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Learning and Individual Differences 36 (2014) 19–26

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Learning and Individual Differences

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Executive functioning difficulties as predictors of academic performance:

Examining the role of grade goals
Laura E. Knouse a,⁎, Greg Feldman b, Emily J. Blevins a,1
University of Richmond, 28 Westhampton Way, Richmond, VA 23173, USA
Simmons College, 300 Fenway, Boston, MA 02115, USA

a r t i c l e i n f o a b s t r a c t

Article history: Concepts related to self-regulation have emerged repeatedly in research on college academic achievement.
Received 5 November 2013 We hypothesized that self-reported executive functioning (EF) deficits would predict academic perfor-
Received in revised form 19 May 2014 mance and investigated whether grade goals could account for this relationship. In Study 1 we obtained
Accepted 18 July 2014
data on the Barkley Deficits in Executive Functioning Scale (BDEFS) and self-reported GPA from co-educa-
Available online xxxx
tional university students (N = 250). In Study 2, we collected BDEFS and GPA goals from students at a
women’s college (N = 229) and obtained grades from the registrar. EF deficits predicted GPA concurrently
Executive functioning and prospectively even when controlling for prior grades. Self-motivation problems were most consistently
Grade point average related to grades and mediation analysis revealed a significant indirect effect via lower grade goals. Howev-
Goal setting er, goals did not fully account for this relationship. While our results suggest potential value for goal-setting
interventions, additional measures to improve self-regulation are likely needed to help struggling students
with self-motivation problems.
© 2014 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

1. Introduction Baumeister, & Boone, 2004). Most recently, Richardson, Abraham, and
Bond (2012) conducted a comprehensive meta-analysis and identified
1.1. Background students' self-selected goals for their own grades, academic self-
efficacy, and effort regulation as the most consistent predictors of GPA
For decades, educational and social science researchers have been out of 42 psychological factors. Because “third factors” may be useful
interested in identifying factors that predict success in college, as in identifying which recently-admitted students may be in need of
measured by academic performance or grade point average (GPA), in additional services to improve academic outcomes and retention
order to improve students' academic outcomes (Crede & Kuncel, (Richardson et al., 2012), there is a need for additional research on pre-
2008). While high school GPA and scores on standardized tests like dictors of low GPA and changes in GPA over time that can be the target
the SAT and ACT are the most frequently used predictors of college of interventions.
success, they only account for about 25% of the variance in college Executive function (EF)—defined as self-regulation to achieve future
GPA, motivating investigations of so-called “third factors” as predictors goals—has far-ranging impact on daily functioning and quality of life
of academic performance (Robbins et al., 2004). Several such “third fac- and encompasses a broad array of self-directed cognitions and actions
tors” have received support in the literature including achievement mo- including problem-solving, working memory, impulse control, self-
tivation and academic self-efficacy (Robbins et al., 2004), study habits, motivation, and emotion regulation (Barkley, 2012a, 2012b). Executive
skills, and attitudes (Crede & Kuncel, 2008) and personality traits—in functioning in daily life is an excellent candidate for a “third factor” that
particular, conscientiousness and self-control (Conard, 2005; Noftle & would meaningfully predict college GPA. First, successful functioning in
Robins, 2007; O'Connor & Paunonen, 2007; Poropat, 2009; Tangney, college requires extensive self-regulation above and beyond what is re-
quired in high school. From class attendance to self-structured studying
to balancing multiple academic and non-academic pursuits, college stu-
dents must self-regulate their own learning in the face of distraction.
⁎ Corresponding author at: University of Richmond Department of Psychology, 28 Second, educational and developmental research has emphasized the
Westhampton Way, University of Richmond, VA 23221, USA. Tel.: +1 804 287 6347; importance of EF to successful academic functioning at earlier points
fax: +1 804 287 1905. in the developmental trajectory, from preschool through adolescence
E-mail addresses: (L.E. Knouse), (G. Feldman), (E.J. Blevins).
(Biederman et al., 2004; Duckworth, Tsukayama, & May, 2010; St.
Present address: University of Maryland, 2103 Cole Fieldhouse, College Park, MD Clair-Thompson & Gathercole, 2006; Valiente, Lemery-Chalfant, &
20742, USA. Swanson, 2010). Third, a few studies have begun to identify a link
1041-6080/© 2014 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
20 L.E. Knouse et al. / Learning and Individual Differences 36 (2014) 19–26

between academic functioning in young adults and laboratory tasks academic ability but was moderately associated with educational at-
tapping key aspects of executive cognition including working memory tainment and self-reported history of impairment in academic func-
and delay discounting or the willingness to wait for larger long-term tioning. Similarly, a separate study of 77 female college students
rewards (Cowan et al., 2005; Gropper & Tannock, 2009; Kirby, (Wingo et al., 2013) found that a different self-report measure of
Winston, & Santiesteban, 2005). EF was associated with self-rated academic impairment. However,
The present study contributes to this research by examining EF we are not aware of any study that has yet assessed the association
deficits evident in daily life with a brief multi-dimensional self- of self-ratings of EF deficits with actual grades. Furthermore, we test-
report measure called the Barkley Deficits in Executive Functioning ed the replicability of cross-sectional findings across samples of stu-
Scale—Short Form (BDEFS, Barkley, 2012a). Although EF is often dents at two colleges with distinct academic profiles.
assessed via laboratory tasks, the ecological validity of these tasks Our second aim, tested in Study 2, was to test whether concurrent
is often poor (Barkley & Murphy, 2011) and rating scales of EF associations would be replicated in prospective analyses. Research to
have been shown to out-perform lab tasks in predicting outcomes date on the BDEFS and earlier versions of the measure have focused
including occupational functioning (Barkley & Fischer, 2011; on its association with outcomes assessed concurrently and retro-
Barkley & Murphy, 2010), depression symptoms and diagnoses spectively (Barkley, 2012a). Prospective analyses are an important
(Knouse, Barkley, & Murphy, 2013), and an array of outcomes in step in the validation of any individual difference measure, but par-
college students (Wingo, Kalkut, Tuminello, Asconape, & Han, ticularly this one given the centrality of self-regulation in the service
2013). Importantly, the BDEFS allows an examination of the unique of future goals and desired states emphasized in the conceptualiza-
contribution of distinct aspects of EF to academic performance. It tion of EF that informed the development of this measure (Barkley,
consists of five subscales measuring deficits in various domains of 2012a). Relatedly, our third aim, tested in both Studies 1 and 2,
executive functioning: self-management to time (procrastination), was to examine unique contributions of each of the five BDEFS sub-
self-organization (information-processing inefficiency), self-restraint scales to the prediction of current and future GPA. Although the sub-
(impulsivity), self-motivation (difficulty with sustained effort), and scales are highly correlated with one another (Barkley, 2012a), as
self-regulation of emotions (delayed emotional recovery following described above, particular subscales might be expected to better
stressor). predict college academic performance (e.g., effort regulation) and
These facets of EF assessed by the BDEFS conceptually align with so we wished to examine whether any subscales appeared to
constructs that have been previously linked to GPA. In particular, uniquely predict GPA.
the role of self-motivation with respect to academic tasks has Our fourth and fifth aims, addressed in Study 2, involved further
emerged in several studies. Richardson et al.'s (2012) meta- examining the relationship between EF deficits and grades using goal-
analysis identified effort regulation, defined as the ability to main- setting theory. Because the EF construct emphasizes self-regulation in
tain effort in the face of academic challenge, as one of the most the service of future goals, we reasoned that the goals that students
strongly correlated with academic performance (r = .32) even set for themselves might be an important factor in the relationship be-
when taking into account high school GPA and standardized test tween EF deficits and GPA. The recent comprehensive meta-analysis
scores (β = .22). Personality studies show that achievement striving by Richardson et al. (2012) identified “grade goal” as one of the three
and self-discipline, akin to self-motivation, are the facets of consci- “non-intellective” constructs with the strongest correlation to college
entiousness with the strongest and most consistent relationships to grades. Grade goal (r = .35) included students' self-reports of their
GPA (O'Connor & Paunonen, 2007). goal grades or expected grades on an assignment or in a course. Grade
Other constructs measured by the BDEFS may also be expected goal continued to predict college grades above and beyond high school
to predict GPA based on prior research. The relevance of the self- GPA and standardized test scores (β = .17). Notably, the studies cited in
management to time construct is supported by prior studies on the Richardson et al. (2012) and others published previously (Locke &
role of procrastination in GPA (Richardson et al., 2012). The relevance Bryan, 1968; Wood & Locke, 1987) show an association between
of self-organization and self-restraint is conceptually supported by grade goal and later grade in a single course but none provide data on
research on working memory and delay discounting (Cowan et al., whether grade goal predicts semester GPA. Thus, our fourth aim was
2005; Gropper & Tannock, 2009; Kirby et al., 2005). In contrast, to test whether students' self-selected grade goals correlated with
self-regulation of emotions might not be expected to correlate as later semester GPA.
strongly with GPA. Emotion dysregulation is a facet of EF has been con- For our fifth aim, we were interested in examining whether lower
sistently linked to psychopathology in college student samples (Aldao, grade goals account for (mediate) the relationship between EF deficits
Nolen-Hoeksema, & Schweizer, 2010; Feldman, Knouse, & Robinson, and academic performance. This hypothesis emerges from Locke and
2013); however, the effects of emotional distress per se on GPA are Latham's (1990) goal-setting theory. Goal-setting theory, a theory of
less clear. For instance, neuroticism and symptoms of depression tend motivation, states that goals regulate behavior such that difficult goals
to exhibit weak and inconsistent associations with GPA (Richardson lead to greater persistence and effort than easy goals or vague encour-
et al., 2012). Taken together, the present study can help to clarify agement to “do your best,” and thus lead to better task performance.
which facets of EF suggested by prior research are most strongly linked Goals have been found to mediate or partially mediate the effects of
to GPA. other variables, including personality traits, on performance (Locke &
Latham, 2006). Students' grade goals, for example, have been shown
1.2. Study aims to partially mediate the impact of goal orientation and personality char-
acteristics derived from self-determination theory on academic perfor-
The first aim of our study was to evaluate whether the BDEFS rat- mance (Lee, Sheldon, & Turban, 2003; VandeWalle, Cron, & Slocum,
ing scale measure of EF deficits in daily life would predict cumulative 2001). We are not aware of any studies that have tested goal-setting
college GPA concurrently. In Study 1, we examined the association of as a mediator between EF deficits and academic performance. Thus,
BDEFS with self-reported GPA in a large sample of students at a co- based on prior research and the importance of goal-directed action in
educational institution to establish whether EF deficits were associ- the EF construct, we hypothesize that students with EF deficits set
ated with academic performance. In Study 2 we examined the asso- lower goals and that this contributes to poorer academic performance.
ciation to grades obtained from the registrar in a sample of Importantly, when testing the possible mediating role of self-selected
students at a women's college. Validation research of the BDEFS in goals on later semester GPA, we took into account students' prior
a nationally representative sample of adults (Barkley, 2012a) found college performance (cumulative GPA from the previous semester).
that the scale was not strongly correlated with intelligence or Students' grade goals are strongly related to their past performance
L.E. Knouse et al. / Learning and Individual Differences 36 (2014) 19–26 21

(Wood & Locke, 1987) and thus taking prior semester performance into (procrastination/poor planning), self-organization/problem solving
account provides a rigorous test of the impact of grade goal and (information processing difficulties/cognitive inflexibility), self-restraint
enhances the applicability of our results to possible interventions. (impulsivity), self-motivation (low/inconsistent effort and work quality),
In sum, we tested the following hypotheses: and self-regulation of emotions (delayed recovery from negative emo-
tions). Subscale items are those that loaded most strongly on each factor
1) EF deficits as measured by the BDEFS will predict lower GPA in
from the BDEFS Long Form. The BDEFS was normed on a large nationally
cross-sectional analyses in two different college samples (Studies
representative sample of adults (n = 1240) and has demonstrated reli-
1 and 2).
ability and validity (Barkley, 2012a). Internal consistency of the overall
2) EF deficits will predict lower GPA in prospective analyses, above and
BDEFS scale and subscales in this sample was acceptable: Total score
beyond prior academic performance (Study 2).
(α = .87), self-management to time (α = .78), self-organization and
3) Self-management to time and self-motivation deficits will be the
problem-solving (α = .73), self-restraint (α = .73), self-motivation
most strongly and uniquely related to GPA across the analyses
(α = .78), and self-regulation of emotions (α = .90).
(Studies 1 and 2).
4) Students' self-selected grade goals will correlate with their subse- Grade point average (GPA). Cumulative college GPA was
quent academic performance (semester GPA; Study 2).
self-reported by participants at the time of study participation.
5) Grade goals will mediate the relationship between EF deficits and
subsequent GPA when controlling for past academic performance
2.2. Results
(cumulative GPA; Study 2).
The association between difficulties in executive functioning total
2. Study 1 score and subscale scores and cumulative college GPA was first
assessed with zero-order correlations (Table 1, first column). Deficits
2.1. Method in self-motivation, self-management to time, self-organization and
the BDEFS total score were significantly negatively correlated with
2.1.1. Participants and procedure cumulative GPA. Self-restraint was also negatively associated with
A sample of 314 undergraduates was recruited over two semes- GPA, although less strongly so. Unexpectedly, deficits in emotion
ters at a small, private co-educational university in the Southeastern regulation showed a small but significant positive association with
U.S. that is classified as a National Liberal Arts College and rated as cumulative GPA.
“more selective” (U.S. News and World Report Best Colleges To evaluate unique contributions of each BDEFS subscale, we
Ranking, 2013). The sample analyzed for this study (N = 250) in- conducted a multiple regression analysis with all subscales entered
cluded those who had a self-reported cumulative college GPA and simultaneously as predictors (Table 2, first column). Self-motivation
complete data for the BDEFS. 56 participants were first semester stu- problems emerged as the strongest negative predictor of GPA, while
dents who were excluded from analyses because they had not yet re- self-regulation of emotions continued to show a positive relationship
ceived grades in college. An additional 6 participants did not answer in the context of the other subscales. Weaker, but still significant, was
this question. The participants who did not answer the GPA question the negative association between self-organization and problem-
did not differ from those retained for analyses on any of the BDEFS solving deficits and GPA.
scales. Two additional participants with GPA data did not complete
the BDEFS. 2.3. Discussion
Of the 250 undergraduate students who had complete data (Age:
M = 19.76, SD = 1.13), 71.6% identified as White, 11.2% as Asian Study 1 initially established that EF deficits are associated with aca-
or Pacific Islander, 15.2% as Black or African-American, 4% as Native demic performance of college students. In this sample, executive func-
American, and 9.6% self-identified as “Other.” (Note that participants tioning deficits as measured by the BDEFS total score was negatively
could indicate more than one race.) 8.8% of participants self-identi- correlated with self-reported GPA (r = −.18). Our analyses, however,
fied as Hispanic. Data on gender were not recorded for 22% partici- support using BDEFS subscales rather than the total score, as individual
pants due to a software programming error. Of those who were subscales were more strongly related to GPA. Of note, one subscale
administered the question assessing gender, 31.3% were male and (emotion regulation) positively predicted GPA, which may have weak-
68.7% were female. Participants were recruited through a variety of ened the negative total score association.
means including introductory psychology students who received The subscale measuring self-motivation problems showed the
course credit for participation (28%) as well as students who were strongest and most consistent negative association with GPA across
recruited from campus (72%) who received $5 in exchange for zero-order correlations (r = − .32) and the regression analysis con-
participation. trolling for the other subscales (β = − .25). As mentioned previous-
All data collection procedures were approved by the relevant ly, the construct of effort regulation emerged as one of the strongest
Institutional Review Board and participants completed informed con- predictors of college grades in the meta-analysis by Richardson et al.
sent procedures before participating. (2012) and thus the results of Study 1 conceptually replicate this
finding and confirm that students' ability to maintain consistent ef-
2.1.2. Measures fort towards goals is an important predictor of academic achieve-
ment in college. Barkley Deficits in Executive Functioning Scale—Short Form (BDEFS; Self-organization and problem-solving deficits were also negatively
Barkley, 2012a). This 20-item self-report scale measures executive func- associated with GPA in both sets of analyses. The items in this scale
tioning problems in daily life. The scale is designed to tap perceived tap difficulties with efficient information processing and cognitive
problems with self-regulatory behavior or “executive action,” which is flexibility. Managing diverse demands across a variety of courses may
related to but distinct from “executive cognition” as tapped by laboratory be particularly difficult for students with these types of difficulties. In
tasks of executive functioning (Barkley, 2012b). Participants rate the contrast to the other scales, emotion regulation problems, tapping the
frequency with which they have experienced each problem over the difficulty in recovering from negative emotions when upset, showed a
past six months on a four-point scale from “Never or Rarely” to positive association with self-reported GPA. This finding was puzzling
“Very Often.” This short form of the scale comprises five subscales given that prior studies do not support a consistent association between
of four items each tapping deficits in self-management to time GPA and the related construct of neuroticism. However, a recent study
22 L.E. Knouse et al. / Learning and Individual Differences 36 (2014) 19–26

Table 1
Association of BDEFS subscales and total scores to GPA in Samples 1 and 2.

Sample 1 Sample 2
N = 250, GPA self-reported N = 229, GPA data obtained from the registrar
(cumulative) (semester) (controlling for T1)
R r pr

Time −0.23⁎⁎⁎ −0.26⁎⁎⁎ −0.34⁎⁎⁎ −0.22⁎⁎
Organization −0.22⁎⁎⁎ −0.10 −0.12 0.06
Self-restraint −0.13⁎ −0.14⁎ −0.16⁎ −0.08
Motivation −0.32⁎⁎⁎ −0.27⁎⁎⁎ −0.39⁎⁎⁎ −0.29⁎⁎⁎
Emotion 0.14⁎ 0.12 0.00 −0.12
Total −0.18⁎⁎ −0.18⁎⁎ −0.29⁎⁎⁎ −0.23⁎⁎

BDEFS = Barkley Deficits in Executive Functioning Scale, GPA = grade point average.
⁎ p b .05.
⁎⁎ p b .01.
⁎⁎⁎ p b .001.

by De Feyter, Caers, Vigna, and Berings (2012) suggests that neuroticism replicate in a new sample of undergraduate students using grade data
may positively predict academic performance at higher levels of consci- obtained from the registrar. The second goal was to evaluate the associ-
entiousness and self-efficacy. If this describes the college sample in ation of the BDEFS and its subscales with GPA prospectively, controlling
Study 1, then the positive relationship between emotion regulation for prior college performance (Time 1 cumulative GPA). The third goal
problems and GPA may not generalize to other samples. We examined of Study 2 was to examine goal-setting as a possible mediator of the
whether this finding replicated by conducting the same analyses in effects of self-motivation problems—the most robust EF predictor of
Study 2. GPA emerging from both studies.
Study 1 provided preliminary evidence for links between aca-
demic performance in college and executive functioning deficits 3.1. Method
but this study had a number of limitations. One limitation is the
use of self-reported GPA. Self-reported GPA is commonly used in 3.1.1. Participants and procedure
studies of correlates of college academic achievement (Kuncel, Data in Study 2 were collected over two semesters from undergrad-
Credé, & Thomas, 2005); furthermore, there is evidence that self- uate students attending a small, private women's college in the North-
report GPA is highly correlated with grades obtained directly from eastern U.S. classified as a Regional University and rated “selective”
a college registrar (Noftle & Robins, 2007). Nonetheless, there is (U.S. News and World Report Best Colleges Ranking, 2013). Students
some concern that self-reported GPA may be systematically biased. participated in this study in exchange for credit applied towards a
Specifically, students with lower prior achievement (as measured psychology course in which they were enrolled. After completing an
by college entrance exams) are often less accurate in grade recall in-person survey in a laboratory session, participants were asked to
than those with higher prior achievement (Kuncel et al., 2005). A provide consent for the college Office of the Registrar to release to inves-
second limitation of Study 1 was the use of a cross-sectional design tigators the participant's cumulative GPA (as of the prior semester) and
which in effect tests the retrospective association between academic semester GPA at the end of the semester once final grades had been
performance in the prior semesters with EF rated in the subsequent submitted. Questionnaire data was collected five-to-eight-weeks before
semester. As such, the goals of Study 2 included both replicating the completion of final exams from 302 students. Permission was
and extending the results of Study 1 using GPA data obtained from denied by 46 participants and granted by 256. Of those granting permis-
a registrar and a prospective design. sion, 27 were first-semester students who did not have a prior semester
cumulative GPA and were excluded from analyses, resulting in a final
3. Study 2 sample of 229 participants (Age: M = 19.98, SD = 2.75). In terms of
ethnicity, 77.7% identified as White, 9.2% as Asian or Pacific Islander,
The first goal of Study 2 was to determine whether key findings on 3.1% as Black or African-American, 9.6% circled two or more ethnicities
the association EF deficits with self-reported GPA from Study 1 would or circled “Other,” and .4% left this item blank. 94.8% identified as

Table 2
Linear regression predicting GPA in Samples 1 and 2.

Sample 1 Sample 2
N = 250, GPA self-reported N = 229, GPA data obtained from the registrar
(cumulative) (semester) (controlling for T1 cumulative GPA)
R2 = .13 R2 = .17 R2 change = .05
β β β

Time −.12 −.16 −.16⁎ −.06
Organization −.18⁎ −.04 .02 .04
Self-restraint .03 −.08 −.03 .02
Motivation −.25⁎⁎ −.17⁎ −.30⁎⁎⁎ −.19⁎⁎
Emotion .26⁎⁎⁎ .21⁎⁎ .08 −.05

BDEFS = Barkley Deficits in Executive Functioning Scale, GPA = grade point average.
⁎ p b .05.
⁎⁎ p b .01.
⁎⁎⁎ p b .001.
L.E. Knouse et al. / Learning and Individual Differences 36 (2014) 19–26 23

non-Hispanic, 4.4% identified as Hispanic, and .9% left this item blank. All emotion regulation problems were again positively associated with
participants were female. Students completed this survey in exchange GPA. Unique associations between emotion regulation deficits and
for credit applied towards a psychology course in which they were grades disappeared in the prospective analyses. Problems with time
enrolled. management were negatively associated with Time 2 semester GPA
but, again, self-motivation showed the strongest unique association
3.1.2. Measures with grades. Notably, the negative association between self-motivation
Participants completed the 20-item BDEFS (Barkley, 2012a) as de- problems and Time 2 grades continued to be significant when Time 1
scribed in Study 1. Internal consistency of the BDEFS total and subscale cumulative GPA was first entered into the model.
scores was acceptable: Total score (α = .86), Self-management to time In sum, across all analyses, self-motivation problems showed the
(α = .80), self-organization and problem-solving (α = .74), self- most consistent and robust relationship with past and future GPA.
restraint (α = .68), self-motivation (α = .72), and self-regulation of
emotions (α = .90).
3.2.2. Goal-setting, self-motivation, and GPA GPA. As described above, cumulative GPA (as of the prior semes-
ter) and semester GPA data were obtained from the college Office of the Goals and grades. We first examined the relationship between
Registrar for participants who provided consent. The group that denied students' GPA goals and grades in order to replicate Richardson et al.'s
permission to access GPA data did not differ from the 229 participants (2012) findings on grade goal and academic performance. As expected,
retained for analyses in terms of any of the BDEFS scales. zero-order correlations of students' GPA goals with both past and subse-
quent performance were significant and strong (Time 1 cumulative GPA Grade goals. Students responded to the statement, “This r = .69; Time 2 semester GPA r = .60; both p b .001). Self-motivation
semester, my GOAL for my GPA is:” by selecting one of eight categories deficits were negatively correlated with GPA goal, r = −.28; p b .001.
of grade ranges from A (4.0 to 3.86) to C− or lower (1.67 or less). We Thus, students with better past performance set higher goals and
decided to include both letter grades and GPA ranges in each response students with more self-motivation problems set lower goals.
option given that students may differ in terms of whether they
think about their personal grade goals as letter grades (which they
would receive on assignments, exams, and course semester grades) or GPA goal as a mediator between self-motivation problems and GPA.
semester grade point averages (which students would typically only Illustrated in Fig. 1, mediation analysis using PROCESS Model 4 showed
see when reviewing their transcript). that self-motivation problems had a direct negative impact on GPA
(−.07, p b .001). In addition, the indirect effect of self-motivation prob-
3.1.3. Plan of analysis lems on GPA via lower goals was also significant and negative (− .04;
We first repeated the analyses of Study 1 including correlations confidence interval of indirect effect = −.07 to −.02; 10,000 bootstrap
between cumulative GPA and BDEFS total score and subscale scores resamples used). Thus, the negative impact of self-motivation problems
and a multiple regression analysis with all subscales entered simulta- on later grades was both direct and indirect via an association with
neously. We also calculated zero-order correlations with Time 2 semes- lower grade goals. In terms of total effects, every one-unit increase
ter GPA and partial correlations with this variable controlling for Time 1 in self-motivation problems (12-point scale) was associated with a
cumulative GPA (Table 1) and multiple regression analyses predicting .11 unit decrease in Time 2 GPA.
these same outcomes with all BDEFS subscales entered simultaneously We next conducted this analysis controlling for students' Time 1 cu-
(Table 2). mulative GPA. Cumulative GPA was strongly related to Time 2 semester
In considering students' self-selected GPA goals, we first examined GPA (.58, p b .001). Although the magnitude of the relationships in the
correlations between goals and Time 1 cumulative and Time 2 semester mediation model was reduced, the pattern of results was similar. Self-
GPA to replicate prior work on grade goals. Next, we tested a simple me- motivation problems continued to have a direct negative impact on
diation model with GPA goal as the mediator between self-motivation GPA (− .06, p b .001). The indirect effect of self-motivation problems
problems and Time 2 semester GPA using Model 4 in PROCESS for on GPA via GPA goal was reduced but remained significant and negative
SPSS by Hayes (2013). Indirect effects were evaluated by examining (−.0056; confidence interval of indirect effect = −.0174 to −.0001).2
whether 95% bias corrected confidence intervals around the estimate, In light of the finding that students with greater self-motivation def-
derived from 10,000 bootstrap resamples, included zero. Next, we icits both set lower goals and achieve lower GPAs, one question left un-
repeated this analysis controlling for Time 1 cumulative GPA to see answered by the mediation analysis is whether students with lower
whether effects would hold. self-motivation actually attain the goals that they set for themselves.
We performed an exploratory analysis to examine this question. We
3.2. Results first converted semester Time 2 GPA into the eight category response
scale used in collecting students' grade goals [A (4.0 to 3.86) to C− or
3.2.1. EF deficits predicting GPA lower (1.67 or less)]. We then created a difference score to capture
Deficits in self-management to time and self-motivation, as well any discrepancy between goal and achieved GPA (Time 2 GPA—goal)
as the BDEFS total score, were significantly associated with cumulative such that positive scores on this variable would reflect exceeding
Time 1 GPA and prospectively with Time 2 semester GPA in zero-order one's stated goal. In this analysis, self-motivation problems were
correlations and in partial correlations controlling for Time 1 cumulative negatively correlated with this difference score (r = − .24, p b .001),
GPA (Table 1). Self-restraint was also associated with GPA concurrently suggesting that individuals with poor self-motivation fall further short
and prospectively, but not when controlling for prior cumulative GPA. of achieving their goals.
Although not significant, the positive association between deficits in
emotion regulation and cumulative GPA observed in Study 1 was repli-
cated in Study 2, yet the prospective association was not significant 2
We decided to focus on the self-motivation subscale rather than the BDEFS total score
and actually became a negative, non-significant relationship after con- in these analyses because of the heterogeneity of associations observed in Study 1 and
trolling for prior cumulative GPA. Study 2 between GPA and the separate EF subscales that make up the EF total score (in
particular, emotion regulation). Nonetheless, we repeated the mediator analyses in this
Follow-up multiple regression analysis evaluating unique contribu- section using the EF total score as the predictor. The pattern of results was similar although
tions of BDEFS subscales (Table 2) showed that self-motivation prob- the magnitude of the effects was more modest and the indirect effect of BDEFS on Time 2
lems were negatively associated with Time 1 cumulative GPA and GPA via grade goal did not reach significance.
24 L.E. Knouse et al. / Learning and Individual Differences 36 (2014) 19–26

Fig. 1. Self-motivation problems predict subsequent GPA directly and indirectly via grade goals.

3.3. Discussion modify behavior (e.g., study more or in a different way), modify goals
(e.g., aim for a B +), or both. However, it is likely that such normative
Results from Study 2 replicate and confirm the particular importance processes in self-regulation may go awry in individuals with deficits in
of self-motivation deficits among the facets of EF problems measured by executive functioning. This is suggested by our finding that students
the BDEFS in predicting academic performance. This factor was the with self-motivation deficits show greater discrepancies between their
strongest and most unique predictor of GPA prospectively and when self-identified goals and their actual performance. Unfortunately, any
controlling for prior cumulative GPA. In further understanding the rela- potential calibration (or lack thereof) in grade goals resulting from EF
tionship between self-motivation deficits and subsequent grades, set- deficits cannot be determined in the current design. Thus, a promising
ting lower goals partially explained why students with self-motivation area for future research would be to examine the degree to which
problems attain lower grades. Importantly, this result held when students with varying executive functioning abilities modify their
controlling for prior cumulative GPA suggesting that the association grade goals throughout the semester as feedback on individual assign-
between goals and later performance was not simply an artifact of ments become available.
students anchoring their goals to their prior performance. However, Overall, Study 2 confirmed the unique importance of self-motivation
our mediation analysis also demonstrated an enduring direct effect of deficits as a facet of EF that concurrently and prospectively predicted
self-motivation problems on subsequent grades, suggesting that addi- academic performance above and beyond past college grades. Study 2
tional processes beyond setting low goals contribute to this association. also identified a partial mediator of the effects of self-motivation
In addition, we found that self-motivation problems were associated problems—grade goals—and supports the idea that students with self-
not only with lower grades compared to other students but also with motivation problems set lower goals and then are less likely to achieve
a greater likelihood of failing to meet one's self-selected goal. Thus, those goals. Study 2 also indicated that additional processes other than
students with self-motivation problems tend to both set lower goals goal-setting must operate to connect self-motivation deficits to grade
than their peers and be less likely to meet those already-lower goals. outcomes.
In comparing the results of Study 1 and Study 2, self-management
to time also emerged in Study 2 as a predictor of past and future 4. Summary and conclusions
GPA—however, this facet did not consistently predict grades when
self-motivation problems were included in the model. As in Study 1, The present study examined the concurrent and prospective associ-
emotion regulation deficits showed some evidence of a positive relation- ations of a brief self-report measure of deficits in executive functioning
ship with concurrent cumulative GPA—however, it did not predict (EF) in daily life with grade point averages in college students. Overall,
subsequent GPA in any of the Study 2 analyses suggesting that this findings support deficits in EF as an important individual difference
facet may not be a useful predictor of academic performance over time. that may help to identify emerging adults at risk of academic difficulties.
The prospective design of Study 2 is a significant strength, allowing Correlation analyses revealed that overall EF deficits (as indexed by the
us to make stronger inferences about the effects of executive function- BDEFS total score) was associated with cumulative GPA in both samples
ing on later academic performance. However, as noted previously, as well as prospectively associated with subsequent GPA, even after
BDEFS assessments took place mid-semester—five-to-eight-weeks be- accounting for cumulative GPA. As such, this result indicates that
fore the completion of final exams—and so it is possible that students' deficits in EF in daily life are a predictor of impaired future academic
knowledge of grades from the first half of the semester informed their performance.
self-assessment of EF deficits mid-semester. Furthermore, the mid- Deficits in self-motivation in particular showed the strongest and
semester assessment of goals may reflect a goal that has already been most consistent relationships with GPA across samples and methods.
calibrated in response to grades on earlier assignments. Future research Self-motivation deficits predicted future GPA above and beyond cumu-
would benefit from assessment of EF deficits prior to the start of the lative GPA. Importantly, this finding is consistent with Richardson et al.'s
semester to provide a more pure test of the predictive utility of this (2012) findings with respect to the construct of effort regulation. This
measure of EF functioning. construct was one of the most strongly correlated with college academic
Central to theories of self-regulation (e.g., Carver & Scheier, 1998) is performance when taking into account high school GPA and standard-
the idea that behavior is regulated by feedback control processes. For ized test scores. It included the Learning and Study Strategies Inventory
example, a student sets a semester grade goal of earning an A − the (LASSI; Weinstein & Palmer, 2002) motivation subscale (e.g., “Even if I
first week of classes; a month later she earns a B on the first exam. do not like an assignment a course, I am able to get myself to work on
This feedback (in the form of the exam grade) on her progress towards it.”) and the Motivated Strategies for Learning Questionnaire (MSLQ;
the semester grade goal would trigger anxiety and signal a need to Pintrich, Smith, Garcia, & Mckeachie, 1993) effort regulation subscale
L.E. Knouse et al. / Learning and Individual Differences 36 (2014) 19–26 25

(e.g., “I work hard to do well in this class even if I don't like what we are Strengths of the present study include the use of two independent
doing.”), thus tapping the ability of students to put forth effort in samples to examine the association of EF deficits to academic achieve-
contexts that provide little extrinsic or even intrinsic motivation. Our re- ment at two colleges with distinct academic profiles. Specifically, Sample
sults confirm the importance of students' ability to generate consistent 1 was drawn from a national liberal arts college rated as “more selective”
effort and suggest that more general problems in self-motivation (not whereas Sample 2 was drawn from a “selective” regional university
just those directly related to academic tasks) may predict academic per- (U.S. News and World Report Best Colleges Ranking, 2013). Our study
formance as well. Beyond measures of ability and past performance, demonstrated a relationship with actual grades obtained from the regis-
success in college appears to rely on the capacity and willingness trar, not just with students' self-reported GPA. Another strength of this
to apply one's self consistently to tasks that are not inherently study is the use of prospective design to extend the cross-sectional
reinforcing. results of Study 1. The demonstration that EF deficits exert an effect
To better understand the relationship between self-motivation upon subsequent GPA suggests that measuring EF deficits can help to
problems and GPA, we examined it through the lens of goal-setting, as identify individuals at-risk for future poor academic performance. A
prior work has identified students' grade goals as a robust predictor of third strength of the study was our attempt to further examine the rela-
academic performance (Locke & Bryan, 1968; Richardson et al., 2012; tionship between self-motivation problems and grades via students'
Wood & Locke, 1987) and a mediator between other more distal vari- goals, a mechanism that is suggested by theory on EF (Barkley, 2012b)
ables such as personality and academic performance (Lee et al., 2003; as well as prior research on college academic performance (Richardson
VandeWalle et al., 2001). First, we were able to replicate the strong cor- et al., 2012) and motivation more broadly (Locke & Latham, 1990).
relation between students' goals and their past and current academic The limitations of our study must also be considered in interpreting
performance (r = .60 and .69) using cross-course GPAs. In contrast, our findings and considering directions for future studies. First, the use
past studies have only reported associations between goals and grades of a college student sample may limit generalizability in that the full
in single courses. Next, through mediation analysis, we found that spectrum of EF deficits may not be represented given that EF deficits
self-motivation problems predicted setting lower GPA goals and that have been shown to be associated with lower levels of academic attain-
this had a significant indirect effect on later grades. However, a direct ment in prior research (Barkley, 2012a). Furthermore, both samples
effect of self-motivation problems on grades remained, which suggests were drawn from private institutions and it would be important to as-
that—in addition to setting lower goals—other processes operate to sess whether results replicate to students in a range of higher education
translate general self-motivation problems into poorer academic per- settings including public 2- and 4-year colleges and universities. Second,
formance. The fact that students with more self-motivation problems Sample 2 consisted exclusively of female students attending a women's
not only set lower goals but were less likely to achieve those goals college. While this allowed us to generalize the results of Study 1,
also hints at the operation of processes beyond goal-setting. Future which took place at a co-educational institution, to a women's college,
studies should measure other processes that may connect self- additional research on grade goals as a mediator of the association of
motivation deficits to academic outcomes—for example, failure to use self-motivation deficits and GPA will be needed in male college students
specific self-motivational strategies or proportion of time spent on as well as female students attending co-educational institutions. Third,
academic vs. non-academic pursuits. the present analyses were limited to students who had already com-
These findings have implications for the use of goal-setting interven- pleted one semester of college to allow for statistical control of prior ac-
tions to improve academic performance for students with self-motivation ademic performance. The role of EF deficits in predicting performance
problems as emphasized by Richardson et al. (2012). First, our results and retention of first-semester students (above and beyond high school
suggest that encouraging students to set more ambitious goals may be GPA and entrance exam scores) would be a valuable area for further re-
an important element of interventions to improve academic performance search. Fourth, although we found relationships between self-reported
and increase motivation. However, the results of our mediation analysis EF deficits and academic achievement in the current study, readers
also suggest that goal-setting cannot fully account for the relationship be- should interpret our findings in light of the limitations of self report
tween self-motivation difficulties and academic problems, suggesting and future research should assess the extent to which scores on the
that interventions must also focus on improving other self-regulation BDEFS relate to other measures of self-regulation problems such as
skills rather than simply encouraging students to set higher goals and other-report (peers, instructors), self-ratings obtained through ecologi-
providing encouragement to achieve them. Indeed, our results suggest cal momentary assessment, and specific self-regulation behaviors
that the goals of students with low self-motivation may overshoot their relevant to an academic setting. Finally, in this study, we did not manip-
subsequent accomplishments. One-dimensional interventions are un- ulate goal setting and so we cannot make causal inferences either
likely to ameliorate EF-related academic problems and students in need from our own results or from the prior correlational studies on goal-
are likely to require additional self-regulatory tools to fully translate setting and grades. These ideas need to be directly evaluated using
higher goals into actual achievement. In other words, more ambitious randomized-controlled intervention studies comparing the efficacy of
goal-setting may be a necessary—but not sufficient—element in improv- interventions teaching use of compensatory self-regulatory skills such
ing academic functioning for students with self-regulation problems. as goal setting and motivation enhancement.
Given the prominent role of self-motivation and effort regulation in The relationship between EF deficits and other outcomes critical to
predicting GPA, students may benefit from training in using self- college adjustment deserves further study. EF deficits assessed by the
regulation strategies such as self-reinforcement to help them complete BDEFS have been shown to be associated with depression symptoms
less intrinsically rewarding academic tasks. For example, students could in college students (Feldman et al., 2013). In a separate study, EF
learn to implement the Premack principle (Danaher, 1974) for avoided assessed with a different rating scale was also found to be associated
tasks whereby they allow themselves to engage in a desired activity with depression as well as other markers of impairment in college stu-
(e.g., watching an episode of Arrested Development on Netflix) only dents including academic, interpersonal, and substance use problems
after meeting a specific target for an undesired activity (e.g., reading (Wingo et al., 2013). EF deficits may also be involved in other health
20 pages of an uninteresting textbook chapter). Of course, students behaviors of college students (eating pathology, risky sexual practices,
would need to habitually rely on strategies like these if they are to irregular sleep habits). If the BDEFS is found to predict a variety of out-
have a long-term impact on their ability to self-regulate. Fortunately, comes, it could be a relatively cost-effective tool for identifying students
there is growing evidence from the literature on skills-based treatments at-risk for a range of negative outcomes early in their college careers.
for adult ADHD—a disorder of self-regulation—that people can learn Our findings support the value of assessment of EF deficits in re-
to consistently use skills to ameliorate their self-regulation deficits search on academic achievement in college students and support the
(Safren et al., 2010; Solanto et al., 2010). utility of the BDEFS as a brief, non-invasive measure of this construct.
26 L.E. Knouse et al. / Learning and Individual Differences 36 (2014) 19–26

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