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Does Orderliness Predict Academic Success?

At least one study suggests it does, says Gordon Cairns – but others highlight the potential issues with imposing excessive control…

  • Does Orderliness Predict Academic Success?

Newly published research based on data collected at the University of Electronic Science and Technology of China in Chengdu promises educational nirvana: a method to predict and therefore influence exam success which doesn’t involve genetically engineering super babies in the womb.

Entitled “Orderliness predicts academic performance”, the paper reports how researchers unobtrusively tracked the movements of almost 20,000 undergraduate students over the space of six years, recording when they ate or had showers.

This gave them far more accurate information than asking young adults on the campus to complete questionnaires about their daily habits.

It was discovered those whose daily timetable had fewer variations achieved better academic results, and was a better predictor of academic success than how diligently the students carried out their studies.

While orderliness might not be a behaviour to which we pay too much attention, the study’s authors conflate it with a personal quality most of us would love to possess – self-discipline: “Intuitively, students with higher orderliness are probably more self-disciplined since orderliness is an intrinsic personality trait that not only affects meals and showers but also acts on studying behaviours.”

Like real-life Harold Cricks – the hero of the 2006 comedy ‘Stranger Than Fiction’, played by Will Ferrell, whose life is so well ordered he counts the number of toothbrush strokes every morning – those who led a strictly timetabled life are far more likely to ace their exams.

What researchers haven’t discovered, is how this level of orderliness influences their emotional well-being.

Cricks, a brilliant mathematician and tax auditor, leads a life of depressing and monotonous regularity – is this what we want for our students?

Outside influence

This new research challenges the stereotypical image of the unkempt, absent-minded professor who, rather than having a regular lunch time, has his lunch regularly on his tie; his mind on higher and more intellectual pursuits than timetabled hygiene.

However, this information may be of more applicable use to those who want to maximise their academic performance, rather than strive for genius.

The advantage of the pursuit of orderliness is that it can be developed, unlike IQ, DNA or the wealth of the household the student is growing up in – all of which are, unfortunately, static.

The problem, which might be insurmountable, is this: how can a school influence behaviour which occurs off site?

Despite our knowledge about the importance of sleep for a pupil’s all round wellbeing for example, lack of shut-eye amongst teenagers is reaching epidemic proportions, with little that well meaning professionals can do to change their pupils’ late night habits.

There does seem to be a drive, though, to create a higher level of orderliness on-site. More and more school management teams seem to be looking for methods to run their institutions in a highly controlled manner.

One such school in Birmingham has decided to run the establishment based on the strict rule of one of the most controlling institutions in world history: a medieval Benedictine monastery.

The pupils have been ordered to move around the school buildings in complete silence, those who dare to utter a sound are punished by spending 20 minutes in detention.

Other educational programmes bought in by schools aim to impose edicts on those free radicals in the orderliness equation – the teachers.

One provider advocates teachers speaking from exactly the same script as each other when dealing with wayward students, for example; taking the desire for orderliness to the utmost extreme.

Finding focus

Before education authorities start putting trackers on the wrist of every student to record the regularity of their daily routine as a precursor to allowing them to sit exams – other research conflicts with that which came from China.

A Dutch study published in 2015 concluded that working in an untidy environment can cause people to be more focused on achieving their goals.

Bob Fennis and Jacob Wiebenga of the University of Groningen in the Netherlands recorded the behaviour of people in a chaotic environment, either created within a lab or the outside world.

The psychologists found that rather than being distracted by their surroundings to the extent they would be unable to work, the guinea pigs instead focused on the tasks they had been allocated.

The researchers concluded that as the experiment’s subjects couldn’t impose order on their surroundings, they imposed an ‘order’ on the tasks they had been assigned as a way of regaining control. This might be why students work well in the chaos of my classroom.

This leaves us with a conundrum: what is the right level of orderliness to impose on a class? While anything which promotes regular showering should be welcomed, educators will want to stay clear of the level of authority imposed by Ron Jones in California in 1968, which was dramatised in the film The Wave.

This history teacher demanded strict classroom rules, from standing up when answering questions to sitting with the correct posture.

Jones was conducting an experiment into people’s susceptibility to fascism – but this got out of control when he realised many of the pupils were enthusiastic adherents of the new, rule-based system.

Changing habits and encouraging intrinsic motivation, it would seem, is far more likely to achieve long-term desirable results than using rewards and punishment to banish chaos completely.


4 tips to promote positive orderliness

1 | Share the information

Although our ability to influence behaviour in the household is obviously limited, getting parents and carers on board to help their charges develop the skill of orderliness would be a good first step. Insisting on regular meal, shower and bed times in the home until the young adult gets into a routine, might be one of the simplest ways a parent can help their child improve academically.

2 | Promote self-discipline

Previous studies have shown that adolescents who are addicted to the internet go to bed at irregular times and can’t follow a routine; their daily life is disordered through the number of hours devoted to screen time. Rather than coming into conflict with your students about trying to limit their internet use, try a more positive approach by praising attempts to develop regular patterns in their life: coming to school on time, properly dressed and with homework complete.

3 | Take a subject specific approach

There is a tendency in educational management to impose a one size fits all approach; however when it comes to orderliness, there has to be flexibility. So much of what we do with young people is inspired to trigger their creativity, which would probably be inhibited by a strict orderly regime. While the songwriter Nick Cave might be inspired by going to his office each day and working a nine-to-five when creating music, this would strike me as exceptional in a creative environment.

4 | Encourage club membership

One predictor of a child’s orderly lifestyle might be regular attendance at the local Guides or Scouts group. The teenager who can continue to attend such a gathering, whatever the weather, alternative attractions or ‘can’t be botheredness’, is laying down resilience skills. Perhaps creating a lunch-time club with small rewards for perfect attendance might help build wider orderly routines into teenagers’ lives.


Gordon Cairns is an English and forest school teacher, who works in a unit for secondary pupils on the Autism Spectrum Disorder.

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