Twin study shows that many different inherited traits shape a person's grades and test scores.
If you sailed through school with high grades and perfect test scores, you probably did it with traits beyond sheer smarts. A new study of more than 6000 pairs of twins finds that academic achievement is influenced by genes affecting motivation, personality, confidence, and dozens of other traits, in addition to those that shape intelligence. The results may lead to new ways to improve childhood education.
“I think this is going to end up being a really classic paper in the literature,” says psychologist Lee Thompson of Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, who has studied the genetics of cognitive skills and who was not involved in the work. “It’s a really firm foundation from which we can build on.”
Researchers have previously shown that a person’s IQ is highly influenced by genetic factors, and have even identified certain genes that play a role. They’ve also shown that performance in school has genetic factors. But it’s been unclear whether the same genes that influence IQ also influence grades and test scores.
In the new study, researchers at King’s College London turned to a cohort of more than 11,000 pairs of both identical and nonidentical twins born in the United Kingdom between 1994 and 1996. Rather than focus solely on IQ, as many previous studies had, the scientists analyzed 83 different traits, which had been reported on questionnaires that the twins, at age 16, and their parents filled out. The traits ranged from measures of health and overall happiness to ratings of how much each teen liked school and how hard they worked. Then, the researchers collected data on how well each individual scored on the General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) exam, an exam that all students in the United Kingdom must take and which is used for admission to advanced classes or colleges.
The team found nine general groups of traits that were all highly hereditary—the identical twins were more likely to share the traits than nonidentical twins—and also correlated with performance on the GCSE. Not only were traits other than intelligence correlated with GCSE scores, but these other traits also explained more than half of the total genetic basis for the test scores.