- Academic success is driven by multiple factors.
- Research shows that positive health behaviors are essential for success.
- Prosocial actions and helping others can lead to success for all.
This post was written by Anna Van Duijvenvoorde, Ph.D., and Gulia Murgia, M.S., with edits by Patricia Lockwood, Ph.D., and Jo Cutler, Ph.D.
As teaching starts again after January exams at many universities around the world, New Year's resolutions surrounding educational achievement might be on your mind. We consider the perspective of students and researchers in the Netherlands for what might help us help ourselves succeed this year.
Reports show that Dutch universities perform well overall. Their education is high quality, the universities are accessible, and although students may take a bit longer to complete their studies compared to the European average, students' job prospects are promising. As part of a Euniwell-funded research project, our research team talked with groups of students to learn more about how they quantify and think about their academic success to ultimately build a student-led science to help people succeed. We also reviewed the literature on how helping others might help us to help ourselves.
What is academic success?
In research, academic success is often quantified and measured in terms of students' grades or grade point averages (GPAs). In practice, students seem to agree, at least partially, with this view. One of the most common goals that all the students we interviewed had was obtaining good grades.
This operationalization, however, does not seem to capture the whole spectrum of academic success. In fact, although grades remain the most prevalent measure of success, they are not the only one. When we asked students to reflect a bit further, they reported that other factors ended up being more relevant than one's GPA.
One thing students mentioned consistently was the sense of accomplishment and success that they experienced when reaching a specific goal. Knowing that you have learned something and have improved yourself by learning seems to be just as important as grades. This connects to recent UNESCO insights that show how important it is to stress students' learning potential, which brings us back to the initial question: How can we improve both our grades and our broader academic accomplishments this year?
Helping ourselves to ensure academic success
When we look at academic performance, we tend to have a narrow focus and mainly consider elements that are study-related. We intuitively associate better performance with studying more and possibly with reducing time spent doing other activities, such as social outings, sports, or anything we may enjoy doing in our free time. However, research shows that the less time we devote to these positive health behaviors, the worse we perform academically. Luckily, students were well aware of the importance of having a study-life balance. They mentioned getting enough sleep, taking time for relaxation, exercising, eating well, and having meaningful social interactions as ways in which they supported their well-being.
Helping others to ensure academic success
Interestingly, research shows that actions that benefit others, known in research as "prosocial behaviors," such as helping others, sharing, and cooperating, may help us to engage and connect with others, build and maintain friendships, and thus contribute to our health, well-being, and academic success. For example, research has shown that students that are more prosocial are rated as more popular by their peers. Another study showed that those students who were more prosocial at the beginning of the year had better grades at the end.
The students we talked to shared these views and felt that their social relationships benefited their study performance. For others, the act of helping others enhanced their performance at university. However, more research is needed to understand how and why prosocial actions benefit academic success and student well-being, and we plan to explore this question in our upcoming research.
A matter of balance
So, to conclude, how can we do better than last year? We all want to achieve goals and do this as best we can. As we have seen, the best way to succeed is not to focus only on your studies. Make yourself a schedule that allows you to combine productive study days with social connections, prosocial behaviors, and moments of self-care. It's all a matter of balance.
Wickham, S. R., Amarasekara, N. A., Bartonicek, A., & Conner, T. S. (2020). The big three health behaviors and mental health and well-being among young adults: a cross-sectional investigation of sleep, exercise, and diet. Frontiers in Psychology, 11, 579205.
Dunn, E. W., Aknin, L. B., & Norton, M. I. (2008). Spending money on others promotes happiness. Science, 319(5870), 1687-1688.
Peters, E., Cillessen, A. H., Riksen-Walraven, J. M., & Haselager, G. J. (2010). Best friends’ preference and popularity: Associations with aggression and prosocial behavior. International Journal of Behavioral Development, 34(5), 398-405.
Oberle, E., Ji, X. R., & Molyneux, T. M. (2022). Pathways From Prosocial Behaviour to Emotional Health and Academic Achievement in Early Adolescence. The Journal of Early Adolescence, 02724316221113349.
Brouwer, J., & Engels, M. C. (2021). The role of prosocial attitudes and academic achievement in peer networks in higher education. European Journal of Psychology of Education, 1-18.