Purpose and Competence: The key to adolescent success

Wellbeing beyond happiness: What Matters for adolescent academic achievement.

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It is important to consider factors beyond their happiness alone to improve academic performance among adolescents. Research suggests that helping adolescents develop a sense of competence and purpose can positively impact their academic outcomes. This new study explores the significance of fostering competence and purpose in adolescents and its potential influence on their grades.

New research by the University of Cambridge suggests that focusing on fostering feelings of capability and purpose in adolescents, rather than solely prioritizing their happiness, can improve their academic performance and mental health. The new study, which involved over 600 teenagers from seven English schools, examined two dimensions of well-being: life satisfaction and ‘eudaimonia.

While life satisfaction measures happiness, eudaimonia encompasses functioning well, including competence, motivation, and self-esteem. The findings highlight the importance of reevaluating how school well-being is supported and emphasizing adolescents’ development of competence and purpose.

A recent study from the University of Cambridge revealed that students with higher levels of eudaimonia, a sense of functioning well, consistently performed better in GCSE-level assessments, particularly in Mathematics. On average, students who achieved top grades in Maths had eudaimonic well-being levels 1.5 times higher than those with lower grades. Surprisingly, the study found no significant link between academic performance and life satisfaction, despite child wellbeing policies in England prioritizing the latter.

Previous research has stressed the importance of fostering eudaimonic well-being in adolescents by nurturing their values, goals, and self-worth. The lead author, Dr. Tania Clarke, conducted the research for her doctoral studies at the University of Cambridge, and the findings were published in School Psychology Review.

Clarke said, “Wellbeing education often focuses on teaching students about being happy and not sad. That is over-simplistic and overlooks other vital qualities of well-being that are particularly salient during the formative period of adolescence. Adolescents must also develop self-awareness, confidence, and, ideally, a sense of meaning and purpose. Judging by our findings, an adolescent currently getting a 3 or 4 on their Maths GCSE could be helped to raise a couple of grades if schools emphasized these qualities for all students, rather than just promoting positivity and minimizing negative emotions.”

In a study involving 607 adolescents aged 14-15, participants completed a psychological assessment that measured their life satisfaction, eudaimonia (sense of functioning well), interpersonal relatedness, and negativity. These measures were compared with their mock English and Maths GCSE exam performance.

The research also evaluated whether the students exhibited a growth mindset essential for academic improvement. The study found that the student’s overall well-being, a combination of eudaimonia and life satisfaction, positively correlated with their exam results. Those achieving top Maths grades had significantly higher well-being scores, indicating a strong association between well-being and academic performance.

A recent study found a positive correlation between eudaimonia and academic achievement. In contrast, no such correlation was found with life satisfaction. Grade 9 students in Maths had an average eudaimonic well-being score of 17.3 out of 25, compared to 10.9 for Grade 1 students, irrespective of other factors like school, gender, socio-economic status, or special educational needs. Although a growth mindset did not directly predict academic success, students with higher eudaimonic well-being tended to exhibit a growth mindset.

However, school constraints, highlighted by researcher Dr. Tania Clarke, may hinder the promotion of eudaimonic well-being, as students often associate success solely with obtaining good grades rather than recognizing their strengths, values, and goals.

The study revealed that students often experienced feelings of worthlessness and inadequacy when they failed to achieve high marks on tests, associating their self-worth with exam results. Paradoxically, the heavy emphasis on exam performance may undermine academic progress, as students’ personal growth and motivations should be addressed. The findings highlight the importance of incorporating eudaimonic therapy into well-being education, focusing on personal growth and individual goals.

By helping students understand their academic work in the context of their aspirations, the study suggests that a more nuanced understanding of academic success can be fostered, leading to improved well-being and better exam results. Dr. Ros McLellan, the study’s co-author, emphasized the need for well-being education to move beyond simply boosting happiness and instead engage students in realizing their unique talents and aspirations, ultimately leading to improved outcomes and fewer issues in the future.

Journal Reference:

  1. Tania Clarke, Ros McLellan, et al., Beyond Life Satisfaction: Wellbeing Correlates of Adolescents’ Academic Attainment. School Psychology Review.DOI: 10.1080/2372966X.2023.2217980.