The Research Behind the TED Talk: Angela Duckworth on Grit - Digital Promise

The Research Behind the TED Talk: Angela Duckworth on Grit

January 14, 2015 | By

Angela Duckworth, an associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania, was teaching 7th grade math in New York City public schools when she quickly noticed that her best students were not necessarily her smartest students. The realization prompted her to leave her middle school classroom and become a research psychologist, so she could better understand the role noncognitive traits like self-control and perseverance play in achievement.

Duckworth gave a TED talk in 2013 explaining how grit — i.e. perseverance and passion for long-term goals — is a significant predictor of success. Here, we take a deeper dive into her research, and the role technology may play in fostering grit in students.

Why are students successful?

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Duckworth studied children and adults in challenging environments, including West Point military cadets, national spelling bee contestants, and rookie teachers in difficult schools. In each study, she and her research team asked essentially the same question: “Who is successful here and why?”

Across numerous contexts, one characteristic emerged as a significant predictor of success: grit. Grit is the quality that allows an individual to work hard and maintain focus – not just for weeks or months, but for years.

Measuring grit

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To measure grit, Duckworth and her team developed the Grit Scale, a self-reported questionnaire used to evaluate focused effort and interest over time with questions such as, “I have overcome setbacks to conquer an important challenge.” Respondents answer on a scale of 1 to 5, with 1 being “Not at all like me,” and 5 being “Very much like me.”

Once an individual completes the survey, his or her grit score can be calculated and used to determine how grit relates to other measures of success.

Duckworth and her team studied students at Chicago Public Schools to determine whether a student’s grit, measured during junior year, predicted graduation the following year.

Students completed a survey that included four items from the Grit Scale, as well as questions used to measure various factors known to predict high school graduation, such as school safety, teacher support, peer support, parental support, conscientiousness, and school motivation. Juniors with the most grit were more likely to graduate from high school than their less gritty peers, even after accounting for these factors, standardized test scores, and demographics.


Instilling Grit in Students

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While it is clear that grit matters for success in school and in life, little is known on how best to foster grit in students.

One potential way to build grit in kids is to encourage a growth mindset. Individuals with a growth mindset believe intelligence and talent can be developed through hard work and dedication. By contrast, those with a fixed mindset believe a person’s most basic abilities are fixed traits.

Carol Dweck, a professor of psychology at Stanford University, showed that students become more motivated when they learn the brain is a muscle, which can get stronger, and that learning can lead to physical changes in the brain’s structure. In other words, teaching students that the ability to learn can change with hard work encourages them to persevere.


Can technology help us foster grit?

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Dweck, along with Zoran Popovic at the University of Washington’s Center for Game Science, teamed up to explore how educational games could be altered to promote growth mindset.

The researchers developed two versions of Refraction, a game designed to teach fractions to elementary school students. The experimental version of the game taught and rewarded growth mindset behavior by giving children “brain points” for effort, strategic game play, and incremental progress. The control version used a standard incentive structure common to educational games by rewarding children with “fraction points” for completing levels.

The “brain points” system encouraged low performing students to play the game longer, and increased perseverance after challenge and the overall time played. This suggests that educational games, when carefully designed, can promote a growth mindset and improve student motivation and engagement.

We still have a lot to learn about how best to foster grit in students, and answering the question will require strong collaboration between researchers and educators. It will also require determination and perseverance.

“We need to take our best ideas, our strongest intuitions, and we need to test them,” Duckworth said during her TED talk. “We need to measure whether we’ve been successful, and we have to be willing to fail, to be wrong, to start over again with lessons learned. In other words, we need to be gritty about getting our kids grittier.”

How do you foster grit in students? Tell us in the comments below!

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