On the Interplay between Academic Achievement and Educational Identity: ​A Longitudinal Study

Ioana Pop

In adolescence, the construction of a synthesized sense of identity becomes a prominent developmental task with important implications for personal and social adjustment (Erikson, 1968). As adolescents spend most of their time in school settings and learning activities, it raises the question: What role academic achievement plays in identity development? Some studies (e.g., Leary, 2005) supported the idea that academic achievement represents the gauge of students’ success or failure, which might foster or threaten adolescents’ social acceptance and implicitly strengthen or weaken their educational identity (Luyckx, Goossens, & Soenens, 2006). Other studies highlighted that a strong educational commitment enhance students’ motivation, which in turn might lead to improvements in academic achievement (Oyserman & Destin, 2010; Roeser, Peck, & Nasir, 2012).

Using a longitudinal design with three measurement points spaced 3-to-4 months apart, in the present study we first analyzed the developmental patterns of educational identity (i.e., commitment, in-depth exploration, and reconsideration of commitment; Crocetti, Rubini, & Meeus, 2008) and academic achievement (i.e., GPA, Grade Point Average). Then, we examined the directionality of effects between these two constructs: Does GPA drive relative changes in identity or is it the other way around?
The longitudinal sample consisted of 1,151 adolescents (58.7% female) recruited at seven theoretical and vocational schools (Grades 8-12), with a mean age of 16.45 years at Time 1. The total sample was divided into an early-to-middle adolescent cohort (n = 462, M age = 15.04, SD age = 0.62, age range = 13-15 years) and a middle-to-late adolescent cohort (n = 689, M age = 17.39, SD age = 0.89, age range = 16-19 years).

Findings revealed that adolescents started the academic year with positive identity configurations (i.e., high levels of commitment and in-depth exploration, and low levels of reconsideration of commitment) and relatively high levels of academic achievement. However, by the end of the academic year adolescents registered slightly increases of identity uncertainty/ confusion and decreases of academic achievement levels, especially boys and students from vocational schools. Findings also pointed out that academic achievement predicts the manner in which adolescents deal with their identity issues in the academic context and not the other way around. Thus, high academic achievement leads to high levels of educational commitment (identity synthesis), while low academic achievement leads to high levels of reconsideration of educational commitment (identity confusion). With one exception (i.e., educational commitment at Time 2 was found to be a positive and significant predictor for GPA at Time 3 for boys (β= .05, p<.05), but not for girls), this unidirectional pattern of effects applied equally to adolescent boys and girls, early-to-middle and middle-to-late adolescents, and to adolescents attending theoretical and vocational schools. In conclusion, the present study revealed that in academic context commitment and in-depth exploration represent the bright side of identity development, while reconsideration of commitment represents the dark side. Thus, according to our findings, developing a healthy educational identity in adolescence implies choosing and strengthening educational commitments through high academic achievement levels.

Contact: ioanapop@psychology.ro

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