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Blog post Part of series: BERA Conference 2023

Personality-sensitive pedagogies: A mixed-methods study of small-group interactions among 9–10-year-olds

Ben Knight, Senior Lecturer at University of the West of England

This pilot study sought to identify relationships between primary pupils’ personality profiles and their patterns of interaction during small group collaboration. In UK classrooms, pupils often collaborate in small groups, which has considerable learning benefits. Equality of participation is known to be important for the learning of all group members. However, not all children find interacting in groups equally easy.

Group learning can present challenges for pupils who tend towards introversion and anxiety (traits associated with shyness) and may signal vulnerability to poorer learning outcomes (Mjelve et al., 2019). Pupils with this combination of traits (our ‘Focus Pupils’) may experience challenges of increased inhibition during collaborative tasks, leading to less inclusive (and productive) group collaboration. This pilot (year 5 pupils, n=27) explored ways personality traits influence group learning. Our aim was to identify whether there was sufficient evidence of personality-related patterns in pupils’ behaviours to warrant further study and eventually make recommendations for personality-sensitive group work.

The study employed the Five Factor Model (FFM) of personality (known as the ‘Big Five’, see de Raad & Mlacic, 2015). In the FFM, personality is characterised by profiles derived from positions on continuums in each of five distinct traits:

  • Openness
  • Extraversion
  • Conscientiousness
  • Agreeableness
  • Neuroticism.

‘Group learning can present challenges for pupils who tend towards introversion and anxiety (traits associated with shyness) and may signal vulnerability to poorer learning outcomes.’

Pupils (n=27) completed a self-report pictorial personality questionnaire (Muris et al., 2005) from which we derived an FFM profile for each individual. These were used to identify pupils low in Extraversion, high in Neuroticism, or both, who became the ‘Focus Pupils’ for the study. Cohort FMM data enabled us to create groups of three to five pupils, each group including one or two Focus Pupils, to undertake a videoed collaborative task. Mixed Method Social Network Analysis (MMSNA) was used to code the type, frequency and direction of interactions between pupils to help us understand the structure of the networks (groups), participation levels and relative influence of each pupil (a measure known as Degree Centrality, see Grunspan et al., 2014).

‘Centrality’ rankings were created for each group and we applied a novel ‘ignored factor’ which calculated how frequently pupils were ignored by their peers. These quantitative data produced interim findings and some questions which prompted us to undertake qualitative analysis of the video data, this time looking for cues such as language used, tone of voice, body language and positioning. This offered explanations for some of the questions highlighted by the quantitative data and returned us to the network and personality data to help confirm, verify and explain our qualitative findings.

Overall findings suggest personality influences on group learning are complex, sometimes counterintuitive and certainly warrant further research. For example:

  1. Low Extroversion/high Neuroticism can, but does not always, predict low levels of active group participation.
  2. Personality traits of the other group members (particularly Openness, Agreeableness and Extraversion) influence participation of Focus Pupils.
  3. Grouping pupils low in Extroversion together results in more equal participation levels.
  4. Pupils with trait profiles typical of low participation, can compensate and participate at equivalent levels through the application of linguistic strategies.


This pilot study revealed that the understandable presumption that ‘shy’ pupils will struggle to participate in group work successfully can be, but may not always be, the case. The constellation of personalities within a small group clearly matters and presents both opportunities and potential obstacles for quieter pupils. We hope to build on this pilot by upscaling to a larger study involving greater numbers of pupils in the near future.

Ben Knight received the BERA Annual Conference 2023 – Research Methodology in Education SIG Best Presentation Award for the paper ‘Personality differences and small group classroom interactions among 9-11 year olds: A mixed methods analysis deriving recommendations for more personality-sensitive pedagogies’.


De Raad, B., & Mlacic, B. (2015). Big Five Factor Model, theory and structure. In International Encyclopedia of the Social & Behavioral Sciences (2nd ed.), pp. 559–566.

Grunspan, D., Wiggins, B., & Goodreau, S. (2014). Understanding classrooms through social network analysis: A primer for social network analysis in education research. CBE–Life Sciences Education, 13(2), 167–178.

Meisgeier, C., Swank, P., & Meisgeier, C. (1994). Implications and applications of psychological type to educational reform and renewal. Proceedings of the first biennial international conference on education of the Centre for Applications of Psychological Type (March 5–8, Gainsville, Florida).

Mjelve, L., Nyborg, G., Edwards, A., & Crozier, W. (2019). Teachers’ understandings of shyness: Psychosocial differentiation for student inclusion. British Educational Research Journal, 45(6), 1295–1311.  

Muris, P., Meesters, C. ,& Diederen, R. (2005). Psychometric properties of the Big Five Questionnaire for Children (BFQ-C) in a Dutch sample of young adolescents. Personality and Individual Differences, 38, 1757–1769.