Thursday, August 06, 2009

Grit, Grades, and Graduation

It's funny how categories affect thinking. Since becoming interested in the noncognitive traits of students, their assessment and consequence predictive powers, I've begun to see noncognitives everywhere. The August 2nd article "The Truth about Grit" in the Boston Globe is an example.

The point of the article is that intelligence doesn't guarantee success; success also requires perseverance in the face of obstacles, or "grit."
The hope among scientists is that a better understanding of grit will allow educators to teach the skill in schools and lead to a generation of grittier children.


The new focus on grit is part of a larger scientific attempt to study the personality traits that best predict achievement in the real world.
The US Army has supported the research with some interesting findings. The example of the US Army's military academy West Point is compelling:
The Army has long searched for the variables that best predict whether or not cadets will graduate, using everything from SAT scores to physical fitness. But none of those variables were particularly useful.
What did work was a survey that assessed perseverance. The article notes that this echoes Francis Galton's 1869 research findings that concluded that a prerequisite for higher-order achievement was “ability combined with zeal and the capacity for hard labour.”

The whole article is worth reading. There is a link given (indirectly) to a grit survey developed by A.L. Duckworth at the University of Pennsylvania. The project is applicable to higher education:
Duckworth has recently begun analyzing student resumes submitted during the college application process, as she attempts to measure grit based on the diversity of listed interests. While parents and teachers have long emphasized the importance of being well-rounded - this is why most colleges require students to take courses in all the major disciplines, from history to math - success in the real world may depend more on the development of narrow passions.
This should be terribly interesting for liberal arts schools particularly. If perseverance is tied to singular passions, then how does this interact with the "broadening of the mind" mission of the institution? Is the implicit goal of success after graduation secondary, or should we try to pull off both? This has direct implications to learning outcomes assessment, as noted in the article:
In recent decades, the American educational system has had a single-minded focus on raising student test scores on everything from the IQ to the MCAS. The problem with this approach, researchers say, is that these academic scores are often of limited real world relevance.
Supposing we took the idea of grit seriously. That would start with using instruments like the one Dr. Duckworth has developed to estimate it. Can we then teach it? Should we?

Dr. Dweck at Standford University is quoted referring to a "growth mindset" versus a "fixed mindset," the difference being what we believe about our abilities. Can we grow them, or are we fixed with them? Fixed mindset learners are more likely to give up when encountering obstacles, assuming they're just not talented enough. Dweck's research, according to the article, demonstrates that the growth mindset can be taught effectively.

Ironically, praising children for their intelligence may make them less likely to succeed because it reinforces the fixed mindset. A better strategy is to reward effort and hard work. I've blogged about this subject before, and Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers is in much the same vein, I believe (I have only read reviews of it to date).

Should we assess these traits? One of the results of reporting assessment results for learning outcomes is that it becomes evident that students can earn decent grades and graduate without scoring high on assessments. If you've been in the classroom any length of time, you've probably encountered this student, whom we'll call Joe. Joe works very hard in your Finite Math class, forming study groups outside of class, turning in all the homework, coming to office hours. But the material just doesn't click with him, and he has a terrible time of coming to grips with the key concepts. Nevertheless, he gives each exam his full efforts and manages to pass with a B. Everyone is happy about this achievement, no? After grades are posted, Joe announces he wants to major in math. You consult with your colleagues and worry together for a bit. Although Joe has worked very hard and earned his B in everyone's eyes, he clearly lacks some spark of imagination that makes doing math rewarding. You fear he's setting himself up for failure.

The point is two-fold. One is that we assess outcomes (subjectively and informally in Joe's case) and we assign grades, but they mean different things. Tied up in grading is the notion of perseverance, of meeting each of the many assignments head-on and getting through them. But in the gestalt there may be something missing; the pieces do not always make the whole. The second point is related: we attempt to estimate the cognitive outcomes with our formal assessments, but generally do not assess the noncognitives. Shouldn't we doing so? If the science quoted is valid, then grit has as much to do with success as intelligence.

If you've browsed my Assessing the Elephant piece, or read enough of this blog (e.g. here), you can guess where I'm going. Why not assess grit along with thinking and communication skills across the curriculum, in a minimally-intrusive survey? It works for the cognitive skills, so there's a chance it will work for the noncognitives. Wouldn't it be fascinating to be able to compare cognitive skills, grit, grades, and graduation rates?

Please note that this gives institutions a way to include students themselves in their assessment reports. My last post was about publicly reporting learning outcomes and results. For example, Capella University's website has a page for Learning Outcomes. This is the future--gaze well upon it, ye assessment directors:
As this practice becomes common, the question will be asked "why doesn't every student get the highest rating?" Is this a fault with our education? At present, we could only shrug our shoulders and perhaps mutter about SAT scores of incoming freshmen, or if accreditation is imminent the glorious plans for improvement we've printed in reports. But if we actually assessed noncognitive traits like grit, we could report out richer details. We might note that the students who failed to graduate also were rated low in perseverance. We could isolate those with the most assessed grit and see how this relates to cognitive development. We could include noncognitives in the curriculum itself and begin to take it seriously, just like effective writing. For liberal arts institutions, the tricky question of balancing broadness with singleness of purpose could be explored with at least some minimal data.

It's an experiment worth doing.

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