Helping Students Succeed by Building Grit

Angela Duckworth, associate professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, gave a rousing keynote on March 4th at the Carnegie Foundation’s second annual Summit on Improvement in Education. During her address, Duckworth presented the value of grit, a psychological characteristic that can predict student success, and she talked about ways that grit can be cultivated and developed.

Duckworth began by speaking about her own experience as a teacher. She had two principle observations: (1) Students are bright and have an innate ability to learn; and (2) Learning middle school math is possible, but students have subjective experiences of its difficulty. These observations led her down a path toward wanting to learn how to help students succeed, especially in the face of varying beliefs about the difficulty of learning.

Duckworth presented a simple but compelling equation for success: “Achievement = Talent × Effort.” While she acknowledged that natural talent is critical to succeed, Duckworth said, “There is a little bit of an obsession with that variable of the equation in contemporary American society.” There’s not enough of an emphasis on both effort and the psychology of effort. She argued that we cannot browbeat children to try harder; instead, we have to understand why they do or do not try when tasks are difficult.

Duckworth presented a simple, but compelling equation for success: Achievement=Talent × Effort.

Much of Duckworth’s work on grit builds off of the foundational work of Dr. K. Anders Ericsson, who studied “deliberate practice” in a number of domains, including chess, soccer, music, and many others. According to Ericsson, there are four prerequisites for effective deliberate practice: setting a specific stretch goal, fully concentrating on a single task, receiving immediate and informative feedback, and practicing repetitively until fluent. Because of the repetition and difficulty of the work, deliberate practice is quite effortful and often not fun. But, as Duckworth said, “Just because it feels difficult, does not mean that it’s impossible or that you shouldn’t try.”

The work from Ericsson on deliberate practice brought Duckworth to focus on the power of grit, a characteristic that captures people’s ability to persevere in the face of difficulty. Grit highly predicts students’ willingness to engage in deliberate practice in a number of studies, most prominently in a study on national spelling bee competitors. In measuring grit, Duckworth focuses on both stamina of effort and also stamina in passion and interest. As she said, “Grit is not just about perseverance over time, but also passion over time.” Thankfully, grit scores are malleable: they can and do change over time. For example, Duckworth has found that grit increases with age. Because of this belief, that grit can improve, she has sought to study ways in which we can increase students’ grit and ultimately their success in school.

Duckworth then talked about the ways in which one can be grittier. First, through keeping students focused on tasks in front of them and controlling their “grass is always greener” thinking, they can persevere through difficulty. Duckworth asked West Point cadets’ to imagine where they would be if not at West Point. The grittiest cadets couldn’t imagine a better place to be or couldn’t imagine any other place. Duckworth concluded that “the grittiest people imagine the world in front of them” and that encouraging people to focus on the task in front of them can increase their grit.

The second major way to increase grit is through promoting a growth mindset. This work, pioneered by Carol Dweck, is based on the theory that individuals’ thinking is dominated by either a growth or a fixed mindset when learning something new. People with fixed mindsets see ability as largely static while those with growth mindsets believe that with effort, they can learn and improve over time. Duckworth has found that gritty students tend to have more of a growth mindset than a fixed mindset, meaning that promoting a growth mindset can result in the kind of deliberate practice that leads to success. With the help of Carnegie Fellow David Yeager, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin, the Carnegie Foundation has worked to bring these theories into practice through our Community College Pathways and Student Agency Improvement Community.

Grit scores are malleable: they can and do change over time.

Duckworth’s lab focuses on developing and testing interventions that can change beliefs about studying and practice: “We try to dislodge inaccurate maladaptive beliefs about what homework, studying, and practice ought to feel like.” By praising students for doing something that they think is difficult and they do not enjoy, one can support the kind of beliefs around practice that can lead students to be grittier. In a random-assignment, longitudinal study, Duckworth challenged sixth-grade students to work on difficult math problems on a computer. She measured how frequently the students surfed the web rather than deliberately practiced the difficult math. She found that those students who were given interventions that tried to alter their beliefs about practice were more likely to spend time on the math than surfing the web.

Duckworth finished her talk by encouraging the audience to create a culture of grit and deliberate practice in their settings: “Every educator tries to build a culture in their own classroom. There is a way to build a culture of grit.” Duckworth’s studies show that grit and deliberate practice can be improved through interventions that educators can introduce. By changing students’ beliefs about practice, we can all increase student success.