is associated with performance difficulties (such as why many people stop reading for pleasure after extrinsic benefits for doing so cease). In contrast, intrinsic motivation is associated with a better emotional experience and long-term performance benefits, particularly when individuals encounter a setback and need to persist to overcome difficulties. For example, I once had a student who started out as a fairly average student, but who always was curious to learn more. He asked good questions in class and often stopped by during one of my office hours to talk about ideas. I would give him articles and books to read, and he would read them! By the time he started taking higher-level courses, he was by far the best student in the class, mostly because he had learned so much through his own learning. In general, people who are intrinsically motivated tend to spend more time on task, developing knowledge and skill, ultimately making it more likely that they will succeed long-term.

Although helpful, this distinction is too simplistic. Some people show “pure” motivational styles in that they are either extrinsically or intrinsically motivated. For instance, I once had a student who told me that she had taken one course per semester for 30 years, with the only motivation being that she enjoyed the process of learning. Yet, most people show a blend of both extrinsic and intrinsic motivation. That is, almost all college students want to earn a degree and get a job as a result of their education. However, that does not mean that they also can’t believe that education is important or experience a joy for learning. Many students might profit by changing their attitude toward school to see how it might be personally valuable or meaningful. Good students are able to find something they are interested in, even in courses or with teachers who are relatively uninteresting. Cognitive psychotherapists such as Albert Ellis make use of this idea when they challenge any time a patient says they “have to,” “should,” “ought to,” or “must” do something. When they are caught framing their actions in extrinsic ways, patients are asked if they “want to.” Research on rational-emotional therapy suggests this re-framing is a very helpful aspect of overcoming emotional difficulties related to anxiety, depression, and hostility, and often leads to a considerable boost in motivation for an action.


The take-home message here is that people can improve the likelihood of success by taking control of their mindset, self-discipline, and motivation. However, even this requires certain qualities of mind and heart. As Henry David Thoreau once said, “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” In other words, unless one is intentional about one’s life, one will follow the general trajectory of others in society, which often is not very good. However, successful people are successful because they apply insights of success. As Vince Lombardi once said, “the difference between a successful person and others is not a lack of strength, not a lack of knowledge, but rather a lack of will.”


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