How Genes Can Affect Our Educational Choices and Achievement

Summary: A new study reports your genes may be responsible for the subjects you choose and educational achievements in higher education.

Source: King’s College London.

The choice of whether to pursue A-level qualifications after compulsory education is substantially influenced by genes, according to researchers from King’s College London. The same goes for what subjects you choose and your A-level performance on the chosen subjects, finds their study published today in Scientific Reports.

Based on these findings, the study’s authors are calling for children to be given greater choice in their curricula, allowing them to personalise their education before the age of 16.

After completing compulsory education at the age of 16, students in England can choose either to start an apprenticeship or continue their studies at A-level in preparation for university. Approximately half of students choose to do A-levels and they freely choose which subjects to study. This is the first time in their educational experience that students are able to shape their learning according to a wide range of options.

As differences in achievement and subject choices will propel young people on a variety of lifelong trajectories, it is important to understand what influences these decisions.

Previous research has shown that, to a large extent, differences in educational achievement can be explained by inherited differences in children’s DNA sequence. This King’s College London study – funded by the Medical Research Council – shows, for the first time, that genetic factors substantially influence academic choice too.

The researchers analysed data from the Twins Early Development Study (TEDS), which included more than 6,500 twin pairs in the UK. They found that choosing to continue studies at A-level was influenced in equal measure by genetic (44%) factors and environmental factors shared by siblings growing up in the same home (47%), for example schools, neighbourhoods or the home environment.

Choosing specific A-level subjects was found to have greater genetic influence (50% for humanities and 60% for STEM – science, technology, engineering and mathematics – subjects) and less influence from shared environment (18% for humanities, 23% for STEM). Genetic factors affected subject choice across a wide range of school subjects, including second language learning, mathematics and psychology.

The authors suggest that students make A-level choices in part on the basis of previous educational achievement, which is substantially heritable. Another possibility is that general intelligence, which also shows substantial heritability, contributes to these choices independently from previous achievement.

The researchers also found that the shared environment substantially influenced whether or not students chose to pursue A-levels, which is logical given that parents and teachers are likely to influence both members of a twin pair to make similar choices. However, this finding is particularly notable given that it is rare to find such a major role for the shared environment; for example shared environmental effects are less than 25% for academic achievement and negligible for personality traits.

Image shows people studying in a library.

Previous research has shown that, to a large extent, differences in educational achievement can be explained by inherited differences in children’s DNA sequence. NeuroscienceNews.com image is for illustrative purposes only.

Achievement after two years on students’ chosen A-level subjects was highly heritable (65% for STEM subjects and 49% for humanities).

Kaili Rimfeld from the MRC Social, Genetic & Developmental Psychiatry (SGDP) Centre at King’s College London, said: ‘DNA differences appear to strongly influence academic appetite as well as aptitude, which supports a genetic way of thinking about education where individuals actively create their own education experiences, in part based on their genetic propensities.

‘Our results support educational trends away from a one-size-fits-all curriculum towards a more personalised approach to learning which would help every child reach their maximum potential.’

Professor Robert Plomin, also from the MRC SGDP Centre at King’s College London, said: ‘Our study suggests that children are not passive recipients of instruction, but instead are active participants in their path to knowledge. In a more personalised education system, children would choose educational subjects early, allowing them to focus on their strengths and weaknesses. However, until the age of 16, students in England and Wales have little choice. It is only at the age of 16 that students are free to choose their subjects from over 80 different options.

‘Further research is now required to advance our understanding of educational choices and achievement throughout school years and beyond.’

About this genetics research article

Source: Louise Pratt – King’s College London
Image Source: This NeuroscienceNews.com image is in the public domain.
Video Source: The video is credited to king’s College London.
Original Research: Full open access research for “Genetics affects choice of academic subjects as well as achievement” by Kaili Rimfeld, Ziada Ayorech, Philip S. Dale, Yulia Kovas and Robert Plomin in Scientific Reports. Published online June 16 2016 doi:10.1018/j.cub.2016.05.039

Cite This NeuroscienceNews.com Article
King’s College London. “How Genes Can Affect Our Educational Choices and Achievement.” NeuroscienceNews. NeuroscienceNews, 18 June 2016.
<http://neurosciencenews.com/genetics-education-achievement-4514/>.
King’s College London. (2016, June 18). How Genes Can Affect Our Educational Choices and Achievement. NeuroscienceNews. Retrieved June 18, 2016 from http://neurosciencenews.com/genetics-education-achievement-4514/
King’s College London. “How Genes Can Affect Our Educational Choices and Achievement.” http://neurosciencenews.com/genetics-education-achievement-4514/ (accessed June 18, 2016).

Abstract

Genetics affects choice of academic subjects as well as achievement

We have previously shown that individual differences in educational achievement are highly heritable throughout compulsory education. After completing compulsory education at age 16, students in England can choose to continue to study for two years (A-levels) in preparation for applying to university and they can freely choose which subjects to study. Here, for the first time, we show that choosing to do A-levels and the choice of subjects show substantial genetic influence, as does performance after two years studying the chosen subjects. Using a UK-representative sample of 6584 twin pairs, heritability estimates were 44% for choosing to do A-levels and 52–80% for choice of subject. Achievement after two years was also highly heritable (35–76%). The findings that DNA differences substantially affect differences in appetites as well as aptitudes suggest a genetic way of thinking about education in which individuals actively create their own educational experiences in part based on their genetic propensities.

“Genetics affects choice of academic subjects as well as achievement” by Kaili Rimfeld, Ziada Ayorech, Philip S. Dale, Yulia Kovas and Robert Plomin in Scientific Reports. Published online June 16 2016 doi:10.1018/j.cub.2016.05.039

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