Disentangling test performance


Dr. Trudie Schils (Dept. of Economics), Dr. Bas ter Weel (Dept. of Labour Market and Welfare State) and Eva Feron (Dept. of Economics)

Co-operation with Secondary school in Limburg.

Further information

Introduction and position in the current literature
Cognitive skills are a good predictor for future outcomes. Not only do individuals with higher levels of cognitive skills earn more, they are also happier and healthier. But, there is more. Cognitive skills predict some 30 percent of the variation in performance leaving the other 70 percent unexplained Recently, economists have started to investigate the relationship between otherĀ skills and individual outcomes (e.g. discipline, motivation). A recent and burgeoning literature shows that achievement tests do not just measure cognitive skills or ability but load substantially on personality traits. The conclusion from this literature is that there is a lot to gain from disentangling the contribution of cognitive and noncognitive skills in determining future success.

The research we propose here builds on this literature by conducting an experiment to disentangle the components of achievement tests that contribute to students’ later success. The purpose is to show the predictors of educational success of students in secondary education. We do so in an economic fashion by studying the trade-offs these children make in answering questions on an achievement test. The idea is that test scores depend both on the ability to come up with the correct answer within a time limit and on the choice how much time to spend on answering each question. In this way we establish an economic interpretation of test performance distinguishing the production function (ability) and investment decision (choice). A new experimental approach allows us to estimate test scores that would have been established keeping investments constant and to investigate how personality traits determine the choice of how much time to invest in each question.

Research questions / hypotheses
How can noncognitive skills be read from test scores?

What is the relation between both the noncognitive and cognitive skills and student performance?

Research methods
Field experiment at secondary school where about 150 students who will participate in the experiment. Following Caplin (2009) it is measured how the probability of a correct answer depends on the time spent thinking about the answer and on the exact point in time subjects choose to answer. Within the time frame of this study we will review later performance by analyzing exam grades.


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  2. Duckworth, A. L. and M.E.P. Seligman (2005), Self-discipline outdoes IQ in predicting academic performance of adolescents, Psychological Science 16(12): 939-944.
  3. Duckworth, A.L., Quinn, P.D., Lynam, D., Loeber, R., Moffit, T., & Caspi, A. (2010), `What intelligence tests test: Individual differences in test motivation and IQ, Unpublished manuscript, University of Pennsylvania.
  4. Schils (2011), De leerlingen in het derde jaar van het voortgezet onderwijs in Limburg: sociale achtergrond en schoolprestaties, basisrapportages Inventaar 2010 (diverse rapporten), Kaans: Maastricht University.
  5. Borghans, L., H. Meijers, and B. ter Weel (2008b), The role of noncognitive skills in explaining cognitive test scores, Economic Inquiry, 46(1): 2-12.
  6. Caplin, A. (2009), Framing effects, search and choice: A new Experimental paradigm, New York University.