It’s Still Socioeconomic Status: Unravelling the influence of Social Origins on Students’ Learning Attitudes and Beliefs

Author: Dr Cheng Yong Tan, Associate Professor, The University of Hong Kong

Most of us may have heard the refrain about how students’ social origins such as socioeconomic status (SES) can have a large influence on their academic achievement and by extension, occupational and life trajectories. Perhaps no scholars have catapulted this realization as prominently as Coleman and his colleagues (1966) in the Coleman Report almost 60 years ago. Since the publication of this influential work, many scholars have reported confirmatory evidence of the association between SES and student achievement (Sirin, 2005).

The rise of positive psychology has, however, turned the proverbial SES on its head. Specifically, proponents of positive psychology have sold the overtly optimistic, empowering idea that we can improve students’ learning outcomes by focusing on psychological attributes that matter to students, such as students’ learning attitudes and beliefs, instead of constraining social circumstances. This argument dismisses the role of SES in student learning and relegates SES to the margins (Donaldson et al., 2015).

When we juxtapose the SES and positive psychology literatures, one cannot but ask a hard question: Can we so easily influence the levels of students’ attitudes and beliefs regardless of their social origins?

I have addressed this question in a study recently published (Tan, 2022). In my study, I examine whether students’ attitudes and beliefs are influenced by their SES. I also compare the influence of SES on the one hand, and science classroom instructional processes and school science resources on the other, on students’ science achievement. My data come from 15-year-old 5,355 students and their parents in Hong Kong who participated in Programme in International Student Assessment 2015.

My analysis shows that students from families with higher levels of SES (as measured by parental educational attainment and occupational status and home educational and cultural resources) have higher levels of science achievement. These findings are expected and they allude to direct SES effects on student learning that mainstream researchers have been demonstrating in their studies.

What is intriguing is the second set of findings that, compared to students from disadvantaged families, students from higher SES families have more positive science attitudes and beliefs (namely, science epistemological beliefs, interest, and self-efficacy) which then contribute to their science achievement. These findings provide compelling evidence of indirect SES effects on student learning. They challenge the argument that we can improve students’ learning outcomes by working on their attitudes and beliefs per se. When I add the indirect to direct effects, I find that the total SES effect on students’ science achievement is 1.70 times that when we only include direct SES effects.

Furthermore, my analysis shows that science classroom instructional processes (namely, class disciplinary climate, inquiry-based teaching, teacher support for student learning, teachers’ direct instruction, teachers providing feedback, and teachers’ instructional adaptation to cater to student needs) only contribute marginally to students’ science achievement. School science resources are not related to students’ science achievement. The total SES effect (direct and indirect) is 268% that of the total effect for the six science classroom instructional processes. These findings highlight the relative influence of SES as compared to classroom processes or school resources.

The implications from this study are stark. First, SES has a larger influence on students’ learning outcomes than we may have realized. Students from higher-SES families benefit directly from their parental and home resources and indirectly via having more positive levels of learning attitudes and beliefs. The corollary is that the design of interventions to improve student motivation must at the very least consider students’ SES backgrounds to be efficacious.

Second, classroom instructional processes and school resources, desirable as they may seem, may not be as effective for improving student learning as we will expect them to be. These findings indicate the need for school leaders and teachers to deepen home-school collaboration to understand and address student needs, especially for students in disadvantaged families, so as to improve instructional effectiveness.

The third and last implication is that secondary school students are not impervious to the effects of social origins in their science learning. As our society becomes ever more integrated with advances in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), the study provides a clarion call for policymakers to address the impact of social origins on our youth’s learning attitudes and beliefs. Our youth, regardless of their familial SES, deserve an equal opportunity to be successful in school and life beyond.


Coleman, J. S., Campbell, E. Q., Hobson, C. J., McPartland, J., Mood, A. M., Weinfeld, F. D.,

& York, R. L. (1966). Equality of educational opportunity. US Government Printing Office.

Donaldson, S. I, Dollwet, M., & Rao, M. A. (2015). Happiness, excellence, and optimal

human functioning revisited: Examining the peer-reviewed literature linked to positive psychology. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 10(3), 185-195.

Sirin, S. R. (2005). Socioeconomic status and academic achievement: A meta-analytic review

of research. Review of Educational Research, 75(3), 417–453.

Tan, C. Y. (2022). Direct and indirect influences of familial socioeconomic status on students’

science achievement. Oxford Review of Education. Advance online publication.

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