Most talented students ‘don’t work as hard as other learners’

German analysis finds that undergraduates with the highest ability put in the fewest hours

July 3, 2017
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Brighter students say that they try less hard and study for fewer hours at university, according to new research that raises questions about how they can be spurred on to maximise their potential.

According to Adrian Chadi, co-author and a researcher at the Institute for Labour Law and Industrial Relations in the European Union at Trier University, “the talented guys provide less effort than others”.

The results come from a unique study of more than 4,400 German first-year undergraduates, which tested their reading and maths abilities, as well as asking them how long and hard they thought that they worked. The test results give a much better indication of students’ intrinsic “ability” than their grades, Dr Chadi explained, because grades are normally closely related to effort.

Students who did better on these tests reported that they felt they worked less hard and clocked up fewer hours of study.

One explanation is that some exams are tedious tests of rote memorisation, which students can revise for by cramming at the last minute. This type of exam in particular bored talented students who were “actually interested in learning something”, Dr Chadi said.

Grade inflation may also have damped the incentive to get a good mark by making top grades less marketable, according to “Young, Gifted and Lazy? The Role of Ability and Labor Market Prospects in Student Effort Decisions”, recently published as a discussion paper by the institute.

If this meant that students felt it necessary to get only “satisfactory” marks, bright students turned their talents to passing with the minimum of effort, Dr Chadi suggested. They could then use their extra time to focus on other curriculum vitae- and career-building activities, he added, or simply enjoy student life. “Maybe your free time is more valuable when you’re younger,” he suggested.

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For governments that fund higher education, “it’s a pity that the most talented guys do not provide the maximal effort,” Dr Chadi said, particularly in countries such as Italy and Germany, where there is concern that students can take too long to finish their degrees.

Academics should make their exams more challenging, he suggested, rather than testing how well students “memorised our [lecture] slides”.

One question is whether tuition fees ensure that talented students work harder. Dr Chadi said that in countries, such as the UK, where “people have to put in a lot of money” to study, there were fewer problems with students failing to finish on time.

But standardised tests of students’ abilities in other countries would need to be conducted in order to find out how widely these latest findings apply, he said.

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