How Important Are Genetics in Learning?

Researchers have found that genetics significantly affect learning abilities. That's not to say, however, that academic achievement is entirely pre-determined. Learning environment does have an important effect on test scores, and possibly even more so in some cases.

According to a study of test scores of more than 11,000 identical and non-identical 16 year old twins, the degree to which students’ test scores differ was largely determined by genetics and less so by shared environment.  

Identical twins share 100% of their genes, whereas non-identical twins (or fraternal twins) share around half of their genes. Thus if the identical twins had test scores that were more alike than those of the non-identical twins, the difference in the test scores would be due to genetics.

Genetics and Environment

Indeed, the researchers found that genetics explained more than half (58%) of the differences in the students’ test scores for English, Mathematics, and Science.

Nearly a third (29%) of the differences in these core subject scores was further explained by environments, such as schools, families, and households.

Genetics help to explain the differences between individuals and why some children struggle with learning early on despite shared environments. It may also help explain why they continue to struggle with learning throughout their academic careers.

In addition, the researchers conclude that education models which are sensitive to individual abilities and needs -- which partly come from genetics -- might improve student achievement.

It is important not to forget the significant differences accounted for by environment in this study. It seems likely that for students living in the best and worst environments, that influence may make more of a difference to their educational performance than their genes.

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