Genes are key to academic success, study shows

Credit: CC0 Public Domain

Parents always worry about whether their children will do well in school, but their kids probably were born with much of what they will need to succeed. A new study published in npj Science of Learning by researchers from The University of Texas at Austin and King's College London explains the substantial influence genes have on academic success, from the start of elementary school to the last day of high school.

For many years, research has linked educational achievement to life trajectories, such as occupational status, health or happiness. But if performing well in predicts better life outcomes, what predicts how well someone will do throughout school?

"Around two-thirds of individual differences in are explained by differences in children's DNA," said Margherita Malanchini, a psychology postdoctoral fellow at the Population Research Center at UT Austin. "But less is known about how these factors contribute to an individual's academic success overtime."

Malanchini and Kaili Rimfeld, a postdoctoral researcher at the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience at King's College London, analyzed test scores from primary through the end of compulsory education of more than 6,000 pairs of twins.

Researchers found to be highly stable throughout schooling, meaning that most students who started off well in primary school continued to do well until graduation. Genetic factors explained about 70 percent of this stability, while the twins shared environment contributed to about 25 percent, and their nonshared environment, such as different friends or teachers, contributed to the remaining 5 percent.

That's not to say that an individual was simply born smart, researchers explained. Even after accounting for intelligence, genes still explained about 60 percent of the continuity of .

"Academic achievement is driven by a range of cognitive and noncognitive traits," Malanchini said. "Previously, studies have linked it to personality, behavioral problems, motivation, health and many other factors that are partly heritable."

However, at times grades did change, such as a drop in grades between primary and secondary school. Those changes, researchers said, can be explained largely by nonshared environmental factors.

"Our findings should provide additional motivation to identify children in need of interventions as early as possible, as the problems are likely to remain throughout the school years," said Rimfeld.

Explore further

Genes shown to influence how well children do throughout their time at school

More information: Kaili Rimfeld et al, The stability of educational achievement across school years is largely explained by genetic factors, npj Science of Learning (2018). DOI: 10.1038/s41539-018-0030-0
Citation: Genes are key to academic success, study shows (2018, September 5) retrieved 15 October 2019 from
This document is subject to copyright. Apart from any fair dealing for the purpose of private study or research, no part may be reproduced without the written permission. The content is provided for information purposes only.

Feedback to editors

User comments

Sep 05, 2018
"Around two-thirds of individual differences in school achievement are explained by differences in children's DNA" Yah - how is this surprising? - legacy admissions are BY DEFINITION related by DNA. Existing social distinctions are correlated by DNA. Social class/grouping are correlated by DNA. Their own research shows "intelligence" and other factors don't explain the differences. And yet, the authors miss the obvious:

Family/Class distinctions have now, and have ALWAYS had, more influence than any other factor.

Sep 05, 2018
In "Human Diversity", a Scientific American book, Lewontin made demonstrated that socioeconomic (not academic) success was far more closely correlated with the socioeconomic environment the child was raised in than IQ. I think it's a given that someone with an IQ of 140 will more likely be an academic success than someone with an IQ of 90. Sidis is considered one of the most intelligent people who ever lived, yet died poor.

Sep 06, 2018
no, IQ determines a person's success in life, not just academia. This is well researched. In psychology, IQ overwhelmingly out weighs any other personal trait other than conscientiousness, for success in life.

Sep 06, 2018
@Old_C_Code: You have left out a very important factor, personal determination (or drive).
I have known people at opposite poles, those with not great intelligence and a lot of drive and those with great intelligence and no drive.Those of lesser intellect with drive are working hard, using what they have, running their own businesses and supporting their families. Those of great intellect are louts. Great intellect and college degrees are worthless if you do not have the inclination and drive to do something with them.

Sep 06, 2018
pn: No, I didn't leave out conscientiousness, which means hard working. Both IQ and working hard are biggest factors. But working hard is much more difficult to quantify as an IQ test.

Sep 10, 2018
as they say, its all in the genes

Sep 10, 2018
as they say, its all in the genes

Did you even read the article?

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more