School performance is influenced by several factors. In recent years a new concept has gained attention in that context: grit" or willpower
What makes some students more successful than others? Several factors, obviously, such as access to the materials and tools needed to learn, a home environment which is conducive to academic success, and having good teachers and supportive schools. But there are also individual factors. One might immediately consider «intelligence», IQ, as the most important individual characteristic that sets good and bad students apart. However, recent research suggests that grit might also be an important individual characteristic to predict academic success (Duckworth et al., 2007; Duckworth, 2016; Duckworth et al., 2019). The importance of grit is still under research, and some researchers have found that it might not influence academic success more than other non-cognitive variables or that it cannot be easily trained (Credé et al., 2017), and others have questioned the definition of grit and how accurately it has been measured (Jachimowicz et al., 2018). Nevertheless, and despite different accounts on the definition and importance of grit, let us learn more about it.
What is Grit?
Grit has been defined as a characteristic that allows an individual to work hard and maintain focus to achieve long-term goals. Angela Duckworth, the researcher who developed the study of grit and made it famous through a 2013 TED Talk and a 2016 best-selling book, defines it as «passion and perseverance for long-term goals». Grit is not luck or talent, but rather having an ultimate goal and persevering to achieve it, even when progress toward that goal is slow or difficult. According to Duckworth, if a student has high grit, he or she might be more likely to achieve their goals, be it a more immediate goal, like getting a high grade in Maths, or a longer term goal, such as gaining entry onto a specific course in the university. However, in a meta-analysis, Credé and colleagues (2018) have found that grit might be nothing more than perseverance, and it does not predict learning more than study habits or skills do. The debate about the definition of grit goes on, with Jachimowicz and other researchers claiming that grit is perseverance and passion, but that the scales used to measure grit do not capture passion, leading to mixed results regarding the effects of grit on learning. Hence, let us see how grit has been measured.
How to Measure Grit?
In order to study grit and apply it, it is important to measure it. And this is where the concept of grit has been challenged. Duckworth created the Grit Scale, a 12-item measure of grit that can be applied to adolescents and adults (Duckworth et al., 2007). The scale includes items that measure the ability to sustain effort, such as «I finish whatever I begin», and items that measure whether people sustain effort because of their intrinsic interest (or passion) or because of external factors, such as «I have difficulty maintaining my focus on projects that take more than a few months to complete». Individuals rate each of the 12 items on a 5-point scale from 1 – not at all like me, to 5 – very much like me. In their 2007 article, Duckworth and colleagues verified the validity and other properties of the scale and showed that grit scores were associated with educational attainment in adults, grades among university undergraduates, retention in two classes, and ranking in a spelling contest. These findings were not supported by a recent meta-analysis (Credé et al., 2018). However, Jachimowicz et al. (2018; 2019) suggest that evidence linking grit and performance is mixed because the measure used to assess grit captures only perseverance, not passion, whereas the definition of grit encompasses both perseverance and passion. These researchers have found that combining the grit scale with another scale that measures passion (the passion attainment scale) shows a connection between grit and performance. So, where does this leave us?
Does Grit matter?
The answer is unclear. Grit does not appear to affect academic achievement negatively but it might not enhance learning. Perseverance and passion do not seem to increase learning or remembering (see Kirschner & Hendrick, 2020). Maybe grit can be stimulated but instructors should not count on it being a decisive factor for student success. In other words, a student with high IQ and good study habits, but without passion, might still perform better than a student who just has passion and some perseverance. But if this is the case, why are we even discussing grit? As mentioned, the research about the effects of grit is unclear, but grit does not appear to have negative effects. Therefore, it might be worth it for instructors and students to be aware of this concept. This does not mean that students must find passion about anything they have to learn, but rather that finding an ultimate goal might help to have them working hard to achieve it.
Grit can be used to help students persevere in the face of difficulties.
Grit in Practice
It should be emphasised that, given the contradictory research about grit, an instructor should not expect that increasing students’ grit will lead to more learning. The cognitive principles that are known to enhance learning should not be dismissed and replaced by practices that might increase grit. For example, a student most certainly does not feel passion toward testing, but we know that testing – retrieval practice – increases learning. Therefore, an instructor should not stop testing their students to try to increase their grit. This may also be true for other learning strategies, such as the spacing of study, which students might not see as beneficial but which has been scientifically supported. Overall, learning strategies that make the retrieval of information more difficult (e.g., spacing) appear to improve students’ performance, according to the principle of desirable difficulties (Bjork & Bjork, 2011). Although they might not foster passion and perseverance, such strategies should not be abandoned.
However, grit could be taught in ways that do not compromise learning strategies whose value is more significantly established. For example, it can be used to help students persevere in the face of difficulties. Duckworth told EdSurge (2018) that it is «the responsibility of the classroom teacher or the school and the community to make sure that kids understand that when they don't want to do something that's hard, when they don't want to do something that will maybe not work out, and when they do want to quit things, that the first and most important thing is to start from understanding and accepting that that is part of the struggle».
Research has indicated some practical strategies to foster grit which do not jeopardise the use of other learning strategies that might be more impactful on learning:
- Create time, space, and opportunities for the students to be gritty. Provide opportunities for, and make a habit of, having students learn from and correct their mistakes (e.g., allow students to rework problems they initially got wrong). If you think this sounds a lot like providing feedback, you are right, and providing feedback has been shown to foster learning (e.g., Smith & Kimball, 2010).
- Make sure students learn about the concept of grit and how it is a changeable ability. This means that students will know that their academic success does not depend solely on genetic or environmental characteristics that are beyond their control, but rather that they can work toward becoming grittier and more academically successful. This strategy will likely increase active learning and it also provides a good opportunity to help students to create better study habits.
- Foster deliberate practice – help students to develop a capacity for hard practice, especially practice that will help them strengthen their weaknesses. Take this opportunity to teach students about the study strategies that are most likely to improve their learning, such as practicing retrieval (e.g., Rowland, 2014).
- Highlight the purpose of one’s pursuit. Help students understand what interests them and how to pursue their goals, so they figure out what their passion is. For example, give the Grit Scale1 to students to prompt a conversation about their perseverance and passion.
In sum, grit is a noncognitive ability that is still under evaluation. Some researchers have shown that grit is related to high achievement in different fields, from science to sports (e.g., Alhadabi & Karpinski, 2020; From et al., 2020; Peters, 2020), and in different cultures (e.g., Luo et al. 2020; Chan et al., 2018), whereas others have shown that grit might be the same as perseverance and, thus, not especially helpful in terms of learning or academic achievement. Until more research is carried out, teachers might wish to take advantage of the popularity that grit has gained and try to foster it in their classrooms so as to lead students to use other powerful learning strategies that are already widely scientifically supported.
1 Duckworth and Quinn (2009) created a short version of the Grit Scale, with 8 items and another one specifically for children. Angela Duckworth also makes available an online scale to measure grit. However, the researcher warns that there are limitations to the scales and therefore it can be used for research and self-reflection, but should not be used for student selection (for university entrance, for example), gauging the performance of teachers, or comparing schools or countries to each other (Duckworth & Yeager, 2015). A Portuguese version of the Grit Scale has been used, but we are unaware whether it has been validated (Caeiro, 2015).
Alhadabi, A., & Karpinski, A. C., «Grit, self-efficacy, achievement orientation goals, and academic performance in University students», International Journal of Adolescence and Youth, 25(1), 2020, pp. 519-535.
Bjork, E. L., & Bjork, R. A., «Making things hard on yourself, but in a good way: Creating desirable difficulties to enhance learning», Psychology and the real world: Essays illustrating fundamental contributions to society, 2, 2011, pp. 59-68.
Caeiro, H. M. D. S., «Sucesso escolar, felicidade, perseverança e bem-estar em adolescentes», (Master's thesis), 2015.
Chen, C., Ye, S., & Hangen, E., «Predicting achievement goals in the East and West: the role of grit among American and Chinese university students», Educational Psychology, 38(6), 2018, pp. 820-837.
Credé, M., Tynan, M. C., & Harms, P. D., «Much ado about grit: A meta-analytic synthesis of the grit literature», Journal of Personality and social Psychology, 113(3), 2017, pp. 492-511.
Duckworth, A. L., Grit: The power of passion and perseverance, Nova Iorque, NY: Scribner, 2016.
Duckworth, A. L., Grit: The power of passion and perseverance (vídeo), April, 2013.
Duckworth, A. L., Peterson, C., Matthews, M. D., & Kelly, D. R., «Grit: Perseverance and passion for long-term goals», Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92(6), 2007, pp. 1087-1101.
Duckworth, A. L., Quirk, A. Gallop, R., Hoyle, R. H., Kelly, D. R., & Matthews, M. D., «Cognitive and noncognitive predictors of success», Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 116(47), 2019, pp. 23499-23504.
From, L., Thomsen, D. K., & Olesen, M. H., «Elite athletes are higher on Grit than a comparison sample of non-athletes», Scandinavian Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 2, 2020, pp. 2-7.
Jachimowicz, J. M., Wihler, A., Bailey, E. R., & Galinsky, A. D., «Why grit requires perseverance and passion to positively predict performance», Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 115(40), 2018, pp. 9980-9985.
Credé, M., «Total grit scale score does not represent perseverance», Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 116(10), 2019, pp. 3941-3941.
Luo, J., Wang, M., Ge, Y., Chen, W., & Xu, S., «Longitudinal Invariance Analysis of the Short Grit Scale in Chinese Young Adults», Frontiers in Psychology, 11, 466, 2020.
Peters, P. J., «Grit for Dance Students: What, Why, and How», Dance Education in Practice, 6(1), 2020, pp. 7-12.
Rowland, C. A., «The effect of testing versus restudy on retention: a meta-analytic review of the testing effect», Psychological Bulletin, 140(6), 2014, pp. 1432-1463.
Smith, T. A., & Kimball, D. R., «Learning from feedback: Spacing and the delay–retention effect», Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 36(1), 2010, pp. 80-95.
Young, J. R., «Angela Duckworth Says Grit Is Not Enough. She’s Building Tools to Boost Student Character», EdSurge, 2018, April 20.