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Angela Duckworth and the Research on 'Grit'

by E. Hanford;

Before she would have been a psychology professor, Angela Duckworth taught math in middle school and secondary school. She spent lots of time thinking about something which might seem obvious: The students who tried hardest did the most effective, as well as the students who didn't try very hard didn't do very well. Duckworth desired to know: What is the role of effort in an individual's success?

Now Duckworth is an assistant professor with the University of Pennsylvania, and her research focuses on a personality trait she calls "grit." She defines grit as "sticking with things on the very long term before you master them." In a paper, she writes that "the gritty individual approaches achievement as being a marathon; his or her advantage is stamina.

Duckworth's research suggests that whenever it comes to high achievement, grit could be as essential as intelligence. That's a tremendous finding because for years, intelligence was considered the true secret to success.

Intelligence "is probably the top-measured trait that there is in all of human psychology," says Duckworth. "We understand how to measure intelligence within minutes."

But intelligence leaves a whole lot unexplained. There are smart those who aren't high achievers, high are individuals who achieve a lot without having the best test scores. In one study, Duckworth discovered that smarter students actually had less grit than their peers who scored lower by using an intelligence test. This finding suggests that, among the study participants -- all students with an Ivy League school -- people that are much less bright as his or her peers "compensate by working harder and with more determination." And their effort settles: The grittiest students -- not the smartest ones -- had the highest GPAs.

Duckworth's jobs are part of an increasing area of psychology research centered on what are loosely called "noncognitive skills." The goal is usually to identify and look at the various skills and traits besides intelligence that help with human development and success.

Duckworth is promoting a test called the "Grit Scale." You rate yourself on a series of 8 to 12 items. Two examples: "I have overcome setbacks to get rid of an important challenge" and "Setbacks don't discourage me." It's entirely self-reported, and that means you could game test, but what Duckworth found is that someone's grit score is highly predictive of achievement under challenging circumstances.

At the elite United States Military Academy, West Point, a cadet's grit score was the best predictor of success inside rigorous summer training curriculum known as "Beast Barracks." Grit mattered over intelligence, leadership ability or physical fitness.

At the Scripps National Spelling Bee, the grittiest contestants were essentially the most likely to advance towards the finals -- at the very least in part because they studied longer, not simply because they were smarter or were better spellers.

Grit and College Completion

Angela Duckworth is turning her attention on the question of grit and college completion. In a study funded with the Gates Foundation, Duckworth as well as a number of other researchers want to understand what predicts college persistence among graduates of several high-performing urban charter school networks: YES Prep Public Schools in Houston, Mastery Charter Schools in Philadelphia, Aspire Public Schools in California and Achievement First Schools in Connecticut.

These charter school networks serve mostly students from low-income and minority families. The schools were founded to close the "achievement gap" between these students as well as their higher-income peers. The ultimate goal of these charter school networks is always to get students to venture to college and earn degrees.

The charter schools have succeeded in providing strong academic preparation. Most of their students visit college. Yet students graduate from college at lower rates than could be expected according to their academic preparation.

The charter schools want to know why that is. Angela Duckworth would like to know if grit has almost anything to do with it.

Duckworth's previous studies have shown that people that have "some college" but no degree are reduced grit than those who have college degrees. Does that mean the charter school students that are not living through college lack grit? And if that's the case, can grit be learned?

These are complicated questions, as well as the answers aren't in yet. Duckworth says there are actually a variety of things to consider before jumping towards the conclusion that students who don't finish college aren't gritty. Many factors help with college success, including money, what colleges students head to, and what Duckworth calls "social- psychological" barriers. She says low-income and minority students often feel away from place on college campuses, especially more elite colleges where the majority of students are upper- income, white and also have college-educated parents. Duckworth thinks a sense of social belonging may be key to persisting through college. One of her research goals is to "sharpen insights" concerning the psychological barriers that prevent well- prepared students from completing degrees -- also to test interventions that might help students overcome those barriers.

But Duckworth thinks grit is probable a significant factor when you are looking at college completion one of many charter school students she is studying. That's because grit is often a particularly helpful trait when you are looking at challenging experiences, but for the charter school students, college tends to be a challenging experience.

Most with the students are first generation; their parents didn't go to college -- in many cases, nobody in their family has any exposure to higher education. College can be described as a difficult and confusing experience even for people that come from college- educated families, but also for first-generation students, college is a lot like learning a new language, says Tenesha Villanueva, a co-director of alumni programs at YES Prep Public Schools in Houston.

"It's like seeing a foreign country and looking to navigate systems and programs that you have never come in contact with before," says Villanueva.

When first-generation students come up against obstacles attending school, they have no one in their loved ones to turn to for help, says Villanueva. College-educated families provide their students with support that lots of students and families might not exactly even be aware of, but it's a powerful force that can help propel students through college. Villanueva says first-generation students are at a disadvantage.

Not only do first-generation students not have the kind of support of loved ones that can help them overcome obstacles while attending college, in addition they tend to face more obstacles than higher- income students from college-educated families, based on Villanueva and her colleagues at YES Prep. They may have a problem with money or federal funding paperwork. A lot with the students need to work while likely to school. Many live at home and still have family obligations, for example taking care of siblings or grandparents and assisting to pay the bills. Research shows all of these things make planning to college harder and increase the chances a student will quit.

YES Prep graduated its top class of seniors 11 years ago. So far 40 percent from the students have earned bachelor's degrees within six years of finishing high school graduation. Twenty-eight percent have dropped out. The rest are still in college, gritting against each other years as soon as they were expected to finish. The Grittiest College Students

When college is actually difficult, grit helps, based on Angela Duckworth's research.

In fact, individuals who succeed in getting associate's degrees are, typically, more gritty than people that get bachelor's degrees, as outlined by Duckworth's research. It takes as much grit to get an associate's degree as it does to acquire a Ph.D.

"Graduating from your two-year college versus a four-year college can be a much greater difference than people might imagine," says Duckworth.

Community colleges are packed with students who are a good deal like the students at YES Prep as well as the other urban charter schools Duckworth is studying: first- generation college students from poor families who may have to balance work and family while gonna school. The community college dropout rates are high.

"If you're going to get through a two-year college where the attrition rate is 50 or maybe even 75 percent, you could possibly do need more grit to surmount dozens of obstacles," says Duckworth. Learning to Be Gritty

It's unclear what makes some people grittier than these, but Angela Duckworth believes grit is one thing people can probably learn.

She says every human quality which has been studied has proven to be affected a minimum of in part by your environment -- even intelligence. In addition, people change over time.

"Think about reasons for your personality like, 'I'm a pretty extroverted person,'" says Duckworth. "Well, how fixed is always that?"

It ends up a personality trait like extroversion can change a whole lot over a person's life. "If you look at large population data, people acquire more or less extroverted over time," says Duckworth. "There's no reason to think that grit is any different."

She believes grit can wax and wane responding to experiences. In addition, people might be gritty about some things and not others.

"You can see a child be exceptionally self-disciplined regarding basketball practicing, but when you see them in math class, they provide up on the slightest frustration," says Duckworth.

Donald Kamentz, director of college initiatives at YES Prep, says students he's worked with are some with the grittiest people he's ever met. They "deal with things and persevere through situations that a majority of people would find insurmountable," according to him.

He's known students who get jobs to pay the debts when their parents are laid off, or figure out how to get the electricity back on when the power company shuts rid of it.

"And then they go to college and they're struggling with financial aid or their school funding didn't come through plus they don't know what direction to go," he states. Some of them drop out when confronted with these types of challenges. He says they are certainly not gritty enough when it comes to college.

A question for YES Prep as well as other charter schools in Duckworth's study is just not necessarily how to obtain students being gritty, but how to get them to get gritty about college completion.

"Which experiences can we give kids to acquire them inside the direction of more grit instead of less?" asks Duckworth.

One with the goals of Duckworth's research is to figure this out. Her current project began within the fall of 2011 and it is scheduled to wrap up in 2014.