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Study Finds That Emotional Intelligence Moves the Needle on Academic Success

Boy in glasses laying on his tummy in front of a red bookcase

From the earliest of learning environments to and through college, emotional intelligence (EQ) proves to be an important facet of academic success, according to a new study.

In particular, students who understand and can manage their emotions earn higher grades and do better on standardized tests.

While emotional intelligence is important for future workplace success, these findings help solidify that EQ is also imperative to students’ academic success in the here and now. These results also help bolster the idea that investing in teaching social-emotional skills will improve student achievement.  

The study, published in the journal Psychological Bulletin, is a meta-analysis of every relevant study researchers could find—162 in all—that cover 42,000 students in 27 countries.

"Because of the large number of samples, I'm really certain of these results," said Carolyn MacCann, an associate professor at the University of Sydney in Australia and the lead author of the study. "It isn't a study of one school in one country."

The study’s findings shed light that, while raw intelligence (IQ)  is still the biggest predictor of academic performance, understanding and managing emotions are also esteemed. 

“The extent of a students' emotional intelligence can account for 4 percent of the differences in students' academic performance,” said MacCann. "That doesn't sound big, but intelligence only explains 15 percent," she said. "And certain parts of it, like understanding emotions, explains 12 percent of the difference between students."

MacCann believes this is the first large-scale meta-analysis of studies examining the link between emotional intelligence and academic performance.

"A meta-analysis of such an enormous sample of studies always catches the eye," said Shannon Wanless, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh. "What really jumps out at me, which you hope you would see, is that it really tells the story you're feeling ... the findings do fit a lot of the things we're seeing in lots of different places but it's helpful to look at the broader pattern."

In the study, different types of emotional intelligence are examined as well as methods of measuring EQ. The goal is to see how these variations impact tests, grades, and success in different academic subjects to determine exactly which parts of emotional intelligence notably affect academics.

"We try to be very clear about the active ingredient," said MacCann. "There may be similarities, but if you are designing interventions, you want to know what the active ingredient is."

One active ingredient as found by MacCann is the ability to self-regulate. MacCann found that students' ability to read others' emotions was not as important as the ability to regulate their own emotions.

The study found that the way emotional intelligence was measured also affected academic performance. Objective tests of emotional intelligence proved better at predicting student academic success than measurement tools that rely on students ranking their own emotional intelligence.

Students are better at understanding and regulating emotions based on objective measurements as opposed to self-reporting, resulting in enhanced test-taking skills and higher grades, particularly in the humanities. “Strong emotional regulation skills do have an effect on math and science abilities, but just not to the same degree,” said MacCann. 

She continues, "I think it's because some of the ability to understand human motivation and emotion is actually part of the academic skills needed for analyzing literature or understanding the historical causes of world wars." 

Emotionally intelligent students may thrive in other ways, too. 

  • More equipped in handling unpleasant emotions such as test anxiety 
  • More confident in managing their social world such as navigating peer pressure and forming healthy relationships 

With less stress and trauma in other aspects of the academic setting, students with higher emotional intelligence are in a better position to focus on learning.

The big takeaway for MacCann is that teaching emotional intelligence skills doesn't detract from students' academics—it boosts them.

"Teachers are under a lot of pressure to teach to the curriculum or the test, and there is a movement toward social-emotional programs, but it can be seen as taking away from passing their academic tests," MacCann said. "I just want teachers and educators to know that students' emotional skills are not in a totally separate bucket from their academic skills."

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