Educational Achievement is Heritable: How Genetics Influence Our Learning

First Posted: Oct 08, 2014 08:44 AM EDT

Could education be heritable? New research has found that the high heritability of exam grades actually reflects many genetically influenced traits such as personality, behavior problems and self-efficacy--not just intelligence.

In order to better understand why exam grades seem to be heritable, the researchers examined 13,306 twins at age 16 who were part of the UK Twins Early Development Study (TEDS). These sets of twins were assessed on a range of cognitive and non-cognitive measures, and the researchers had access to their General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) scores.

Identical twins share 100 percent of their genes while non-identical twins share just 50 percent of their genes. Because these sets of twins share the same environment, the scientists were able to compared identical and non-identical twins to estimate the relative contributions of genetic and environmental factors.

"Previous work has already established that educational achievement is heritable," said Eva Krapohl, one of the researchers, in a news release. "In this study, we wanted to find out why that is. What our study shows is that the heritability of educational achievement is much more than just intelligence-it is the combination of many traits which are all heritable to different extents."

In the end, the researchers found that the heritability of GCSE scores was 62 percent. Individual traits were between 35 and 58 percent heritable, with intelligence being the most highly heritable.

"It is important to point out that heritability does not mean that anything is set in stone," said Krapohl. "It simply means that children differ in how easy and enjoyable they find learning and that much of these differences are influenced by genetics."

The findings reveal how and why grades may be heritable. Certain traits predispose a person to excel at learning, which explains why doing well at school is heritable. That said, nothing is set in stone and environment still plays a role.

The findings are published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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