There are many factors that go into determining whether a student is successful in school and on standardized tests. In this article, I’ll discuss a “lesser known” factor that parents and students should be aware of when developing a plan for improving performance in school and making educational decisions more generally: grit.
Here is a relatively long list of factors that matter (there may be others, but many other factors might be synonyms for or sub-sets a concept on the list below)
Amount of hard work / work ethic
Executive function skills: working memory, paying attention, etc.
Interest in the subject matter
Perseverance / grit
Many people may look at the above list and find these all to be relevant, but be naturally drawn towards some traditional factors that the average person relies on when trying to understand why someone is an “A” student. Why does my oldest son have an “A” average and my younger son a “B-?” Well, he seems to work harder. Or, he is just naturally brighter and “gets” things (i.e., IQ). Or, he has better study skills and is more organized. But in fact, there is evidence that one factor on the list plays an important, underappreciated and outsized role in determining academic success: grit.
The #1 predictor of academic success
Angela Duckworth, an Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, defines grit as the “tendency to sustain interest in and effort toward very long-term goals.” Grit is related to self-control, but is more of a “long term” concept than self-control, which is about resisting momentary temptation. Duckworth describes her research in this TED talk.
Simply put, grittier people simply stick with things longer than less gritty people. When they experience problems or road blocks, they, driven by a passion for accomplishing their goal, stick with the initiative and find solutions to problems instead of giving up or redefining their goals. They are more likely to persevere in the face of obstacles. The insight here, however, is not that the above is true. It seems quite logical and intuitive, at least to me, that all else equal, someone with more grit would accomplish more in many walks of life, academic or otherwise. The insight is that grit is more important than one might expect.
You might be surprised to realize that Duckworth’s research on grit suggests that it is a better predictor of report card grades and improvement in report card grades than IQ. In fact, grit was the best predictor of academic performance. She also showed grit to be the best predictor of success in the Scripps National Spelling Bee, perseverance at West Point Military Academy and graduation from Chicago public schools. The implications for students of the importance of grit are profound.
How and why grit it matters
Imagine you are an 11th grade student in a calculus class struggling with the night’s homework. You have a friend who is getting an A in the class, but you’ve been struggling so far. You know you’ve put in some hard work, but the first test didn’t treat you very well. Once you believe or think you understand that your friend is just “more of a math person”, and may not even be trying as hard as you are, it’s easy to “let yourself off the hook,” close the book, and begin to get comfortable with the idea of a C or B in the class. This way of thinking places relatively little weight on the importance of grit, and more on IQ or natural ability.
Now, imagine that you believe in the importance of grit. You’ll probably be far more likely to find a way to stay after school to ask the teacher questions, or at least muster the courage to ask a question in class. Perhaps you’ll go even farther and ask your parents for a tutor. Once you believe that grit matters, your approach and actions will almost certainly change and you will become more likely to succeed. Now, it’s not all about simply believing in grit. Some people really are more naturally grittier than others, but that doesn’t mean a naturally less gritty person can’t train themselves to become grittier. And even if you over index in grit, your interests, study skills, planning, IQ, etc. will interact to determine how well you do. But the point is that grit is important, and a lot can be gained from simply realizing that this is the case.
Grit is far more important to academic success than most people realize. Don’t be too quick to assume that success is driven primarily by natural gifts in any given area. Success may just be a matter of sticking with a goal over the long run and overcoming obstacles to reach it.