Indigenous psychological analysis of academic achievement in Korea: The influence of self-efficacy, parents, and culture

Uichol Kim*
Inha Fellow Professor, Inha University, Incheon, Korea

Young-Shin Park
Inha University, Incheon, Korea

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This paper examines the factors that contribute to the high educational achievement of Korean students. The authors outline the limitations of psychological and educational theories that emphasize the biological basis (i.e., innate ability, IQ), individualistic values (e.g., intrinsic motivation, ability attribution, and self-esteem), and structural features (e.g., high educational spending, small class size, and individualized instruction). Although the Korean government spends significantly less per student, class size is larger, cooperative learning is emphasized, and students have lower self-concepts, they outperform their Western counterparts in reading, mathematics, and sciences (National Center for Educational Statistics, 2000; Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, 2003). The indigenous psychology approach is used to examine factors that explain the high academic achievement of Korean students. Empirical studies that examine the role of self-efficacy at the individual level, social support at the relational level, and Confucian values at the cultural level are reviewed. First, Koreans view education as a part of self-cultivation that is pursued for its own sake and as a way to achieve personal, social, and occupational success. Second, Koreans do not believe in innate ability but believe it can be acquired through persistent effort and discipline. Third, parents play a key role in maintaining a strong relational bond and influencing their children's achievement throughout their lives. The sacrifice and support provided by parents are essential ingredients for their children's success. Fourth, emotional support, rather than informational support, is reported to be the most important. Fifth, self-serving bias has not been found: Students attribute their success to effort and failure to a lack of effort and ability. Finally, although Western theories assume guilt and external pressure to have negative consequences, the reverse is the case. In Korea, children feel a sense of indebtedness toward their parents for all their devotion, sacrifice, and support. This promotes filial piety and academic achievement. Parental expectation and pressure had positive impact on their children's academic achievement.

Cet article examine les facteurs qui contribuent à la forte réussite scolaire des étudiants coréens. Les auteurs soulignent les limites des théories en psychologie et en éducation qui mettent l'emphase sur les bases biologiques (c.-à-d. les habiletés innées et le QI), les valeurs individualistes (p. ex., la motivation intrinsèque, l'attribution d'habileté et l'estime de soi) et les caractéristiques de structure (p. ex., les dépenses élevées en éducation, les petits groupes classe et l'enseignement individualisé). Quoique le gouvernement coréen dépense significativement moins par étudiant, que les groupes classe soient plus grands, que l'emphase soit mise sur l'enseignement coopératif et que les étudiants aient un concept de soi plus faible, ces derniers obtiennent des performances supérieures à leurs homologues occidentaux en lecture, en mathématiques et en sciences (National Center for Educational Statistics, 2000; Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, 2003). L'approche de la psychologie indigène est utilisée pour examiner les facteurs qui expliquent la forte réussite académique des étudiants coréens. Les études empiriques qui examinent le rôle de l'efficacité de soi au niveau de l'individu, le soutien social au niveau relationnel et les valeurs confucéennes au niveau culturel sont analysées. Premièrement, les Coréens voient l'éducation comme faisant partie de la culture personnelle qui est poursuivie pour son propre bien et comme une façon d'atteindre un succès personnel, social et professionnel. Deuxièmement, les Coréens ne croient à l'habileté innée, mais croient qu'il est possible de l'acquérir avec une discipline et des efforts persistants. Troisièmement, les parents jouent un rôle clé dans le maintien de liens relationnels solides et influencent la réussite de leurs enfants tout au long de leur vie. Le sacrifice et le soutien des parents sont des ingrédients essentiels pour le succès de leurs enfants. Quatrièmement, il apparaît que le soutien émotionnel est plus important que le soutien informationnel. Cinquièmement, il ne semble pas y avoir de biais égocentrique: les étudiants attribuent leurs succès à leurs efforts et leurs échecs au manque d'effort et d'habilité. Finalement, quoique les théories occidentales prétendent que la culpabilité et les pressions extérieures ont des conséquences négatives, l'inverse est le cas. En Corée, les enfants ont un sentiment de dettes envers leurs parents pour leur dévotion, leur sacrifice et leur soutien. Cela promeut la piété filiale et la réussite académique. Les attentes et pressions parentales ont un impact positif sur la réussite académique de leurs enfants.

Este artículo analiza los factores que contribuyen al alto rendimiento educativo de los estudiantes de Corea. Los autores subrayan las limitaciones de las teorías psicológicas y educativas que hacen énfasis en las bases biológicas (es decir, las habilidades innatas, el CI), en los valores individualistas (por ejemplo, la motivación intrínseca, la atribución de habilidades y la autoestima) y en las características estructurales (por ejemplo, las altas inversiones en educación, el tamaño pequeño de los grupos y la instrucción individualizada). Si bien el gobierno de Corea invierte significativamente menos por estudiante, el tamaño de los grupos es mayor, se subraya el aprendizaje cooperativo y los estudiantes tienen conceptos más bajos de sí mismos, muestran un rendimiento mucho mayor que sus contrapartes occidentales en la lectura, las matemáticas y las ciencias (National Center for Educational Statistics, 2000; Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, 2003). El enfoque de la psicología tradicional se usa para revisar factores que explican el alto rendimiento académico de los estudiantes coreanos. Se revisan aquí los estudios empíricos que analizan el papel de la eficacia del yo a nivel individual, el apoyo social a nivel de relaciones y los valores confucianos a nivel cultural. En primer lugar, los coreanos ven la educación como parte de la cultura personal que persiguen para su propio bienestar y como un medio para alcanzar el éxito personal, social y laboral. En segundo lugar, los coreanos no creen en las habilidades innatas, pero creen que pueden ser adquiridas con esfuerzo y disciplina persistentes. En tercer lugar, los padres desempeñan un papel clave para mantener lazos sólidos en sus relaciones y para influir en los logros de sus hijos durante toda su vida. El sacrificio y el apoyo de los padres son ingredientes básicos para el éxito de los hijos. En cuarto lugar, el apoyo emocional parece ser el más importante, más que el apoyo en información. En quinto lugar, no parece haber una tendencia egocéntrica: los estudiantes atribuyen su éxito al esfuerzo y su fracaso a la falta de esfuerzo y de habilidades. Por último, aunque las teorías occidentales asumen que la culpa y la presión externa tienen consecuencias negativas, en realidad ocurre lo contrario. En Corea, los niños sienten que tienen una deuda hacia sus padres, por su devoción, su sacrificio y su apoyo. Esto promueve la piedad filial y el logro académico. Las expectativas y presiones de los padres tuvieron un impacto positivo sobre los logros académicos de sus hijos.

South Korea

Map of South Korea

In 1960, South Korea (hereafter abbreviated as Korea) had all the problems of a resource-poor, low-income, illiterate, and under-developed country. The per capita GNP stood at $82 and the literacy and educational levels were among of the lowest in the world. During the past 40 years, the economy grew rapidly, with the per capita GNP increasing to $1640 in 1981 and to around $10,000 in 1997. This phenomenal economic growth has been spurred by educational transformations. Currently, the literacy rate is 98% and high school enrolment is 99%.

In international studies, Korean students are ranked near the top in knowledge, skill, and performance. They are ranked 2nd in mathematics and 5th in science among students from 39 countries (National Center for Educational Statistics, 2000). For comparison, students from the United States (abbreviated as US) are ranked 19th and 18th respectively. In a study of Grade 9 students in 31 countries, Korean students are ranked 1st in scientific literacy, 2nd in math literacy, and 6th in reading literacy (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, 2003). Students from the US are ranked 14th, 19th, and 15th respectively. Traditional psychological and educational theories that emphasize biology (i.e., innate ability, IQ), individualistic values (e.g., intrinsic motivation, ability attribution, and self-esteem), and structural features (e.g., educational spending, small class size, and individualized instruction) have difficulty explaining the relatively poor performance of the US students and the high achievement of Korean students.

TRADITIONAL APPROACHES

Lewis Terman developed the Stanford-Binet IQ Test to measure native intelligence. He and his colleagues used the test to document individual, sex, ethnic, and racial differences and to shape some US policies (i.e., forced sterilization, segregation of races and sex, and restriction of immigration; Chorover, 1980). The IQ test was developed to fit ideological preconceptions and was not based on strict scientific criteria. For example, when the first version of the test was published in 1916, girls of all ages outscored boys by an average of 2-4%. Terman unilaterally deleted, revised, or added new items so that this difference disappeared and subsequently boys did better than girls (Kamin, 1974). In 1924, Asians were labelled as a “genetically inferior” race, and the US National Origins Act was passed to bar Asians from immigrating into the US (H. C. Kim, 1992).

Lynn and Vanhanen (2002) are currently proclaiming the same eugenic ideal, but with a different set of results. In their study of 60 nations, they have found that East Asians had the highest IQ: 106 for Korea, 105 for Japan, 104 for Taiwan, and 103 for Singapore. Europeans and Americans had lower scores: 98 for the US, 100 for the United Kingdom, and 102 for Germany. They conclude that the IQ scores reflect the racial superiority of East Asians. East Asians have now become a superior race due to their genes, although they were an inferior race 80 years ago! Moreover, the particular gene that is responsible for academic achievement has not been identified.

Traditional psychological and educational theories assume that the differences in academic performance can be explained by innate ability, personality, or environmental factors. However, Bandura (1997) found that academic achievement is mediated by the generative capability known as “self-efficacy.” It is defined as "beliefs in one's capabilities to organize and execute the courses of action required to produce given attainments" (p. 3). When children and adults are matched for a specific ability (e.g., academic, athletic, or business skills), those with higher efficacy belief performed significantly better than those with lower efficacy belief. Students in the US, Europe, and Asia who had the self-efficacy beliefs to discipline themselves, to develop cognitive skills, and to obtain the necessary support from parents, teachers, and friends, performed well in school (Bandura, 1997; Park & Kim, 2004).

At the cultural level, the differences in academic achievement can be attributable to differences in values. Culture is defined as the collective utilization of natural and human resources to achieve desired outcomes (U. Kim, 2001). Differences in cultures exist because we have different goals, utilize different methods and resources to attain them, and attach different meanings to them. For example, when students were asked whether “enjoying life is more important than preparing for life,” 27% of US students strongly agreed, compared to 8% of Korean students (National Center for Educational Statistics, 2000). Second, when they were asked, “how much effort do you need to succeed in math,” 8% of US students replied a lot of effort, compared to 36% of Korean students. Third, although the US students did poorly in math and science, they had high self-esteem: They are ranked 1st in self-concept for science and 4th in math. In contrast, Korean students had low self-esteem: they are ranked 32nd and 21st respectively. Fourth, Korean students who believed that they had to expend a lot of effort to do well in math had higher scores. Overall, Korean students did not believe that they were good and believed that they needed to work hard to do well. The US students believed that they were good and felt that moderate effort was enough, perhaps because many people in the US believe that expending a lot of effort means a lack of ability (Nicholls & Miller, 1984).

As for the motivation for studying math, 41% of US students strongly agreed that it is “to get the desired job,” compared to 10% of Korean students (National Center for Educational Statistics, 2000). The vast majority of Korean students reported relational and social motivation: 85% agreed that it is to “enter a desired university” and 62% agreed that it is “to please their parents.” For Korean students, relational and social motivations far outweighed personal motivation.

Finally, the US governmental spending per student is one of the highest in the world. It spends more than twice that spent in Korea (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, 2003). Also, the class size in the US is small so teachers can provide individualized instruction. In Korea, the class size is as large as 40 or 50 and the curriculum emphasizes cooperative learning. In spite of these structural benefits, US students perform significantly less well than Korean students.

INDIGENOUS PSYCHOLOGY

Indigenous psychology advocates examining knowledge, skills, and beliefs that people have about themselves, and studying them in their natural contexts. It represents a bottom-up approach and advocates a transactional paradigm (U. Kim, 2001). Epistemology, theories, concepts, and methods are developed to correspond with psychological phenomena. The goal is not to abandon science, objectivity, and a search for universals, but to create a science that is firmly grounded in the descriptive understanding. The goal is to create a more rigorous, systematic, universal science that can be theoretically and empirically verified. This approach is consistent with the sociocognitive theory advocated by Bandura (1997).

Cultural values, family, and self-cultivation in Korea

With the adoption of Confucianism about 2000 years ago, individuals of merit were selected through regional and national examinations. Successful candidates were given a position as a governmental official. In return for their services, they were given a large tract of land from which they could obtain a stable income. A descendant of the family had to pass another civil service examination by the third generation for them to maintain the gentry status. Educational success benefited the individual, family, and the lineage, and it became the primary avenue to success and fulfilling one's filial piety.

Relationship, not the individual, is considered to be a basic unit. The parent-child relationship provides the basis of the development of the self. Parental devotion, sacrifice, and support are important features of the traditional socialization practices that still remain in modern Korea (Park & Kim, 2004). A mother's job is to use her close relationship with her children to encourage them to expand their relationships and to succeed in life. She becomes a mediator between the home environment and the outside environment by socializing appropriate values and norms. As children grow up, they are expected to transfer their identification and loyalty from their mothers to their teachers.

The typical climate in Korean schools affirms the strong relational bond, pressures the student to strive for excellence, and encourages students to cooperate in a group. Children are taught to please the teacher and their attention is focused on the teacher. Even in a class size that is as large as 50, Korean students are attentive, devoted to doing their schoolwork, and motivated to do well. Finally, there is a high degree of agreement among adolescents, parents, and teachers about the value of academic achievement and how to attain it.

Empirical studies

An empirical study was conducted in 1997, prior to the economic crisis, to explore Koreans' perception of success and failure and factors that contribute to the outcome. A follow-up study was conducted in 20011. Using the indigenous psychology approach, an open-ended questionnaire was administered to a sample of Korean students. A total of 730 students in 1997 and 481 students in 2001 completed the survey. This paper provides the results of the following four questions:

  1. Please list the achievement that you are most proud of and that is very important for you.

  2. Please list the person who was helpful to you and specify your relationship to the person.

  3. Specifically, what kind of support did they provide?

  4. Overall, what do you consider to be the most important factor contributing to you success?

Figure 1 provides the results of the most proud achievement. The most frequent response was educational attainment, followed by friendship, self-development, and hobbies. Educational attainment became more important after the economic crisis. As for the person who provided the necessary support, parents (35%) were mentioned most frequently, followed by friends (27%), teachers (15%), and other family members (6%). In 2001, the role of parents (41%) and teachers (18%) increased, while the role of friends (14%) decreased. As for the type of social support received, emotional support (35%) was mentioned most frequently, followed by informational support (30%), providing a good environment (11%), and financial support (10%). A similar pattern was found in 2001: emotional support (39%), informational support (18%), and financial support (17%).

Figure 1.

Figure 1.
The most proud achievement.

Figure 2 lists the factors that contributed to their success. Self-regulation (i.e., effort, hard work, and persistence) was mentioned most frequently, followed by good family environment, social support, personality, and positive thinking. In 2001, the importance of self-regulation, good family environment, and social support increased. A very small number of respondents reported ability (before = 3%, after = 1%).

Figure 2.

Figure 2.
The most important reason for success.

When respondents were asked to list their most painful failure experiences, failure in academic achievement was mentioned most frequently (before = 45%, after = 46%), followed by human relationships (before = 23%, after = 18%), and self-regulation (before = 20%, after = 16%). As for the person who influenced the failure, most respondents blamed themselves (before = 51%, after = 67%), followed by friends (before = 26%, after = 18%), and parents (before = 8%, after = 8%). As for the most important reason for the failure, they reported a lack of self-regulation (before = 35%, after = 52%), followed by personality problems (before = 19%, after = 22%), and lack of ability (before = 9%, after = 8%).

Studies conducted with adults revealed a similar pattern of results (U. Kim & Park, 2003). Although men were most likely to list job success and women harmonious family, educational achievement came in second. They also viewed support from parents as being very important and self-regulation as the most important factor that contributed to their success.

In the follow-up studies, structured questionnaires were developed to examine the relationship between attribution style and academic achievement. Both students and adults were most likely to attribute their success to effort and their failure to a lack of effort and ability. Second, those students who attributed their success to effort had higher academic achievement (Park & Kim, 2004).

Finally, a 6-year longitudinal study has been conducted to examine the factors that influence academic achievement of Korean students. A total of 1012 Grade 6 students completed a structured questionnaire, 846 Grade 7 students, 796 Grade 9 students, and 656 Grade 11 students. The results of the path analysis indicate that parental factors (i.e., expectation, pressure, and social support) and relational factors (i.e., respect for parents and a sense of indebtedness to parents) increased adolescents' self-efficacy, achievement motivation, and studying time, which in turn increased their academic achievement. In other words, close parent-child relationship and social support were important factors in elevating adolescents' self-efficacy, achievement motivation, and studying time, which in turn increased their academic achievement in subsequent years. Support from teachers and friends had an influence on adolescents' academic achievement when they were young, but this influence gradually waned with time.

DISCUSSION

Koreans view education as the most important life goal. People believe in effort, discipline, and persistence as the means to that goal. The sacrifice and support provided by parents are viewed as essential ingredients. Emotional support in the form of encouragement, praise, security, and understanding are valued. Koreans believe that ability can be acquired and personality can be polished through persistent effort and the support of significant others.

These results point to the limitation in Western theories. First, very few Korean respondents emphasize innate ability or personality. Instead they believe in self-regulation as being the most important factor that can lead to success or failure. Second, parental influence is very strong during childhood, adolescence, and even in adulthood. Third, close in-group members are highly influential, while professional relationships did not emerge as being important. Fourth, emotional support rather than informational support was reported as the more influential factor. Fifth, the self-serving bias has not been found in Korea. Finally, Western theories assume guilt to be negative and that it can lead to developmental pathologies. In Korea, it is considered appropriate that children feel guilty toward their parents for all the devotion, sacrifice, support, and affection they have received. Indebtedness is viewed as a positive interpersonal affect that promotes filial piety, academic achievement, and harmony.

The central difference between Western theories and the realities of East Asian societies have been summarized by U. Kim and Park (2004) and outlined in Appendix A. Results from international studies, such as PISA and TIMSS, point to limitations of existing Western theories in explaining the poor performance of American students and the superior performance of East Asian students. A series of empirical studies conducted in Korea verify the scientific values of indigenous psychology, which can more accurately explain and predict the educational achievement of Korean students.


NOTES

Correspondence should be addressed to Uichol Kim, Dept of Psychology, Chung-Ang University, 221 Huksuk-dong Dongjak-ku, Seoul, 156-756, Korea, uicholk@chol.com

This research was supported by the Chung-Ang University Special Research Grant in 1998.

1. In 1998, the per capita GNP contracted by 32% and recovered to the 1997 level in 2001.

REFERENCES

Bandura, A. (1997). Self-efficacy: The exercise of control.New York: Freeman.

Chorover, S. L. (1980). From genesis to genocide: The meaning of human nature and the power of behavior control. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Kamin, L. J. (1974). The science and politics of I.Q.New York: Penguin Books.

Kim, H. C. (Ed.). (1992). Asian Americans and the Supreme Court: A documentary history. New York: Greenwood.

Kim, U. (2001). Culture, science and indigenous psychologies: An integrated analysis. In D. Matsumoto (Ed.), Handbook of culture and psychology (pp. 51–76). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Kim, U., & Park, Y. S. (2003). An indigenous analysis of success attribution: Comparison of Korean students and adults. In K. S. Yang, K. K. Hwang, P. Pedersen, & I. Daibo (Eds.), Progress in Asian social psychology: Conceptual and empirical contributions (pp. 171–195). New York: Praeger.

Kim, U., & Park, Y. S. (2004). Psychological analysis of human potential, creativity, and action: Indigenous, cultural, and comparative perspectives. State of the art lecture provided at the International Congress of Psychology, Beijing. August 8-13.

Lynn, R., & Vanhanen, T. (2002). IQ and the wealth of nations. Westport, CT: Praeger.

National Center for Educational Statistics. (2000). Mathematics and science in eighth grade: Findings from the Third International Mathematics and Science Study. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education.

Nicholls, J. G., & Miller, A. T. (1984). Development and its discontents: The differentiation of the concept of ability. In J. G. Nicholls (Ed.), Advances in motivation and achievement. Vol. 3, The development of achievement motivation. (pp. 185–218). Greenwich, CT: JAI.

Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. (2003). Education at a glance: OECD indicators. Paris: OECD.

Park, Y. S., & Kim, U. (2004). Adolescent culture and parent-child relationship in Korea: Indigenous psychological analysis. [in Korean]. Seoul: Kyoyook Kwahaksa.


APPENDIX A

Factors influencing academic achievement

Western theories East Asian societies
High national spending Moderate spending
Small class size Medium class size
Biology Culture
Disposition (IQ, personality) Changeable, fluid
Primary control Proxy and collective control
Cognition Emotion
Active learning Co-operative learning
Individualistic values Parental expectation, pressure, and indebtedness
Personal motivation Personal, relational, and social motivation
Ability attribution Effort attribution

© 2006 International Union of Psychological Science
DOI:10.1080/00207590544000068

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