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June 26, 2006 | Volume 4 | Number 6
Self-Discipline and Student Academic Achievement

Self-Discipline and Student Academic Achievement

Dan Laitsch

The Question

How much does students' self-discipline affect their academic achievement?

The Context

Student motivation and engagement play an important role in learning and academic achievement. Closely related to motivation is self-discipline, the ability of students to monitor and control their own behaviors. Students who are highly self-disciplined may be able to better focus on long-term goals and make better choices related to academic engagement. In addition, the concept of self-discipline focuses on students' own ability to engage in (or refrain from engaging in) particular behaviors, rather than reliance on external motivations, rewards, or punishments. Although researchers have looked at self-discipline in young children and college-age students, little research has examined the role of self-discipline in the academic success of adolescents.

The Details

Angela Duckworth and Martin Seligman conducted the study highlighted in this issue of ResearchBrief (see below for full citation). The research progressed in two stages: (1) looking at self-discipline and academic achievement and (2) replicating the first study while expanding the methodology to include measures of intelligence, as well as study and lifestyle habits. The research was designed to test three hypotheses: that students with a strong sense of self-discipline would do better than their more impulsive peers on measures of academic behavior and achievement, that self-discipline would be a stronger predictor of academic success than intelligence, and that student self-discipline would predict academic achievement.

To test these hypotheses, the researchers created a composite measure of student self-discipline based on data from multiple survey questionnaires administered to students, their parents, and teachers. The researchers then compared results from this composite measure to a variety of academic indicators, including student grades, standardized assessment scores, and admission to a selective academic program.

The researchers looked at two successive cohorts of 8th grade students in a public magnet school in the northeastern United States. The first cohort comprised 140 students (71 percent of the 8th grade class), and the second included 164 students (83 percent of the 8th grade class). In both cohorts, just over half of the students were Caucasian and approximately one-third were African American. Asian students were the next-largest subgroup, followed by Latino students and American Indians. The authors described the school as socioeconomically diverse but did not supply specific details. Admission to the magnet school was restricted on the basis of previous grades and test scores.

Although the self-discipline measures were similar across the two cohorts, the researchers did change one questionnaire that participants in the first cohort found confusing. They also added to the second study the administration of an IQ test to examine the relationship between intelligence, self-discipline, and academic achievement.

Across both cohorts, the researchers found that self-disciplined students performed significantly better than more impulsive students on every academic indicator they measured, including grades, achievement tests, admission to a competitive high school program, and attendance. Students with a high degree of self-discipline also spent more time on homework and watched less television. Self-discipline also predicted academic performance much better than did IQ, and the researchers estimated that self-discipline accounted for twice as much variance in GPA as IQ did.

The Bottom Line

Students with a strong sense of self-discipline significantly outperformed their less-disciplined peers on a range of academic indicators, including grades, achievement test scores, and attendance. Additionally, self-discipline appears to be a better predictor of academic gain than is intelligence (as measured by an IQ test).

Who's Affected?

Students in the 8th grade were the focus of this study.


Although the researchers focused on self-discipline, the concept was not well defined in the article, and, as a result, it is difficult to identify what it means to be a “self-disciplined” student. Despite the fact that the research shows that self-discipline and achievement are related (correlated), it is difficult to claim the relationship is causal (e.g., students who behave better and are less impulsive may get better grades irrespective of substantive academic improvement). Because the magnet school was selective, the study findings may not generalize to other populations. Even though the study found a strong link between student self-discipline and academic achievement, it does not explain why student self-discipline varies or discuss ways to increase self-discipline. The appearance of self-discipline may also be the result of behavioral constraints at home or school, rather than truly internalized behaviors.

The Study

Duckworth, A., & Seligman, M. (2005). Self-discipline outdoes IQ in predicting academic performance of adolescents. Psychological Science, 16 (12), 939–944.

Other Resources

Student Motivation, School Culture, and Academic Achievement: What School Leaders Can Do
Eric Clearinghouse on Educational Management (1992)

Self-determination theory

All comments regarding ReseachBrief should be sent to To speak directly with an ASCD staff member, please contact us.

Dan Laitsch serves as ASCD's consultant editor for ResearchBrief. Laitsch is an assistant professor in the faculty of education at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, Canada, and is coeditor of the International Journal for Education Policy and Leadership.


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