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Self-Discipline Outdoes IQ in Predicting Academic Performance in Adolescents (ngu.edu)
70 points by chegra on May 20, 2010 | hide | past | favorite | 44 comments

I wouldn't be surprised if this held true for particular subjects that are generally thought of as "hard" as well. My favorite is mathematics. I used to have a really tough time with maths and used to hate it. Then, the smartest friend I have (who coincidentally did his PhD in financial mathematics with Freddy Delbaen back then -- for those who don't know this area, that means he was really good) once made an offhand remark along the lines of "Most people think of mathematicians as 'geniuses' -- if only. You have no idea how much you simply have to learn by heart and how much work it can be." That sort of pushed me over the edge and I started to re-learn mathematics from the ground up, starting with, yes, high-school material, working my way up with MIT OCW courses (http://ocw.mit.edu) and eventually being able to take PhD classes in statistics in the space of about 2-3 years (incl. periods of part- and full-time work). Not bad for a guy who couldn't tell the difference between cos and sine functions when he started. And all because I shed the notion of "math is for talented people" and started to actually work my ass off. It was surprisingly "easy" once I put in the work and I also noticed how shortcuts taken in one part would hurt me down the road later so it really was all about remaining disciplined.

I wouldn't be surprised if this held true for particular subjects that are generally thought of as "hard" as well. My favorite is mathematics.

A new favorite quotation of mine about mathematics learning:

"Mathematics must be written into the mind, not read into it. 'No head for mathematics' nearly always means 'Will not use a pencil.'" Arthur Latham Baker, Elements of Solid Geometry (1894), page ix.

Hat tip to the Bay Area Math Circle for the quotation reference.

As I have commented before here, mathematics is a skill and needs practice. If you don't work examples and problems you won't learn math, at best you will learn about math. I taught myself first-year calculus twenty years ago, but didn't keep up with it. I have recently started reviewing it, and because I sat down and worked things through, it is actually coming back pretty easily (more so than I expected at least).

I agree that the path to insight goes through a lot of work, including memorization and repetition, but I know people who have taken that path and ended up with little to no insight. For example, my sister had "no head for math" but got As in high school calculus through sheer hard work and repetition. She worked and reworked homework problems so much that she could solve almost any test problem by remembering the homework problem most similar to it and using the homework solution to guide her. To this day she insists that she never understood the first thing about it even though she was one of the better students in an honors calculus class. She went on to do the same thing in college calculus (and got As once again) but she felt lost the whole time and said that if any test she took had come back marked "F" instead of "A," she would not have been surprised in the least.

I just finished a course on integral calculus...one of my classmates said he put in 20-30 hrs/week and he ended up dropping the class - he just couldn't understand the problems and he was a terrible test taker. I put in a lot of work in the first month or so then the rest of the course sort of just sailed by. I guess my only point is, YMMV...

If he struggled that much with integral calc the cause is likely a poor foundation in High-school level mathematics.

I agree, the hardest parts of calculus are the algebraic manipulations required, the basic ideas are relatively straight-forward.

Integral calculus is easy - it's all about calculation. Where math got hard for me was when the focus shifted from calculation to proof (abstract algebra, number theory, real analysis). I thought I could coast by with the same sort of intuitive understanding I had with calculus, but I was wrong and I didn't have the self discipline that was required to do well.

With proof you have to do a whole host of them first. I remember, filling a book with proof. Eventually, a pattern will emerge and they would be easy. At first, I used to hate them but practise enough times and you would want them to show on the exams.

For me it was quite the opposite. I didn't begin to show any particular interest in mathematics until proof based courses came into the picture. I would certainly not have earned a degree in mathematics were it not for my interests being piqued by a capricious used bookstore purchase of E. Kampke's Set Theory when just out of high school. It was the axiomatic proof based method that appealed to me. Calculation, on the other hand, seemed to my naive 17-year-old self to be terribly banal.

To put things in perspective, and to possibly invalidate the general application of my insight on the matter, Calculus was in fact the only course I passed my final semester of high school. I received a D shortly before I dropped out altogether. The D score was earned only after being the only student to ace the final, a task which was itself only possible after I proved the first fundamental theorem to myself (thanks to an especially verbose description of it in one of the exam questions) during the course of the test.

To this day I find that the actual solving of equations to be tedious and can only be interested in problems tenable to axiomatic and algorithmic approaches. Thats where all the fun is imho. Who cares about actually determining a number (or equation)? [the answer: all the smartest people do.]

How much time did you spent on it? I mean, daily, or weekly? I'm starting to work on the same direction, but I work a lot during the day as a developer, so I'm rather exhaust when I'm over with it, and usually don't have more than 1 hour a day or little more to spend on learning maths. I guess it's too little?

I'm serious though, I'm learning with textbooks, etc.. and I'm a dropout so I have some of the basics already.

What I tried to do when I was working full-time was: Get up early in the morning, review some definitions, then read perhaps only one theorem, try to prove it yourself, then read the proof in the book, then try to find a problem in the exercises that would use that theorem or refers to it, and take those problems with me to work. At work, I could then think about it while doing less demanding tasks or just during breaks. Then, after work, I was exhausted so I only read a little bit and looked at new definitions or so. Lots of time, I also just goofed off (yeah, it took discipline and energy to get something done when working full days). On weekends, I could naturally do more. Still, this was my slowest time, for obvious reasons, and I could never have gotten through the material if I had been working full-time all the time.

In my first year of a doctoral program, I could study from after lunch until next morning and I concentrated on getting the fundamentals right. The greatest book, the one where things began to click, was Rudin's "principles of mathematical analysis". Before I came to this book, I had wasted a lot of time finding my style of learning or, if you will, discovering my preferences. But if you already have the basics and are not going to waste as much time as I was trying to figure out what is what, you might pull it off much quicker.

Good luck! To me it was a cool time and I finally got rid of my math inferiority complex ;)

Thank you very much! I thought you were going to say it couldn't be done while working full time. You give me hope.

When I first studied calculus I was lucky to have a job that gave me lots of free time. I spent about four hours a day, almost every day for about 4 months to cover the first two semesters of calculus (I started getting tired of it and only read the book for the third semester's worth, which is why I don't count myself as having learned it).

I have the same experience, my major is filled with statistics and math and coming out of high school I didn't have the right prerequisites. Nonetheless, a decent amount of interest and some hard work and I got up to speed in no time. Calculus was a breeze after that. It goes for a lot of things really, when you're interested in the subject and willing to work for it, it becomes so much easier. I now just have a "How hard can it be?" attitude towards stuff.

I'm not surprised.

For me school has always been about discipline and dedication and not about skill. The school adapts itself to a lower difficulty so that more will pass and they compensate by making it more cumbersome so that the skilled, but not so disciplined, will get bored and not perform as well.

This was also my personal experience. I was pretty good at math but I never got any challanges so I just didn't do anything, but luckily I aced the tests and the only homeworks we got where to have complete the chapters. This translated to other courses where I was good, but I got bored and not motivated so I got a lot worse grades than I could've had if I was dedicated.

I managed to motivate myself later on to get good grades, other would call them great, but I know I could've had straight A grades if I just weren't so lazy and skipped a lot of hours.

Furthermore it doesn't help (doesn't show in grades) if you know a subject really well. Often the workaholics, or a bit nicer: those with more discipline than me, would just study like hell before a test and get a great score, where I wouldn't but I knew the subject well enough so I would get a great score too. I'm a bit upset with this because I doubt that they could remember anything from those tests but I felt I could remember them for months.

>I'm a bit upset with this because I doubt that they could remember anything from those tests but I felt I could remember them for months.

On one Calculus test I had, I didn't study or do any of the homework and pulled a ~90% score. When talking to someone who got a perfect 100%, he casually informed me that he forgot how to integrate between tests. I was shocked to hear this, but apparently it's the norm.

"they compensate by making it more cumbersome so that the skilled, but not so disciplined, will get bored and not perform as well"

I couldn't have put it better, that's exactly what I feel too! It would be so cool if the educational system were designed to help under-disciplined people to perform to their best rather than weed out the ones who can't adapt.

And if you are here reading this after telling yourself you really would code your ass off today, you already lost.

And if you posted on this thread after telling yourself you really would code your ass off today...

Seriously, though, sometimes taking short breaks can cause you to be more productive than just slogging through. Not all trips to the internet are procrastination. Sometimes you really do need to just stop coding for a few minutes. Though I imagine there are better ways to recharge your mental batteries than HN. HN just makes you think too much sometimes.

Err, my short stops are from BC2...

I remember working on my first site and just only doing 2hrs a day. I try avoiding using my willpower when I can.

I talk about the experience here: http://chegra.posterous.com/consistently-underperforming

If reading it causes a paradigm shift that results in a sustainable productivity improvement or reduces fear, it's a net win.

Yeah, I keep hoping that solutions to life problems are but an effortless realization gleaned from reading a page or two on the internet away, as well. :/


Dammit! Wait! I haven't finished my coffee yet! There could still be a modicum of win...


Duh. But you can get pretty far on pure IQ. Every male in my family is a useless lazy sack, but we all have science PhDs.

They controlled for IQ, but they didn't control for desire. Some people want to make good grades for pride, to impress their parents, etc.. Others would rather do something other than the busy work required to be in the 94th percentile as shown in the graph. There is no difference between getting As and Bs in 8th grade. Colleges mainly look at grades in 9-12.

Why do you care about academic performance? Wouldn't your time be better spent on entrepreneurial endeavors?

BTW, it appears that fast thinkers are less likely to be creative people:


In our current world, full of colorful distractions, an education system that relies on self-discipline is obsolete.

Some students have a "discipline" trait, they'll force themselves through boring drudgery to get the A, then never look at the material again, the A is all that matters. That's a waste of time.

True "discipline" comes from having an interest in the material. That interest has to be sparked by something, the material gives you a buzz, and working on it does not feel like work. That's not something I'd call self-discipline.

"compared with their more impulsive peers, highly self-disciplined eighth graders earned higher GPAs and achievement-test scores, were more likely to gain admission to a selective high school, had fewer school absences, spent more time on their homework, watched less television, and started their homework earlier in the day."

First has a lot to do with what is expected at school (wonder what the data looks for 3rd level education) and the rest is pretty obvious...

http://blog.jgc.org/2009/10/damn-torpedoes.html (Can't find HN link for it)

http://www.stevepavlina.com/blog/2005/12/rules-are-no-obstac... "Rules are no obstacles for committed people"

I think the people that think before hearing or reading about the solution are the one best prepared for Academic Performance. A funny experiment should be to take an English native teenager to a sociology class in Chinese language and then ask him about what he has learned.

So I'd buy this, but how do I as an adult with lower than average self-discipline improve this facet of myself? Is it something you are born with? It seems paradoxical to try to achieve high self discipline through determined hard work.

Clicked the [scribd] link and got this (and only this): "Hello, you have an old version of Adobe Flash Player. To use iPaper (and lots of other stuff on the web) you need to get the latest Flash player."

WTF? I thought Scribd was HTML5-in’ it up?

Why should anyone want to get high grades in eighth grade? What's the point? No one's ever going to look at them.

Selective (private/charter/magnet) high schools. Otherwise, yeah.

This does not surprise me at all. Anyone with average intelligence can get good grades in high school - it's just a matter of how much time you're willing to devote to getting them.

The trade-off comes in deciding whether you'd rather get good grades or spend time learning other things on your own. It comes down to how much you trust the educational system you're in to fully make use of your time and intelligence.

I think it's a bad thing that, in general, grades to not track IQ. Hard work is important, but only when the effort does work on your intelligence (similar to the physical definition of work). One can spend hours on a paper or a PowerPoint and have done nothing to further their intelligence; and yet these assignments are what students are typically graded on.

>spend time learning other things on your own

Hear Hear! And all learning is done on one's own, really.

IQ is, not to put too fine a point on it, bunk.

Grades are also bunk. They can never measure depth of knowledge, which is the thing that matters, intellectually speaking. Depth depends on connections formed with other areas of knowledge, which are unique to each student.

There is intrinsic to the academic system a pervasive issue of trust.

Grades can indicate the depth of knowledge, but with the disclaimer that both the arbitrating grader is trusted (in a very special sense), and that the method used to decide grades be both defensible and explicable to others.

To provide a concrete example. A paper on the first book of Hume's Treatise of Human Nature attempts to bring a new argument to bear on the consequences to modern epistemology incurred by Hume's concept of abstract ideas. The paper is written as a final in a graduate level philosophy class, and the instructor is known to be knowledgeable, intelligent, fair, and honest. The paper receives a B+. It is arguable that the mark is generally reflective of the student's understanding and ability at the time the student wrote the paper. (this example is taken from personal experience - I wrote this paper, and I feel that the grade was reflective of my knowledge on the topic)

But without the trustworthy instructor, the grade would be meaningless. The problem, if I were to speculate, is one of numbers - too many students, too few professors. A basic premise of security is that the more parties involved in a pact, the lest reliable the pact is, and if grades are to be a faithfully representation of a students ability, the reliability of the academic pact is paramount.

"And all learning is done on one's own, really."

Sad to say, not everyone works that way. I'd say that more people are dependent upon others teaching them than anything else.

>Depth depends on connections formed with other areas of knowledge

Agreed. I believe this is the most important part of education.

I reviewed Daniel Goleman's book "Emotional Intelligence" on my blog last month, and the psychological framework he uncovers does a good job of accounting for/predicting these kinds of observed results


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