Who are you when learning? – Personality

Being a very agreeable kind of a person, I was encouraged to find a piece of research that appears to be unanimously supported in terms of evidence as to its validity, it’s called the Five Factor Model or the Big Five model of personality. Developed by McCrae and Costa in 1987 it simplifies personality, suggesting that we are all biologically predisposed towards the following five traits, Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, Neuroticism, easily remembered by the acronym OCEAN.

For those who are curious and would like to learn more about themselves there is a test at the end of the blog to help you identify your preferences. But some may have little interest in finding out how well they perform, the reason for these two different attitudes could well be personality. What should however be of interest to everyone, partly because you are reading this blog is to find out what personality has to do with learning.

What is personality?
The term Personality is derived from the Latin word ‘persona’ meaning mask or character. An actor might for example wear a mask (persona) to promote a particular quality in a character as part of a performance or simply use it so as not to reveal too much of themselves.

The term is now more commonly used to describe an individual’s characteristics, patterns of thoughts, feelings and behaviours. In other words, your personality is what makes you, you!

Although intelligence is one of the strongest predictors of student success, there is evidence to show that personality is also responsible for individual differences in how well people learn.

“intellectual ability refers to what a person can do, whereas personality traits may provide information on what a person will do”.
O’Connor & Paunonen, 2007 and Furnham and Chamorro-Premuzic 2004

The Five Factor model
Many people will have heard of the Myers Brig’s Type Indicator, MBTI for short, it’s one of the most well-known profiling techniques. In fact, you may well have been asked to take an MBTI test at some point in your career, although strictly it’s not a test as there is no right or wrong answer. It requires the completion of a self-regulated questionnaire in an attempt to capture how people perceive the world, gather information and make decisions. It’s based on Jung’s theory of psychological types. The main problem with MBTI is that its binary by design, meaning that a person is either an introvert or extrovert which on one level is helpful because it gives you an answer but even Jung admitted that “there is no such thing as a pure extrovert or a pure introvert.”

In contrast the Five Factor Model provides its results in the form of a measure as to how much of the trait you possess, it’s a personality trait rather than a type. But although this is more accurate it’s difficult to interpret, for example you may be 55% agreeable, but what conclusions can you draw from that?

However, many academics and practitioners consider the five-factor model superior partly because there is a lack of evidence to support the MBTI and the results can be unreliable. If you retake the test after 5 weeks, there is a 50% chance you will fall into a different type.


Openness to experiences – this personality trait denotes how receptive you might be to new ideas and new experiences, a willingness to try out the unknown. People who have low levels are generally sceptical about the unknown and happy with the status quo. It might be worth adding that there is no opposite to being open, you are not for example a closed person, just less open.

Conscientiousness – Individuals who are conscientious are able to control their impulses. They are more likely to be successful both in the classroom and in their careers, largely because they are organised, hardworking and determined in the pursuit of their goals.  People with low conscientiousness have a tendency to procrastinate and deviate from their objectives. They can also be impetuous and impulsive. As with openness there is no opposite, you are just less conscientious.

Extraversion – Unlike the above you can be introverted. However, the term introvert refers to where you get your energy from and has nothing to do with being shy. Extroverts gain their energy from activities and other people whereas Introverts prefer the world of ideas and internal thoughts.

Agreeableness – if you are agreeable, you are more likely to get along with others and be cooperative. People on the low end of agreeableness can at times be blunt and sometimes even rude, although they will probably view themselves as being honest and not afraid to call “a spade a spade”.

Neuroticism – this refers to how emotionally stability you are as a person. It often manifests itself in being confident and comfortable in your own skin as opposed to suffering from anxiety, worry, and low self-esteem. Instinctively it feels as if this is the worst trait to be strong in, and you would be right. But we all have some aspects of neuroticism and higher levels are often associated with people who are very creative.

Personality and the connection with learning
It may come as no surprise that the research identifies two personality traits as being the most important from a learning perspective, conscientiousness as a positive and neuroticism as a negative. Students who are conscientious perform well academically whilst those that display higher levels of neuroticism can sometimes struggle, for example they are more likely to suffer from test anxiety and self-doubt. This particular aspect of personality might go some way to explaining why “clever” students don’t do so well.

Conscientious learners are more likely to engage in and succeed at learning.

Students with higher levels of Anxiety (a quality of Neuroticism) will face greater learning challenges than less Anxious students.

It was also found that agreeableness and openness helped students academically suggesting that in addition to being conscientious, cooperation and inquisitiveness was also of value.

Interestingly some research has even shown that personality accounts for a greater part of the variance in academic achievement over and above intelligence,and that personality may be better at predicting academic success at the post-secondary levels of education 2.

However, the more important message is that few of us sit at the extreme of any of these personality traits and as individuals have elements of them all. And by recognising that we have a weakness in one and a strength in another can adapt, whilst at the same time acknowledging that these traits are important because they are what makes us who we are.

Take the test – if you are open and conscientiousness you may want to find out more about your personality.

And here is a fun quiz (Buzz quiz) based on MBTI popularised by long term career advisor David Hodgson. Rather than a 4 letter code David’s idea is to presents the results in the form of an animal.

1 (Bratko et al. 2006; Gilles and Bailleux 2001; Noftle and Robins 2007; Poropat 2009)
2 (Conard 2006; Di Fabio and Busoni 2007; Furnham and Chamorro-Premuzic 2004; Furnham et al. 2003; Petrides et al. 2005).