Research Link / Extracurricular Activities: The Path to Academic Success? - ASCD
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December 1, 1999

Research Link / Extracurricular Activities: The Path to Academic Success?

Public school students across the United States participate in a wide variety of extracurricular activities: interscholastic and intramural athletic programs; service and school government clubs; music, art, and drama organizations; and academic and vocational clubs. Usually conducted outside the normal school day, the activities are voluntary, and students do not receive grades for their participation.

Benefits for Students

Do these clubs, teams, and organizations support the academic mission of our schools? In a paper looking at predictors of academic giftedness, Modi, Konstantopoulos, and Hedges (1998) found that gifted students appear to spend their time out of school participating in constructive activities. The research disclosed that a "50 percent increase (in the odds of being gifted) was related to involvement in extra-curricular activities" (p. 15).

Involvement in extracurricular activities also helps at-risk students. John Mahoney and Robert Cairns (1997) indicated that engagement in school extracurricular activities is linked to decreasing rates of early school dropouts in both boys and girls. They discovered that such participation provides —al students an opportunity to create a positive and voluntary connection to their school. Conversely, other strategies typically used to address the needs of at-risk students, such as school dropout prevention programs and remedial education, focus on the deficits of students and serve as a catalyst in the formation of deviant groups. The researchers strongly believe that involvement in extracurricular activities may support the at-risk student by maintaining, enhancing, and strengthening the student-school connection.

Raising Academic and Social Skills

Ralph McNeal (1995) showed that different kinds of activities have varying abilities to control school dropout rates. He concluded that students who participate in athletics, fine-arts activities, and academic organizations were an estimated 1.7, 1.2, and 1.15 times, respectively, less likely to drop out than those who did not participate. Athletic participation reduces the probability of school dropouts by approximately 40 percent. For example, the probability that the typical person in the sample would drop out of school is .0487, but if this same person participated in athletics, the estimated probability would be .0299. The impact of fine-arts participation for the typical person's estimated probability is reduced from .0487 to .0415, or 15 percent.

Silliker and Quirk (1997) investigated the academic improvement of students who participated in extracurricular activities. In this case, they looked at male and female high school students who participated in interscholastic soccer and who did not engage in another sport or major activity at the conclusion of the soccer season. They discovered that female participants in season maintained a GPA of 87.7 mean (M) with a 5.6 standard deviation (SD). Out of season these statistics dropped to 87.5 M with a 6.4 SD. The male participants in season maintained a GPA of 84.7 M with a 7.5 SD, and out of season their GPAs dropped to 83.8 M with an 8.7 SD. These data show that participants had significantly higher GPAs in season than out of season. The girls earned higher GPAs than did the boys, but the boys' GPAs rose significantly in season versus out of season. The study supports the belief that involvement in athletics for high school students does not endanger, and may enhance, academic performance.

Susan Gerber (1996) also found that extracurricular participation is not detrimental to student performance and that participation in these types of activities promotes greater academic achievement. In addition, she discovered that participation in school-related activities was more strongly associated with achievement than was participation in activities outside of school.

Herbert Marsh (1992) compared predicted outcomes for students who did not participate in extracurricular activities with those of students who were moderately active. He found that this difference in participation level is associated with outcome differences of .582 SD in social self-concept and .390 SD in academic self-concept. He concluded that the effects of participation on social and academic self-concepts are significant. Evidently, participation in extracurricular activities, even those not obviously associated with academic achievement, leads to increased commitment to school and school values, which leads indirectly to increased academic success.

William Camp (1990) studied the effects of participation in activities on overall student success in school, as measured by grades, while controlling for the effects of other variables that could reasonably affect those grades. He used the symbol b* to represent standardized regression coefficients calculated in his structural analysis. He found that students' activity levels produced a positive, significant effect on academic achievement (b* = .122). Particularly interesting in his study was the fact that this effect was more than twice as great as that of study habits (b* = .055), which are generally regarded as an important causal variable of academic achievement.

Participating for Success

All the cited research suggests that extracurricular activities provide all students—including at-risk and gifted students—an academic safety net. The researchers echo Susan Gerber's (1996) comment, that "eliminating the opportunity for such participation eliminates the last link to fostering a sense of belonging to school that some students have" (p. 50).

Educational decision makers must look at the consequences of denying students the right to participate in order to get them to "work harder in the classroom." These kinds of exclusionary policies may well damage overall achievement and work against those students who could benefit most directly from involvement. Instead of cutting these programs when faced with budget squeezes, school districts might find that these activity programs are worth their weight in gold because they help students stay in, and succeed at, school.


Camp, W. (1990). Participation in student activities and achievement: A covariance structural analysis. Journal of Educational Research, 83, 272–278.

Gerber, S. (1996). Extracurricular activities and academic achievement. Journal of Research and Development in Education, 30(1), 42–50.

Mahoney, J., & Cairns, R. (1997). Do extracurricular activities protect against early school dropout? Developmental Psychology, 33(2), 241–253.

Marsh, H. (1992). Extracurricular activities: Beneficial extension of the traditional curriculum or subversion of academic goals? Journal of Educational Psychology, 84(4), 553–562.

McNeal, R. (1995, January). Extracurricular activities and high school dropouts. Sociology of Education, 68, 62–81.

Modi, M., Konstantopoulos, S., & Hedges, L. V. (1998). Predicators of academic giftedness among U.S. high school students: Evidence from a nationally representative multivariate analysis. Paper presented at the conference of the AERA, San Diego, CA. (ERIC Document Reproduction No. ED 422 356).

Silliker, S., & Quirk, J. (1997, March). The effect of extracurricular activity participation on the academic performance of male and female high students. The School Counselor, 44, 288–293.

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