We know from Dr. Angela Duckworth’s research that “grit” – passion and perseverance for long-term goals – can predict academic and personal success. If grittiness is more important than other personality traits and IQ in predicting success, and if, as Dr. Duckworth’s suggests, grit is malleable, then it seems useful to consider whether there are predictors of grit. If we knew what could predict grit, we might have more insights into how to cultivate it within our students.
So, what are the predictors of grit? Are there personal characteristics that influence how gritty a student is? To what extent does a student’s learning environment help students pursue long-term goals?
To answer this question, I collaborated with the national nonprofit YouthTruth to examine student perception data from 45,000 secondary students across 145 schools across the country. I wanted to know what we could learn from the students themselves about whether there are individual or environmental influences that can predict how gritty a student is. It turns out, there are.
Here’s what I learned:
- Students’ experience of their school environment is a significant predictor of grit.
- Of the school experience factors, student engagement matters most.
- Student-level demographics matter, but only a little.
I used data from YouthTruth’s Overall School Experience survey – a validated instrument that examines students’ experiences of their school’s climate. The four factors from the survey that were used in my analysis include student engagement, relationships with teachers, relationships with peers, and school culture. I also looked at student responses from YouthTruth’s Student Motivation & Grit module, which includes, with permission, Dr. Duckworth’s short eight-item grit scale. (To read my full methodology and results memo, click here).
- The school environment matters a lot. We know from previous research that students’ perceptions of their learning environment are linked to academic outcomes and that schools that focus on improving climate can help close the achievement gap. Do these schools also produce grittier students? My analyses indicate that students’ experiences in their school environment play a significant role in how focused and determined students feel. All four school experience factors – engagement, relationships with teachers, relationships with peers, and culture – were significantly related to grit.
- Student engagement matters the most. When examining the degree to which school experience factors relate to grit, we see that student engagement was most strongly correlated to grit. Students who perceive themselves as engaged with their school and their education are more likely to be gritty. Specifically, students who had higher levels of grit were more likely to feel a sense of pride in their school work, feel that their teachers helped them make connections between what they learn in class and life outside of school, and enjoyed coming to school most of the time. As educators consider ways to infuse social-emotional development into the classroom, these data suggest that a focus on understanding the broad school experience is a good place to start.
- Student-level demographics matter, but only a little. Ethnicity was the only statistically significant demographic predictor of grit, but the effect sizes (i.e., the magnitude of the differences in levels of grit between Black, Hispanic, and White students) were so small that it is probably not practically significant. Self-reported GPA was also a strong predictor. This is not surprising given that the inverse has been found (i.e., that grit is a strong predictor of GPA). This suggests that all students, regardless of their ethnicity, are equally likely to have high levels of grit. Based on these findings, I believe that schools should focus on the school-wide climate for all students, rather than specific student demographic subgroups when designing interventions to improve grit.
In the end
Students’ school environment plays an important role in fostering students’ levels of grit. As educators consider changes that can be made to improve students’ grittiness, we are wise to remember that adjustments to students’ learning environments are only important in the extent that they make a positive difference for students’ lived experiences. Two students at the same school could perceive the same school environment very differently, which according to these results would affect their levels of grit. Because these perceptual experience differences get to the heart of equity, we must make sure that all students are engaged and feel that they are in a school with healthy school climate if we are to see a future of strong, resilient and “gritty” leaders.
Dana Wanzer is an evaluation consultant specializing in programs serving children and youth. She holds a Master’s degree in Positive Developmental Psychology and is currently finishing her Doctoral degree in Evaluation and Applied Research Methods at Claremont Graduate University (CGU). Follow her on twitter @danawanzer.