Students’ Academic Motivation May Be Genetically Determined


Students who are not motivated may not be at fault as new findings show that personality development could be due to nature and not nurture.

University of Ohio researchers studied how genetics may play the most important part in a child’s school performance level. Samantha Olson, writing for Medical Daily, reports that the study, which was recently published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences, showed that motivation may well be inherited from parents, and, perhaps, is not a result of the environment in which a child is raised.

Nearly 13,000 sets of twins between 9 and 16, from six different countries, were analyzed and the conclusion remained the same. Motivation appears to be in the genes. Over 40% to 50% of the variance in a child’s motivational level, when it comes to learning, can be explained by their genetic background. In a switch from what was previously thought, genetics were found to be a more important influence on a student’s performance in school than were environmental factors such as teachers and family.

“We had pretty consistent findings across these different countries with their different educational systems and different cultures. It was surprising,” said the study’s co-author Stephen A. Petrill, a psychology professor at The Ohio State University, in a press release. Personalities typically have some sort of genetic basis, but the fact that there was no environmental link to school performance was unexpected,” Petrill said.

The children who participated in the study were from Germany, the US, the UK. Canada, Japan, and Russia. The question asked of them was how much enjoyment they placed on reading, writing, and spelling. Then, they were asked to rate their own academic ability. Answers of fraternal twins, who share about half the same inherited genes, were compared to the answers of identical twins, who share all inherited genes. Because the identical twins’ answers matched more closely than the fraternal twins’ answers, the suggestion was that genes control academic drive.

“We found that there are personality differences that people inherit that have a major impact on motivation,” Petrill said. “That doesn’t mean we don’t try to encourage and inspire students, but we have to deal with the reality of why they’re different. We should absolutely encourage students and motivate them in the classroom. But these findings suggest the mechanisms for how we do that may be more complicated than we had previously thought.”

Scientists warn, however, according to Livia Gamble, reporting for Fairfax Media New Zealand, that this does not mean there is a single gene for learning or motivation. Petrill says the study suggests a more complex process, with many genes and gene-environment interactions working together to make a difference in a child’s motivation to learn.

Alan Mozes of the Philadelphia Inquirer says that the research shows that a complex trait like motivation is better viewed in the same way that obesity or heart disease risk is interpreted. He explains that both genetic and environmental factors influence the differences. Genetics do not serve as a determiner of a child’s academic success, but, says Petrill, creating the most positive environment to help motivate children will have to be influenced by a child’s biological differences as well.

The researchers themselves were surprised by the findings but understood that the subject matter is “sensitive”, and more research will have to be conducted. It is unclear, they acknowledged, whether a lack of learning motivation translates into lowered academic achievement or a child’s overall intelligence. Sarah Feuerbacher, director of Southern Methodist University’s Center for Family Counseling, who was not involved with the study, adds that:

“While genetics initially and continually impact a person’s brain and learning style,” she stressed, “it does not have to impact that person’s success in learning.”

04 20, 2015
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