Research – What’s the relationship between personality traits, cultural capital, and educational inequality in the Leaving Certificate Exam results?

Article by Evan Carron-Kee (Laidlaw Scholar 2022, Sociology and Economics)

My Summer 1 Research Project has been both challenging and deeply rewarding. I have developed important practical skills in carrying out research in the social sciences, but I’ve also faced difficulties that forced me to adjust the focus of my research. This blog post will discuss the basis of my research project and how it has helped me to develop both as a leader and as a researcher. 

My research investigated the relationship between personality traits, cultural capital, and educational inequality in the Irish school leaving exams (the Leaving Certificate) between 2017 and 2021.  The concept of cultural capital was developed by sociologist Pierre Bourdieu (1973) to explain how the children of high status families did better in school than their middle or working class peers. In the same way that children from high socio-economic status (SES) backgrounds inherit their family’s wealth, creating economic inequality, Bourdieu proposed that they also inherit cultural capital, a collection of cultural tastes, mannerisms, and strategies of interaction with educators. Children with this cultural capital are rewarded in the education system and receive higher grades than their less well-off peers. Cultural capital is defined by its association with high SES students and good educational outcomes (Lamont and Lareau 1988). However, to understand how transmission of cultural capital might cause educational inequality it is necessary to investigate both the specific traits and behaviours associated with cultural capital and the mechanisms through which these behaviours lead to better educational outcomes.  

My hypothesis was based on interdisciplinary work by Kaiser and Schneickert (2016) who showed that SES predicted some of the Big Five personality traits, and these same traits predicted higher grades. These traits ‘mediated’ the effect of SES on grades, suggesting that they should be considered elements of cultural capital. Their work did not investigate how these traits led to higher grades, however, which is a key step in establishing a causal link. My research sought to fill this gap by comparing the grades and personality traits of students who took predicted grades (which were assigned by teachers) to those who took traditional exams. If the relationship between a SES, a given personality trait, and grades was stronger for students who took predicted grades than students who took exams, this would suggest that teachers overestimated the grades of students with these personality traits. This would mean that these personality traits lead to better grades through a mechanism known as ‘teacher selection’ (Wildhagen 2009), where teachers give preferential treatment to students who display high cultural capital, leading to higher grades for children from high SES backgrounds. 

A thorough and conclusive investigation of this topic would require a large-scale study of students across the country. Instead, the goal of my research was to test the viability the hypothesis and provide guidance on the possible benefits of including personality trait instruments on any future surveys regarding predicted grades assessments. 

Learning how to test this model was the most rewarding and enjoyable part of my research, but it was also the most challenging. When I wrote my research proposal, I could express the hypothesis in words, but I had no idea how to express it in terms of statistical relationships or how to test the strength and significance of these relationships. Although this stage of the research took much longer than I had expected, being able to understand and express my idea in mathematical terms was a deeply rewarding experience for me. I’ve also found that I now have a much better understanding of other academic papers thanks to my work on this project. I want to work as a researcher in sociology so having a better grasp of statistical methods is a crucial skill for my career. Certainly, I would count this as one of the most important outcomes of my experience in terms of personal development. 

Unfortunately, my sample size was too small to properly test this model. The model suffered from ‘empirical under-identification’ meaning that I couldn’t either provide support for or reject the mechanism which I outlined above. While I was disappointed that I couldn’t test my original model, I knew it was important to be flexible and willing to adapt the goals of the research when necessary. With the knowledge I now have, I realise that my original research proposal was likely too ambitious from the outset. Had I adjusted my expectations to be more in line with my resources and capabilities, it would certainly have been easier to meet the project’s deadlines. This is an important lesson I have learned from my research, and something I plan to apply in my future work. 

On the advice of my supervisors, I then decided to test a series of simpler models. I found one significant result – the trait intellect/openness to experience more strongly predicted good grades in English when the grades were assigned by class teachers compared to when they were assessed using the traditional examination method. This suggests that teacher-assessed grading and anonymously marked exams have different effects across personality traits, providing support for the inclusion of personality trait questions in future large-scale studies. There are some limitations to this interpretation which I will discuss at greater length in my Summer 1 Reflection, but the result suggests partial support for my original hypothesis. 

Even though the outcome wasn’t what I had originally hoped for, I am still pleased with the results of my research and I feel that I have both developed as a leader and contributed to the literature in this field. I’ve learned practical skills in research and in project management more generally, and I’m now looking forward to developing these skills in future projects. 

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