Education Academic Achievement
Ricarda Steinmayr, Anja Meißner, Anne F. Weidinger, Linda Wirthwein
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 April 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 July 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756810-0108


Academic achievement represents performance outcomes that indicate the extent to which a person has accomplished specific goals that were the focus of activities in instructional environments, specifically in school, college, and university. School systems mostly define cognitive goals that either apply across multiple subject areas (e.g., critical thinking) or include the acquisition of knowledge and understanding in a specific intellectual domain (e.g., numeracy, literacy, science, history). Therefore, academic achievement should be considered to be a multifaceted construct that comprises different domains of learning. Because the field of academic achievement is very wide-ranging and covers a broad variety of educational outcomes, the definition of academic achievement depends on the indicators used to measure it. Among the many criteria that indicate academic achievement, there are very general indicators such as procedural and declarative knowledge acquired in an educational system, more curricular-based criteria such as grades or performance on an educational achievement test, and cumulative indicators of academic achievement such as educational degrees and certificates. All criteria have in common that they represent intellectual endeavors and thus, more or less, mirror the intellectual capacity of a person. In developed societies, academic achievement plays an important role in every person’s life. Academic achievement as measured by the GPA (grade point average) or by standardized assessments designed for selection purpose such as the SAT (Scholastic Assessment Test) determines whether a student will have the opportunity to continue his or her education (e.g., to attend a university). Therefore, academic achievement defines whether one can take part in higher education, and based on the educational degrees one attains, influences one’s vocational career after education. Besides the relevance for an individual, academic achievement is of utmost importance for the wealth of a nation and its prosperity. The strong association between a society’s level of academic achievement and positive socioeconomic development is one reason for conducting international studies on academic achievement, such as PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment), administered by the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development). The results of these studies provide information about different indicators of a nation’s academic achievement; such information is used to analyze the strengths and weaknesses of a nation’s educational system and to guide educational policy decisions. Given the individual and societal importance of academic achievement, it is not surprising that academic achievement is the research focus of many scientists; for example, in psychology or educational disciplines. This article focuses on the explanation, determination, enhancement, and assessment of academic achievement as investigated by educational psychologists.

General Overviews

The exploration of academic achievement has led to numerous empirical studies and fundamental progress such as the development of the first intelligence test by Binet and Simon. Introductory textbooks such as Woolfolk 2007 provide theoretical and empirical insight into the determinants of academic achievement and its assessment. However, as academic achievement is a broad topic, several textbooks have focused mainly on selected aspects of academic achievement, such as enhancing academic achievement or specific predictors of academic achievement. A thorough, short, and informative overview of academic achievement is provided in Spinath 2012. Spinath 2012 emphasizes the importance of academic achievement with regard to different perspectives (such as for individuals and societies, as well as psychological and educational research). Walberg 1986 is an early synthesis of existing research on the educational effects of the time but it still influences current research such as investigations of predictors of academic achievement in some of the large-scale academic achievement assessment studies (e.g., Programme for International Student Assessment, PISA). Walberg 1986 highlights the relevance of research syntheses (such as reviews and meta-analyses) as an initial point for the improvement of educational processes. A current work, Hattie 2009, provides an overview of the empirical findings on academic achievement by distinguishing between individual, home, and scholastic determinants of academic achievement according to theoretical assumptions. However, Spinath 2012 points out that it is more appropriate to speak of “predictors” instead of determinants of academic achievement because the mostly cross-sectional nature of the underlying research does not allow causal conclusions to be drawn. Large-scale scholastic achievement assessments such as PISA (see OECD 2010) provide an overview of the current state of research on academic achievement, as these studies have investigated established predictors of academic achievement on an international level. Furthermore, these studies, for the first time, have enabled nations to compare their educational systems with other nations and to evaluate them on this basis. However, it should be mentioned critically that this approach may, to some degree, overestimate the practical significance of differences between the countries. Moreover, the studies have increased the amount of attention paid to the role of family background and the educational system in the development of individual performance. The quality of teaching, in particular, has been emphasized as a predictor of student achievement. Altogether, there are valuable cross-sectional studies investigating many predictors of academic achievement. A further focus in educational research has been placed on tertiary educational research. Richardson, et al. 2012 subsumes the individual correlates of university students’ performance.

  • Hattie, John A. C. 2009. Visible learning: A synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement. London: Routledge.

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    A quantitative synthesis of 815 meta-analyses covering English-speaking research on the achievement of school-aged students. According to Hattie, the influences of quality teaching represent the most powerful determinants of learning. Thereafter, Hattie published Visible Learning for Teachers (London and New York: Routledge, 2012) so that the results could be transferred to the classroom.

  • OECD. 2010. PISA 2009 key findings. Vols. 1–6.

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    These six volumes illustrate the results of the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) 2009—the most extensive international scholastic achievement assessment—regarding the competencies of fifteen-year-old students all over the world in reading, mathematics, and science. Furthermore, the presented results cover the effects of student learning behavior, social background, and scholastic resources. Unlimited online access.

  • Richardson, Michelle, Charles Abraham, and Rod Bond. 2012. Psychological correlates of university students’ academic performance: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin 138:353–387.

    DOI: 10.1037/a0026838E-mail Citation »

    A current and comprehensive review concerning the prediction of university students’ performance, illustrating self-efficacy to be the strongest correlate of tertiary grade point average (GPA). Cognitive constructs (high school GPA, American College Test), as well as further motivational factors (grade goal, academic self-efficacy) have medium effect sizes.

  • Spinath, Birgit. 2012. Academic achievement. In Encyclopedia of human behavior. 2d ed. Edited by Vilanayur S. Ramachandran, 1–8. San Diego, CA: Academic Press.

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    A current introduction to academic achievement, subsuming research on indicators and predictors of achievement as well as reasons for differences in education caused by gender and socioeconomic resources. The chapter provides further references on the topic.

  • Walberg, Herbert J. 1986. Syntheses of research on teaching. In Handbook of research on teaching. 3d ed. Edited by Merlin C. Wittrock, 214–229. New York: Macmillan.

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    A quantitative and qualitative aggregation of a variety of reviews and quantitative syntheses as an overview of early research on educational outcomes. Walberg found nine factors to be central to the determination of school learning.

  • Woolfolk, Anita. 2007. Educational psychology. 10th ed. Boston: Pearson.

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    Woolfolk represents a comprehensive basic work that is founded on an understandable and practical communication of knowledge. The perspectives of students as scholastic learners as well as teachers are the focus of attention. Suitable for undergraduate and graduate students. Currently presented in the 12th edition.

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