Students - Research Overview


Current educational discourse identifies engaged, successful students as students who are prepared for achievement in school, work, and life in the increasingly global and high-tech 21st Century. They are equipped with core academic content knowledge. They are also equipped with cognitive skills and capacities for critical thinking, problem solving, creativity, and innovation; personal capacities for self-regulation, self-efficacy, self-expression, and self-motivation; and social and civic capacities for communication, collaboration, and participation in changing societies. The research in this section of ArtsEdSearch examines the impact of arts education—in both discrete and interdisciplinary, arts-integrated forms of instruction—on these key dimensions of student success from early childhood through postsecondary education and continuing through adult lifelong learning.

ArtsEdSearch acknowledges that through arts education, students not only develop the technical capacity to create, perform, and respond to works of art, but also learn about and engage the arts as media for individual and collective expression, communication, connection, and for bringing into the world something that did not previously exist. Many of the studies collected in ArtsEdSearch examine outcomes of these facets of learning in and through the arts. Whether considered intrinsic to the arts or extrinsic to the arts, ArtsEdSearch acknowledges such outcomes as an important part of the enduring role that the arts play in schools and societies, and includes studies that explore their ramifications for student success in school, life, and work.

ArtsEdSearch presents the student outcomes of arts learning that the research identifies organized thematically in categories that are of primary concern for educators and policymakers: academic, cognitive, personal, and social and civic outcomes. ArtsEdSearch recognizes that the lines between these categories are not neat and that, in many cases, the outcomes are intimately interconnected (engagement and motivation, for example, are not only relevant to personal development, but are also importantly connected with academic and professional outcomes).


Academic Outcomes

ArtsEdSearch defines academic outcomes as achievement in core academic subjects, including the arts, as measured by standardized tests as well as performance assessments; achievement on gateway exams such as the SAT; graduation rates; and college attendance.

  • Literacy and Language Development. A significant body of research demonstrates a positive relationship between study in the arts, particularly drama, and literacy and language development. In early childhood, theater and other arts activities prepare students for achievement in reading and writing by increasing and refining oral language skills and story-understanding. In middle and high school, participation in integrated drama and discipline based and integrated visual arts programs is linked to increases in use of complex language and expressive ability. The positive impact of arts-integrated instruction on literacy development is especially strong for English language learners at the elementary and middle school levels.
  • Mathematics Achievement. Research demonstrates positive connections between arts study and achievement in mathematics, beginning with early childhood and elementary grades, and attaining special prominence by middle and postsecondary grades. Studies find an especially strong relationship between learning in music and in mathematics, including connections between music and algebra and high math SAT scores at the secondary level. Dance is also related to high achievement in math. Importantly, a study of elementary students in a multi-disciplinary arts integration program found a prolonged positive impact on mathematics achievement over time, suggesting that the effects of arts integration on student achievement are not sudden but gradual and that students benefit from sustained access to arts integrated instruction (Smithrim & Upitis, 2005).
  • Overall Academic Achievement. Research suggests a significant positive relationship between arts study and overall academic achievement from elementary through postsecondary school. Arts activities and learning in the early grades are connected to greater readiness for school. Studies at the elementary level detect connections between arts participation and overall academic achievement, including larger increases in intelligence (IQ). Middle and high school students with a high engagement in the arts are more likely to perform well on standardized achievement tests and attain high grades, and are less likely to drop out of school. Moreover, students in schools with art, music, and physical education taught by specialists do better on state standardized tests than students in schools without the arts and physical education (Wilkins et al., 2003). Studies of whole school reform initiatives at the elementary and middle school level that bring the arts centrally into the curriculum as a strategy for school improvement, find that such initiatives have either a positive impact on student performance on standardized tests of mathematics and English language arts or no effect, suggesting that increased instructional time spent on the arts may enhance but does not detract from student test scores in other subjects.
  • Underserved Students. Studies find that students from low socio-economic backgrounds, English language learners, and students with special needs—often underserved in public schools—show the greatest relative improvement in academic achievement when participating in the arts. Research also finds that English language learners are significantly more likely to pursue a college degree if they attend an arts-rich high school (Catterall, 2009).

Cognitive Outcomes

Cognitive outcomes encompass the development of important thinking skills and capacities that are not only intrinsically important, but are also crucial to academic and professional success.

  • Creative Thinking. Research at various grade levels connects learning in the performing and visual arts to the development of creative thinking skills, including adaptability, flexibility, imagination, fluency, originality, elaboration, and abstractness. Students receiving an arts rich education perform better on assessments of creativity than do students receiving little or no arts education.
  • Critical Thinking. Studies find that arts education develops students’ critical thinking skills—skills such as comparison, hypothesizing, and critiquing that are essential to a student’s ability to apply knowledge and visualize solutions. Beginning at the elementary level, research suggests that arts education develops awareness and exploration of multiple viewpoints. Arts integration, dance, drama, and visual art are shown to develop critical thinking skills at all age levels—from early childhood through adulthood. Research with older adults has connected theatrical work with reduced cognitive decline associated with aging (Noice & Noice, 2006).
  • Problem Solving and Reasoning. Research at the early childhood, middle, and adult levels suggests a strong relationship between music study and spatial-temporal and other abstract reasoning skills—skills necessary to mentally visualize and solve multi-step problems. Additionally, arts integration at the middle school level was found to help students with disabilities develop decision-making and problem-solving skills (Mason et al., 2008). Visual art studio classes were found to help students develop habits of mind for sustained focus, imagination, close observation, and articulation of their decision-making process (Winner et al., 2006).

Personal Outcomes

Personal outcomes, while often marginalized in education policy, are critical to student success. ArtsEdSearch defines personal outcomes as capacities that are critical to the development of a strong sense of identity, positive self-concept, emotional well-being, motivation to succeed, and engagement and persistence in learning, life, and work.

  • Engagement and Persistence. Learning the arts develops student engagement, meaningful involvement, and persistence in one’s own learning—skills essential for success in school, work, and life. Multiple research studies spanning the education system from pre-kindergarten through high school suggest that students involved in arts study are more engaged in school and more motivated to learn than comparison groups of students. Particularly in elementary and middle school, students who generally did not participate in class were found to be more likely to participate in arts classes or arts-integrated learning. Through arts study, middle school students improved in their ability to turn barriers into opportunities and persist in completing challenging tasks (DeMoss & Morris, 2002), and mastery of arts skills at the high school level was found to encourage further motivation for higher achievement (Rostan, 2010).
  • Positive Behavior. Research suggests a positive relationship between participation in music, visual art, and drama programs and changes in behavior for students from early learning through high school. For pre-kindergarten students, participating in music was found to be a highly effective motivator for increasing desirable behavior and decreasing undesirable behavior (Standley, 1996). Middle school students who participated in drama and visual arts based programs had fewer emotional and behavioral problems than comparison students and were found to be less likely to engage in risky, delinquent, and/or violent behavior (Wright et al., 2006; Respress & Lufti, 2006).
  • Self-Awareness, Self-Concept, and Self-Expression. Research connects arts learning with increased self-understanding and confidence, and finds that both the visual and performing arts provide an environment and medium through which students can explore, create, and express their identity. One study, for example, found that students in visual arts studio classes develop habits of mind for personal expression through their chosen medium (Winner et al., 2006). In another example, adults with low educational attainment participating in a project that used storytelling to address social, economic, and political issues, transformed their feelings of inadequacy into positive self-perceptions positioning them for educational success (Weissner, 2005). Several studies also describe how dance increases self-awareness and control of the body as an expressive tool.
  • Self-Efficacy and Self-Confidence. Beginning at the elementary level and continuing through adult learning, research finds that arts participation increases student confidence and self-efficacy. Drama, music, visual art, and media arts were all found to increase self-efficacy and/or confidence for all students, including ELL students and disadvantaged or delinquent teens. Middle school students involved in media arts programs developed greater confidences in using arts and technology tools to design and build innovative products (Betts, 2006). In some studies, self-efficacy and self-confidence acquired or strengthened through arts learning, particularly for ELL students, translated to success in other subjects. A large-scale study examining the impact of young people’s participation in community-based arts programs found that students who participate in such programs have a stronger confidence in their ability to do things well and greater sense of self-worth and self-esteem when compared to their peers in a national sample (Heath & Roach, 1999).

Social and Civic Outcomes

Social and civic outcomes connect students, teachers, and schools to one another and to their communities. ArtsEdSearch identifies social and civic outcomes as those that impact students in their roles in the community, such as civic engagement and arts participation.

  • Arts Participation. Students who study the arts in their school years are more likely to be engaged with the arts as consumers, performers, or creators in later life. One study in particular compared arts education to arts participation and found that students who took two or more forms of art education were three times more likely to participate in the arts than their peers without any arts education, and were more likely to personally create or perform art later in life (Rabkin & Hedberg, 2010).
  • Collaboration and Communication. At the elementary and middle school levels, students in arts programs develop greater ability to work as members of a team. Studies, particularly those examining out-of-school arts programming, have revealed the development of greater levels of cultural understanding and deeper understanding of others’ perspectives as outcomes of collaborative and performing arts experiences. In studies at the secondary level, students developed greater group awareness and mutual respect, while learning to express their individuality appropriately within the group.
  • Community-Building. The arts help to foster the creation of healthy, supportive community in both in- and out-of-school settings. Several studies find that, at the core of arts-based communities is an intentional practice of developing a safe space or working environment that supports arts learning and provides the conditions for group connection to develop. Cultivating a safe space research finds, supports students to take risks, explore ideas, make mistakes, express individuality, and support others in a positive way. A study on an integrated drama and literature program found, for example, that student participants learned how to collaborate in creative communities and that within these communities they also learned how to connect their self-knowledge to social and intellectual development (Seidel, 1999). Studies on out-of-school programs with high-school-aged participants find that the sense of community built among participants, not only supports their individual artistic, cognitive, and social development, but also provides them a vehicle through which to positively engage with and impact their surrounding communities (Heath & Roach, 1999; Stevenson, 2011).
  • Community and Civic Engagement. Arts participation, particularly in out-of-school settings, develops in older students a sense of personal responsibility towards their communities, known as civic engagement. Beginning in middle school and continuing through adult learning, research shows a positive relationship between arts study and civic engagement expressed through a greater understanding of local and global issues, growth in ability to generate creative solutions to social problems, political participation, increased participation in community service, and ability to affect the community social life through artwork. Longitudinal research demonstrates connections between arts learning and subsequent community involvement and volunteerism in adult life (Caterall, 2009).
  • Cross-Cultural Understanding. Engagement in the performing arts is associated with increased social tolerance. Collaborative arts education experiences, both performing and visual, create an environment in which diverse perspectives can be visible and valued, and facilitate cross-cultural dialogue and learning when participants in the arts program are from diverse backgrounds.
  • Social Development. In early grades, self-directed dramatic play correlates with the development of social skills and social problem-solving ability. Dance is related to development of social skills, particularly for at-risk students who improve their social skills and have fewer behavioral problems (Lobo & Winsler, 2006). Moreover, young children who participate in the arts develop superior interpersonal communication skills, defined as learned abilities to communicate personal thoughts, feelings, and ideas to another person.