Factors Influencing Academic Performance | Literature Review


20 Apr 2018

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  • Ema Marie Attard


  • Extra (or essential?) Curricular Activities

As stated by (Goldberg, 1946), extra-curricular activities, before they act as and become potentially enhancing to something else, we could say that they are beneficial in themselves. We can say this because they seem to present substantial values and skills to the participant, whatever the extra-curricular activity is. Whether the activity is sports or drama, dance or music, a successful participant of this activity will, at the very least, endure “satisfaction and joy for its own sake” (Goldberg, 1946). That being said, there are ‘secondary’ uses (so to speak) for these extra-curricular activities and studies (Miller, Moyer & Patricl, 1956, Sybouts & Krepel among others) have proved and seem to be continuing to prove, the effects of these extra-curriculars are real and valid. So much so, that they might even lead us to temporarily forget the aforementioned intrinsic value of said activities.

In fact, advocates of extracurricular activities (Fozzard, 1967; Miller, Moyer, & Patrick, 1956; Sybouts & Krepel, 1984) claim that this less formal aspect of education is partially responsible for contributing to the development of good citizens, the development of a healthy approach to life, both mentally and physically, the direction of use of an individual’s leisure time, the development of personal interests and talents, as well as a positive outlet for creative expression. The belief in the significance and validity of extra-curricular activity involvement pervades many academically respected institutions. For example, as McCormick (1999) noted, the University of Chicago’s undergraduate admissions could fill the ‘freshman’ class to come entirely with Valedictorians, however the university specifically chooses not to do so in favour of opting for those students who possess more than just a high academic performance.

That being said, the idea that extra-curricular activities are essential for important skills is not a view that is shared universally. There is a long-standing question if extra-curricular activities have any value at all (Coleman J. S., 1959). Some research actually states that extra-curricular activities may serve for little other than social function and detracting from more important academic work (Gose, 1996).

  • Impacts of Extra Curricular Activities on Academic Performance

Immediately what comes to mind when thinking of extra-curricular activities is the idea that participation in an extra-curricular activity could potentially help a student adjust to working within a team, help build and increase his/her self-confidence, learn to become more efficient and more social (Goldberg, 1946). We can also propose that it helps reap tangible rewards; such as the payments of a service given, or merely the satisfaction of, say, a public performance. Not to mention the fact of the possibility of hobbies becoming careers (the tennis player becomes the coach) and the friendships that stand the test of time and somehow enrich the individual’s future (Goldberg, 1946). We can also talk about the discipline it requires to properly engage in an extra-curricular activity and the added discipline it takes to maintain it whilst maintaining a satisfactory academic performance.

That being said, the exact opposite has also been argued; the fact that extra-curricular activities are a distraction, that they split focus, are too demanding in of themselves and are a general waste of time. In fact, one of the foremost beliefs about extra-curricular activities is that they should, whenever it was deemed possible “grow out of curricular activities and return to curricular activities to enrich them” (Millard, 1930). However, as time passed activities which were not directly related to the academic were being perceived as frivolous and were beginning to be deemed as disadvantageous and detrimental to academic achievement (Marsh & Kleitman, 2002), which then led to them starting to be discouraged. Another point that could also be made is that it is those adolescents who already have more developed interpersonal skills choose to participate in extra-curricular activities and therefore such activities are not necessarily responsible for the development of the skills (Rubin, Bommer, & Baldwin, 2002). It has only been in more recent years that we have come full circle and educational researchers are, once again, taking a more favourable approach to extra-curricular activities and their effect on accomplishments in academia (Marsh & Kleitman, 2002).

According to Broh (2002), total extra-curricular activity participation (TEAP) is in fact correlated to an improved grade point average (to use American jargon), decreased absenteeism and also elevated academic goals and aspirations.. Although we can argue that, for the most part, researchers agree that extra-curricular activities do have an impact on academic performance, the National Educational Longitudinal Study found that while participation in select activities improves achievement and performance, participation in others reduces it. As cited by Broh (2002); Eccles (2003) and Marsh & Willis (2003) found that participation in sports had a consistently higher rate for enrolment in colleges. Synder & Spreitzer (1990) also found that college attendance was significantly higher for those who participated in sports than those who did not; to use their words “...the athletic role enhances the academic role”

  • Extra Curricular Activities & Formal Education

We live in a world in which it is the norm and tendency to view formal education as a place where information is simply passed on to students. These students are seen as no more than passive recipients who merely absorb and gather this knowledge which has been passed on to them. In an article, Swanson (2002), attempts to change the perspective on students’ behaviour as he begins to look at it from the point of view of “purposive action”. This view is one where both the formal as well as the non-academic pursuits serve as resources in which adolescents may deem fit to invest in, with the intention of attaining any possible future goals. In other, older, studies (Winner, 1923), emphasis is placed on the structure of schools and the formation of extra-curricular activities within the school.

However, more recent literature wants to call attention away from this and focus on the possibility (and probability) of a wider selection of activities that could have a significant effect of the achievement of educational aims that occur outside the formal educational system, in other words: the classroom.

At this point we have established that the way in which adolescents decide to use their free time will somehow probably affect their performance academically in some way or other. Schlesser (2004) states that students who participated in co-curricular activities were three times more likely to have a higher grade point than those who did not participate in extra-curricular activities (Schlesser, 2004). The National Centre for Educational Statistics (1999) also reported that students who used their time by engaging in extra-curricular activities had a significant (positive) difference to those who did not engage in extra-curricular activities. Factors such as unexcused absences, skipping class were significantly lower in students who participated in extra-curriculars, it was also found that theses students not only did well academically but were ranked in the highest quartile on math and reading, not to mention the fact that they were expected to earn a Bachelor’s degree or higher.

The Centre for Comprehensive School Reform (CCSR) carried out another study which talks about the correlation between the student involvement in activities and their performance in the classroom. It states that activities aid the students in forming strong and successful relationships among adults and peers alike, an attribute that is of the utmost importance both within a classroom and to the outside world. They also state that activity programmes help foster within individuals more personal expectations of excellence and dedication to academic success. Not to mention, of course, the fact that they promote a positive psychological, social, emotional and healthy well being all around.

  1. Adolescents as Rational Actors & Investors
  1. Returns on Investment

If when examining social behaviour we choose to take a rational choice perspective we are implying that, the reason for an adolescent taking any form of action is due to an intention of somehow increasing, to the fullest extent, that adolescent’s own personal interest in goals of importance to them. We are aware that in this respect, adolescents states of mind are more normally portrayed as being the result of their surroundings and their all-encompassing environment rather than being self motivated “rational actors” (Swanson, 2002). Despite this pre-conceived notion, as Swanson continues to argue, the decisions adolescents are confronted with, for example, in terms of time management and motivation, can in fact be seen as influential in their capability of fulfilling important milestones in their lives. Findings show that participation in activities shows criteria of both social exchange and that of investment.

In the previously cited study done by Swanson (2002), there was evidence supporting high returns for college enrolment when there was involvement in both the official academic curriculum as well as in extra-curricular activities. In economics, the law of diminishing returnsis understood to be the decrease in theoutput of aspecific production process as the quantity of a single factor of production is gradually increased, while the amounts of all other aspects of production stay constant. The law of diminishing returns states that in most productive processes, increasing more of a particular factor of production, while keeping all others stable will eventually produce lower returns per unit. So, in tandem with Swanson’s idea of return on investment, when associations with overinvestment (of extra-curricular activities) were made, indications of diminishing returns were seen.

  1. The Zero Sum Hypothesis

This ties in, naturally, with those studies that propose that not only do extra-curriculars not have a positive effect of academic outcomes but rather that extra-curricular activities are in fact, a hindrance to any positive educational outcomes. This hypothesis is largely credited to James Coleman (1961) who, in The Adolescent Society, is often referenced as the source on the ‘zero-sum’ model of transaction between extra-curricular activities and academics (Holland and Andre 1987; Marsh 1992). A very watered down explanation of the concept of the ‘zero-sum’ hypothesis is that one investor’s profit mirrors another investor’s loss (whereby for every 1 euro someone makes, somebody loses 1 euro). In his study, Coleman investigated the social order structure of students in the typical American High School. He notes that whereas popularity is pre-eminent (leading to participation in activities such as athletics and cheerleading), academic excellence is a ‘secondary consideration’. The zero-sum logic is very typically used in studies about participation in extra-curricular activities whereby time is a fixed commodity split among a various number of activities, due to the nature of the formulation (that there are only two competing alternatives) and that the total amount of time available is constant, the individual must reduce the time spent on one activity in order to increase time devoted to the other.

  1. Time & The Zero Sum Hypothesis

Hence, according to Coleman (1961) time used on extra-curricular pursuits must necessarily diminish any and all academic pursuits. We can also speculate that, it could be the case that time is not the most fitting variable to measure returns on participation in a particular activity. The amount of time dedicated to a pursuit in actual fact, tells us very little about the level of dedication the person has invested in it and even more so about how productive they have been during that time. An individual might use time from areas of strength in order to support possible weaker areas of performance. By doing this, we can see time is not a used like a ‘currency’ that can be spent on any activity but rather represents a ‘resource to invest’, used strategically on the activities that will knowledgably have the highest possible rate of returns on the investments. This idea problematises the straightforward relationship adopted by the zero-sum hypothesis regarding the return of extra-curricular activities and the time spent pursuing them (Swanson, 2002).

That being said, other studies also support the idea of limiting time of extra-curricular activities so as not to encroach on time of studies. Laurence Steinberg (1996) in his book the Classroom: Why School Reform Has Failed and What Parents Need to Do, criticises the fact that a large amount of students are completely too wrapped up in extra-curricular activities. He even suggests to parents to limit the number of hours (not more than ten) that their children are allowed to take part in extra-curricular activities. However, another assumption of the above model is that all academic pursuits are uniformly beneficial versus the fact that all extra-curriculars are intrinsically disadvantageous. That said, years of research conducted have now consistently shown positive academic results associated with extra-curricular participation, thus increasing the tendency for the discreditation of the zero-sum model’s main predication. For example, the fore-mentioned Synder & Spreitzer (1990) study which showed that participation in Sports increases college enrolment, among others (Spady 1970, 1971; Otto 1975, 1976; Otto and Alwin 1977; Marsh 1992).

  1. Social Capital & Cultural Capital
  1. Social Capital

Mullis, Rathge & Mullis in their study Predictors of academic performance during early adolescence: A contextual view (2003), attempted to decipher the relationship between academic performance in adolescents and their contextual variables. In particular, their study consisted of testing the idea that commonly known aspects of resource capital, social capital and student behaviour can in actual fact predict academic performance in young adolescents. Mullis, Rathge & Mullis quantified social capital in two particular components; through parental networks and student activity networks. For the benefit of my study I will mostly be taking into consideration their findings and hypothesis on social capital in relation to student activity networks; whereby we mean student reports of school activities and non-school activities. According to their research conducted, the links between the idea of social capital and academic performance was not as significant as expected and documented in other research (Coleman, 1988; Schneider & Coleman, 1993; Steinberg, 1996; Steinberg, Dornbusch, & Brown, 1991) mentioned. What this research did state is that through these social networks, the student’s opportunities are somehow boosted which, in turn, could lead to a more favourable environments that lend themselves to achievement (Mullis, Rathge, & Mullis, 2003). This means that, due to the fact that they have increased opportunities to succeed, they do in actual fact succeed more; however not due to the individual being more equipped to succeed but by just being more exposed to times when succeeding is an option.

  1. Cultural Capital

Similar in terminology, though not so much in meaning; another concept is that of Cultural Capital. The term Cultural Capital references the social, non economic attributes that contribute positively to the idea of social mobility beyond financial means. For example, level of education, IQ and physical appearance. All these give a person advantages which in turn give them an elevated status within society. Pierre Bourdieu divided this idea of cultural capital into three subtypes: embodied, objectified and institutionalised (Bourdieu, 1986).

Cultural capital is not something that one acquires instantaneously or at one moment in time. Rather, it is embedded over time as it leaves an impact on one’s ‘habitus’ (character and way of thinking). Exposure to different activities and different disciplines in the form of extra-curriculars may inherently add to the adolescent’s cultural capital by adding to their pool of knowledge and skills. At the more basic level, cultural capital refers to the understanding of the central conceptual and normative codes that are inscribed in a culture. In the article Does Cultural Capital Really Affect Academic Achievement (Jæger, 2011), Jaeger is reflecting on Bourdieu’s famous hypothesis that cultural capital is actually an important resources that adds to a person’s academic success. According to Bourdieu, as stated previously the cultural capital one has, i.e. knowledge, skills and general idea of knowing ‘the rules of the game’ is what in fact the educational system is after and rewards. This subject is one that has fascinated not only Bourdieu. In fact, a long series of quantitative research has been done and found that various measures of cultural capital are indeed correlated in a positive way to academic attainment and educational achievement. Among those who have researched said topics are DiMaggio, 1982; Cheadle 2008; Crook 1997; De Graaf, de Graaf, and Kraaykamp 2000; DiMaggio and Mohr 1985; Dumais 2002; Farkas et al. 1990 and van de Werfhorst and Hofstede 2007, among others.

Even though we might be unawares, the educational system is in fact structured to recognise and reward cultural capital, whereby teachers and other individuals in the educational system misinterpret a child’s cultural capital as actual academic brilliance and hence encourage upwardly biased ideas of these children. In turn, these biases contribute to the possible positive returns the children with cultural capital receive as fruit of these perceptions and preferential treatment (Jæger, 2011). We could say that individuals are not academically stronger because their cultural capital has in some way affected their academic prowess but rather because their cultural capital sets them apart in terms of how their educators view them. This altered view, somehow induces preferential treatment from their teachers and peers which strengthens their academic development. Research has consistently found that participation in extra-curricular activities has had a somehow positive effect on academic achievement (Cheadle 2008; Covay and Carbonaro 2010; Lareau 2003). In terms of Jaeger’s research, he found that cultural capital has a causal direct effect of on academic achievement also, which is an important result due to the causality that is proven rather than merely an influence.



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