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Helping students feel purposeful may boost GCSE maths grades, research suggests

Photo by Gareth Fuller/PA Wire

By Sam Russell, PA


Teenagers who are encouraged to feel capable and purposeful rather than just happy could improve their GCSE maths scores, research suggests.


A Cambridge University study of 607 children aged 14 and 15 looked at their sense of eudaimonia – a Greek term that refers to how well a person feels they are functioning.


It incorporates feelings of competence, motivation and self-esteem.


The study indicated that students with higher eudaimonia significantly outperformed peers in GCSE assessments.


Participants completed psychological assessments to look at eudaimonia and life satisfaction, and these were compared with their scores in mock English and maths GCSEs.


Those with the highest maths grades had 1.5 times higher eudaimonic well-being than those with the lowest, according to the research.


No correlation was found between academic performance and the students’ broader sense of life satisfaction.


Despite this, the researchers said that child well-being policy in England tends to focus on life satisfaction, which they called an “over-simplistic” approach.


Lead author and psychologist of education Dr Tania Clarke said: “Well-being education often focuses on teaching students about being happy and not being sad.”


“That is over-simplistic and overlooks other vital qualities of wellbeing that are particularly salient during the formative period of adolescence.”


“Adolescents also need to develop self-awareness, confidence, and ideally a sense of meaning and purpose.”


“Judging by our findings, an adolescent who is currently getting a three or four on their maths GCSE could be helped to rise a couple of grades if schools emphasised these qualities for all students, rather than just promoting positivity and minimising negative emotions.”


The study indicated that the students’ overall wellbeing – their eudaimonia and life satisfaction combined – correlated positively with their exam results.


Those attaining top maths grades (grades eight or nine) had, on average, a well-being score of 32 out of a possible 50.


This was nine points higher than those with a grade one, and three to four points higher than the average for all 607 students.


When they analysed the separate dimensions of wellbeing, however, the researchers found a positive relationship between eudaimonia and higher attainment, but no correlation with life satisfaction.


In maths, the average eudaimonic wellbeing score of grade nine students was 17.3 from a possible 25, while that of grade one students was just 10.9.


These results held true even when accounting for potentially confounding factors, such as school attended, gender, socio-economic status, or special educational needs.


A rethink of how wellbeing is promoted through the curriculum, helping students understand their academic work and progress in the context of their personal motivations and goals, could be beneficial, the authors of the study suggested.


“There is a link between better well-being and a more nuanced understanding of academic success,” Dr Clarke said.


“Because schools are under heavy pressure to deliver academic results, at the moment students seem to be measuring themselves against the exam system, rather than in terms of who they want to be or what they want to achieve.”


Co-author Dr Ros McLellan, of Cambridge’s Faculty of Education, said: “Well-being education needs to move beyond notions of ‘boosting’ happiness towards deeper engagement, helping adolescents to realise their unique talents and aspirations, and a sense of what happiness means for them, personally.


“This would not just improve well-being: it is also likely to mean better exam results, and perhaps fewer issues for students later on.”


The research is published in the journal School Psychology Review.

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