The personal determinants of academic achievement and success have captured the attention of many scholars for the last decades (Robbins et al., 2004). In particular, to identify the best predictors of scholastic performance has been a major concern of both researchers and educators aimed to value the potentials of talented students and to develop proper interventions for students at risk of academic failure. Among other factors, both personality traits and self-efficacy beliefs have proved to be important predictors of academic achievement (Bandura, Barbaranelli, Caprara, & Pastorelli, 1996; Bandura, Barbaranelli, Caprara, & Pastorelli, 2001; Britner & Pajares, 2006; Caprara, Barbaranelli, Pastorelli, & Cervone, 2004; Caprara et al., 2008; Chamorro-Premuzic & Furnham, 2003; Conard, 2006; Furnham, Chamorro-Premuzic, & McDougall, 2003; Gore, 2006; Komarraju & Karau, 2005; Marsh, Trautwein, Ludtke, Koller, & Baumert, 2006; Martin, Montgomery, & Saphian, 2006; Pajares, 2002; Pajares & Schunk, 2001; Robbins et al., 2004). Yet, most studies have addressed the contribution of personality traits and self-efficacy beliefs to academic achievement separately, as independent one from another. Exaggerations of diversities among theories and traditions in which traits and self-efficacy beliefs were rooted may lead to miss important opportunities of integration.
In conceiving personality as a complex system (Caprara & Cervone, 2000), one may view at traits and at self-efficacy beliefs as both crucial to account for academic achievement, as for many other performances, although they address different structures and processes and operate at different levels and at different distance from academic performance. Whereas traits are relatively unconditional behavioural tendencies that attest to individual's potentials in broads domain of functioning (McCrae & Costa, 1999), self-efficacy beliefs are knowledge structures that attest to the unique properties of human beings to self-reflect and learn from experience (Bandura, 1997). In this regard, prior studies have pointed to the joint contribution of basic predispositions and self-efficacy beliefs in predicting job performance (Chen, Casper, & Cortina, 2001; Kanfer, 1992; Martocchio & Judge, 1997), political participation (Caprara, Vecchione, & Schwartz, 2009), pro-social behaviour (Caprara, Alessandri, Di Giunta, Panerai, & Eisenberg, 2010), and career interest (Nauta, 2004). Ultimately, one may argue that self-efficacy beliefs may mediate, at least in part, the influence of basic traits on specific abilities and performances, by sustaining the cognitive, affective and motivational processes leading to successful performance. We consider basic traits (i.e., conscientiousness and openness) and academic self-efficacy beliefs, as layers of a hypothetic architecture of personality, in which: (i) basic traits are relatively unconditional, broad dispositions referring to what a person `has’ (level 1); (ii) and academic self-efficacy is a knowledge structure (i.e., a set self-related beliefs) operating at an intermediate level between broad dispositions and specific behaviour (Caprara et al., 2010).
This reasoning echoes previous distinctions made by both McAdams’ (1995) and Graziano, Jensen-Campbell, and Finch (1997) in regard to levels of analysis, while assigning to self-efficacy a mediating role in linking basic dispositions to specific behaviours. Although our layers do not fully overlap with McAdams’ (1995) levels of analysis, we share the view that individual differences in personality should be addressed at different levels, as well as the belief that a comprehensive view of personality should account for both traits and self-processes. Previous studies in education have pointed to the opportunity to address different personality constructs like traits and motivational and volitional processes (e.g., goal orientation) that can mediate the influence of traits on school performance and achievement (De Raad & Schouwenburg, 1996; Payne, Youngcourt, & Beaubien, 2007). Nonetheless, at our knowledge, any study other than the one of Caprara et al. (2004) has addressed both traits and self-efficacy beliefs in the academic domain. Peterson and Whiteman (2007) have found positive correlations between openness and academic self-efficacy in a sample of university students; however, they have explored only the associations with self-concept related to academic domain, and not with academic achievement.
According to our reasoning, in conceiving this study we argued that certain traits are crucial in fostering learning. Clearly, different traits may influence behaviour at different levels. Whereas it seems reasonable that conscientiousness would sustain self-regulative processes leading to school achievement, openness may impact more generally in fostering pupil's attitudes towards school-related matters and in enlarging epistemic motivation and cultural interests. However, both traits reflect basic differences in personality that hardly can be modelled by experience. Self-efficacy, instead, impact generally on school achievement by setting the basis for pupil's academic aspirations and by linking basic disposition to effective achievement. Yet, empirical findings capable of elucidating how traits and self-efficacy beliefs operate are needed to understanding and promoting students’ academic performance and success. To this aim, a longitudinal research design has been used to examine the pathways through which traits and academic self-efficacy beliefs contribute to academic performance.
Personality traits and academic performance
Many personality researchers have argued that personality traits account for a significant portion of variance in academic performance (Chamorro-Premuzic & Furnham, 2003; Duff, Boyle, Dunleavy, & Ferguson, 2004; Furnham et al., 2003; Komarraju & Karau, 2005; Marsh et al., 2006; Martin et al., 2006). Martin et al. (2006) found that individual differences in personality played a unique role in undergraduate performance across 4 years of coursework over and above the effects due to high-school performance and cognitive ability (i.e., achievement test scores). Chamorro-Premuzic and Furnham (2003), using two longitudinal samples of British university students, examined the relationship between personality factors and academic performance. Personality scores assessed during the first few weeks of the academic year resulted significantly associated to final exam and course work assessed 3 years later. In addition, when the predictive power of personality traits was related to both academic behaviours such as attendance and class participation and teacher's predictions, personality traits were found to account for an additional 10–17% of unique variance in academic performance. In a further study of Furnham et al. (2003), personality traits accounted for about one-fifth of the variance in exam marks and as much as one-third of the variance in essay grades for a 2-year period.
Conscientiousness has been considered as the basic trait of the Big Five Model most closely linked to will to achieve (Digman, 1989). Recent meta-analysis pointed to conscientiousness as the strongest predictor of academic performance at both the secondary and tertiary levels of education, even after controlling for intelligence (Poropat, 2009). It was associated with sustained effort and goal setting (Barrick, Mount, & Strauss, 1993), both of which contribute to academic success (Steel, 2007), to compliance and concentration on homework (Trautwein, Ludtke, Schnyder, & Niggli, 2006), to time management and effort regulation in learning (Bidjerano & Dai, 2007). This is in accordance with previous findings attesting to the association of conscientiousness with course performance, class attendance, and final grades (Conard, 2006). Moreover, each specific facet of conscientiousness (e.g., diligence, dependability, self-discipline, prudence, competence, dutifulness, order, and achievement striving) was conducive to performance in academic settings, attainment of academic honors, and lower disciplinary infractions (MacCann, Duckworth, & Roberts, 2009), and independently predicted Grade Point Average (GPA) (Chamorro-Premuzic & Furnham, 2003; Furnham et al., 2003; Martin et al., 2006), academic motivation (Komarraju & Karau, 2005), effective learning styles (Duff et al., 2004), and academic aspirations (Rottinghaus, Lindley, Green, & Borgen, 2002).
Other findings have pointed to openness as a major correlate of academic achievement and success (Asendorph & Van Aken, 2003; Blickle, 1996; De Raad & Schouwenburg, 1996; Paunonen & Ashton, 2001), effective learning style (Duff et al., 2004), and higher academic aspirations (Rottinghaus et al., 2002). Furthermore, openness has been positively associated to final school grades and to strategies that emphasize critical thinking (Bidjerano & Dai, 2007; Komarraju & Karau, 2005), approach to learning (Vermetten, Lodewijks, & Vermunt, 2001) and learning motivation (Tempelaar, Gijselaers, Schim Van Der Loeff, & Nijhuis, 2007). Chamorro-Premuzic and Furnham (2003) found openness positively related to intelligence and intellectual curiosity. Likewise, Graziano et al. (1997) assessed the Big Five from self-reports of 5th to 8th graders and found openness positively associated with both self-report and teacher ratings of academic adjustment.
Other studies have further underlined the predictive value of both conscientiousness and openness. Mervielde (1994) and Mervielde, Buyst, and De Fruyt (1995) analysed teacher ratings on different age groups (from 4 to 12 years) and found that both traits showed high correlations with academic achievement. Similar results were found by John, Caspi, Robins, Moffitt, and Stouthamer-Loeber (1994) who developed scales for the Big Five from Q-sorts of 12- to 13-year-old boys rated by their mothers. In particular, teacher reports of school performance correlated with conscientiousness and openness while verbal, performance, and full scale IQ correlated with openness. Conscientiousness and openness were the most important personality correlates of academic achievement across different informants (self, teacher, and parent) also in a study conducted by Barbaranelli, Caprara, Rabasca, and Pastorelli (2003).
Other major traits like extraversion, neuroticism, and agreeableness have shown less consistent associations with academic achievement than conscientiousness and openness. Few studies have reported a negative association between neuroticism and academic performance, but most studies have reported non-significant results (Martin et al., 2006). In reality, neuroticism fails to predict scholastic achievement over and above cognitive ability (Ridgell & Lounsbury, 2004). Extraversion has shown controversial association (i.e., positive, negative, and non-significant) with academic performance. In reality, different facets of extraversion may relate to academic success in different ways (Martin et al., 2006). Whereas agreeableness was associated with classroom behaviour (Graziano et al., 1997) and compliance with teacher instructions (Vermetten et al., 2001), its impact on academic achievement was rather small and not always consistent across samples (e.g., Poropat, 2009).
Academic self-efficacy beliefs and school performance
Self-efficacy beliefs refer to judgement people hold about their capabilities to organize and affect courses of action to attain given goals. The literature documents widely the pervasive influence of self-efficacy beliefs on motivation and performance, directly and indirectly, and across various domains of functioning (Bandura, 1986, 1997). In the academic domain, the role of perceived self-efficacy has been examined at the levels of students, teachers, and faculties (Bandura, 1997; Pajares & Urdan, 2006; Schunk & Pajares, 2002). Research focused on students’ beliefs have considered different facets of perceived self-efficacy for academic achievement (Bandura et al., 1996; Pastorelli et al., 2001), which refer respectively to: (a) the perceived ability to successfully master specific academic subjects and curricula areas (e.g., mathematics) and to (b) the perceived ability to self-regulate one's own studying and learning activities (e.g., the ability to plan and organize studying times and activities; to motivate themselves to fulfil their school assignments; to pursue academic activities when there are other interesting things to do).
Both facets of perceived self-efficacy for academic achievement exert a notable influence on learning, grades, and career choices as they sustain effort, persistence, and aspirations (Pajares & Urdan, 2005; Schunk & Pajares, 2002; Zimmerman, Bandura, & Martinez-Pons, 1992). Students’ academic self-efficacy beliefs have been shown to be significant predictors of students’ course selection (Britner & Pajares, 2006), academic continuance and achievement (Britner & Pajares, 2006; Klassen, 2004) college performance and persistence (Gore, 2006; Robbins et al., 2004), GPA (Robbins et al., 2004), academic aspirations (Bandura et al., 2001), occupational self-efficacy, and career trajectories across domains and age levels (Bandura et al., 1996; Bandura et al., 2001; Britner & Pajares, 2006; Gore, 2006) beyond that accounted for by more traditional predictors (i.e., standardized achievement, cognitive ability). Pajares and Schunk (2001) have suggested that academic self-efficacy explains approximately a quarter of the variance in the prediction of academic outcomes beyond that of instructional influences. Moreover, a meta-analysis of studies published between 1977 and 1988 revealed that self-efficacy beliefs were positively related to academic achievement (r= .38) and accounted for approximately 14% of the variance (Multon, Brown, & Lent, 1991). A study of Caprara et al. (2008) examined the developmental course of self-efficacy beliefs for self-regulated learning from early to late adolescence, and its contribution to academic achievement at different points of children's scholastic career. High levels of perceived self-efficacy for self-regulated learning measured at the age of 12 were associated with higher high-school grades and with a lower probability of dropping out of school, after controlling for variations socio-economic level. The role of both facets of perceived self-efficacy in predicting academic performance has been further investigated by Caprara et al. (2004). Findings revealed that perceived academic self-efficacy, which include the perceived capability to both master academic subjects and self-regulate one's own studying activities, predicted junior high-school performance, even after controlling for self-reported global personality dispositions, as the Big Five Factors.
The current research
The current research is an extension of previous studies of Caprara et al. (2004, 2008) and focus on the contribution of basic traits and self-efficacy beliefs to academic performance at different stages of academic career. To this aim, we examined the unique contribution of basic personality traits and academic self-efficacy beliefs on later academic performance at the end of both junior high school and high school. Then, we examined the pathways through which traits and self-efficacy beliefs were conducive to academic performance, after the contribution of socio-economic status (SES) was partialled out. Indeed, a recent meta-analysis of Sirin (2005) showed a medium to strong relation between SES and academic performance. Taking into account SES would minimize the possibility of spurious relations due to omitted relevant variables related to SES, like quality of educational facilities and supportive relationships among parent and school (see, e.g., Caprara et al., 2008).
In accordance with previous studies, we focused on openness and conscientiousness as the most important predictors, among the Big Five, of academic achievement. Likewise, we focused on self-efficacy beliefs which in previous studies have proved to be strongly associated to academic achievement (Bandura et al., 1996). First, we expected to corroborate the independent contribution of openness and conscientiousness traits and of academic self-efficacy beliefs to academic achievement, above and beyond the contribution of SES and across gender.
Then, we expected to corroborate the crucial role of academic achievement in nurturing self-efficacy beliefs in accordance with social cognitive theory, which posits mastery experience at the roots of self-efficacy beliefs. Finally, we expected to clarify how traits and self-efficacy beliefs contribute to academic achievement at different stages of children academic career. In particular, we advanced four sets or interrelated hypotheses:
- 1We expected that traits would contribute significantly to academic performance at the end of both junior and senior high school. Based on previous studies suggesting that the importance of personality traits in sustaining academic results decrease with increasing in school level (Peterson & Whiteman, 2007), we hypothesized that the contribution of traits to academic achievement is more important at earlier stage than at later stages of scholastic career, that most reflect the influence of experience.
- 2In accordance with previous findings (Caprara et al., 2008) we hypothesized that academic self-efficacy beliefs contribute significantly to academic performance at the end of both junior and senior high school. Furthermore, in accordance with social cognitive theory that posits mastery experiences and self-reflection capacities at the roots of self-efficacy, we hypothesized that the contribution of academic self-efficacy beliefs to academic achievement is most relevant at later stages (secondary school) than at an earlier stages. We reasoned that students’ sense of efficacy draws from previous experience and attest to their capacity to reflect and to capitalize upon experience in order to deal effectively with school challenges. Finally, school performance at the end of junior high school was expected to contribute significantly to academic self-efficacy in senior high school.
- 3In accordance with above reasoning pointing to traits as potentials and to self-efficacy beliefs as knowledge structures enabling people to make the best use of their talents, we hypothesized that openness and conscientiousness in junior high school would contribute to later academic self-efficacy beliefs. In particular, we hypothesized that beliefs students hold about their capacity to master the various school contents and to regulate their learning activities would partially mediate the effect of earlier basic dispositions towards knowledge acquisition (openness), discipline and achievement (conscientiousness) on scholastic achievement.
- 4We hypothesized that economical status would influence learning at earlier stages more than at later stages due to the selection processes that take place at end or junior high school depending on children performance. In reality, most low SES children who fail at junior high school are unlikely to continue 5 years senior high school conducive to superior education.
- 5Despite a relatively large literature documents, higher levels of academic self-efficacy beliefs for females than for males (Bandura et al., 1996; Caprara et al., 2008; Pastorelli et al., 2001), there is no evidences of an influence of gender on the relations between academic self-efficacy beliefs and other personality constructs, like traits, or school achievement (Bandura et al., 1996; Caprara et al., 2008). Accordingly, we expected no differences between males and females in the strength of the relations among the study variables.
These hypotheses lead to posit and test a model that included (1) all the autoregressive paths; (2) the cross-lagged paths from conscientiousness and openness at the age of 13 to academic self-efficacy at the age of 16; (3) the paths from conscientiousness, openness, and academic self-efficacy beliefs at the age of 13 to junior high-school grades; (4) the paths from conscientiousness, openness, and academic self-efficacy beliefs at the age of 16 to senior high-school grades; (5) the path from junior high-school grades to high-school grades; (6) the path from junior high-school grades to academic self-efficacy beliefs at the age of 16, in accordance with social cognitive theory that points to previous mastery experiences as the most important determinants of self-efficacy beliefs; (7) the covariance among all of the variables at the age of 13 and also at the age of 16. The posited model is shown in Figure 1. In this model, we also considered SES as time invariant co-variate influencing all variables (for not cluttering the figure, the effects of SES are not represented). Although we did not expect any significant difference between males and females, we tested for possible gender differences conducting a multiple-group analysis.