Why Your Habits Matter More Than Your Academic Skills

Why Your Habits Matter More Than Your Academic Skills

Sean O’Connell works in Northeastern’s Foundation Year program, which aims to increase college retention and graduation rates among Boston high school graduates.

Northeastern created its Northeastern Foundation Year program after learning some startling statistics. Our Center for Labor Market Studies’ seven-year study found that among students who graduated from Boston Public Schools in the year 2000 and entered college immediately after, only 40 percent earned a two- or four-year degree by 2007.

This touches on a similar topic familiar to Aspire readers: the challenges faced by youngest generation of workers. (At the moment, according to CAP figures, more than 10 million Americans aged 25 and under are unemployed.)

Academics vs. Habits
Conventional wisdom suggests that many of the students in our study were academically underprepared for the rigors of college work, and certainly this is true some extent. After all, that’s part of the reason why Massachusetts adopted the PARCC (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers) exam as a substitute for MCAS.

Yet what may surprise those who attribute students’ curtailed education is that it may not be because of their weak academic skills. It may have more to do with their character and habits. For instance, their ability to complete assignments on time, communicate effectively with professors and classmates, resist distractions and focus on academic responsibilities.

Indeed, we Foundation Year faculty have seen that in the long run, positive student habits are a better predictor of student success in our program than are academic skills.

Since we launched in 2009, faculty members have met weekly to discuss each year’s cohort of students, and in doing so came up with a matrix in which to place students based on their academic skills and skills and habits.

The Results
Not surprisingly, the students who do the best by year’s end are those with high skills and high habits, while those who end up doing the worst have low skills and low habits. What is intriguing is that we’ve found that those students with low skills and high habits usually end up doing better than those with high skills and low habits. In other words, it’s the hard work that one puts in that really pays off, not academic skills.

It’s an idea that’s gaining interest in many ways, shown in this previous Aspire post on self-motivating assignments.

Looking Forward
One of the biggest challenges we face as educators is to convince all students to believe in the power of positive habits and, perhaps even more difficult, to get certain students to change their habits so that they can be successful. The question remains, however: What is the best way to do so?

About Sean O'Connell

Sean O’Connell is a faculty member in Northeastern's Foundation Year program. His research interests include the transition of students from high school to college and their use of language, as well as student motivation, college retention, and graduation issues. He is pursuing a doctorate in higher education administration at Northeastern. Northeastern University is a top-tier research university that offers high-demand graduate programs aligned with the needs of industries around the globe. With a combination of online, hybrid, and on-campus degree programs in Boston, Seattle, and Charlotte, Northeastern gives you the best of classroom and online experience while providing you the freedom and flexibility to learn on your own schedule.

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