Can Grit Be Measured? Angela Duckworth Is Working on It

Can Grit Be Measured? Angela Duckworth Is Working on It

Grit is important. Many K-12 educators and researchers all share that starting point. If children try hard, stay on task, and keep pressing through difficulties, good things happen. When school systems want to track the role of grit, or help instill it, however, everything gets trickier.

Something as simple as testing students for grit...isn’t simple at all. The famous marshmallow test, developed in the late 1960s by Stanford psychologist Walter Mischel, is a clever way of assessing young children’s self-control, as seen by how long they can resist the temptation to grab a nearby snack. But the marshmallow test or its variants don’t scale; they are too intrusive and too time-consuming to be usable in a school district with many thousands of students.

University of Pennsylvania psychology professor Angela Duckworth would like to help.

Since launching her 2016 New York Times bestseller “Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance,” Duckworth has been crisscrossing the United States, meeting with school officials, researchers and foundations to talk about ways of improving education. I caught up with her last month in Salt Lake City, where she was a keynote speaker at a conference hosted by survey-software maker Qualtrics. During a break between presentations, she talked about the work that she and other researchers are doing to come up with quick, unobtrusive, scalable—and reliable—tests for grit among K-12 students.

One approach that intrigues Duckworth: keeping tabs on students’ moment-by-moment habits when doing schoolwork online. Some students are easily distracted by ads, games or other diversions, she notes. Others can power through their work without interruption.

Also worth tracking, she says, are the ways that students respond after getting two or three online problems wrong in a row. Does their attention drift? Do they give up entirely? Or do they redouble their efforts to learn a difficult lesson?

Both these approaches have the benefit of assessing students without interrupting their normal learning day. As Duckworth observes, the school year already is filled with special-mission tests that interrupt regular course work. The less time commandeered by any grit-specific evaluations, the better, she says, adding: “The goal is something that takes zero extra time.”

Another simple measure that’s worth a look, she says, is the degree to which high school students persist with one activity across multiple years, taking on more responsibility in domains such as band, theater or a sports team. Students with an enduring passion for one field could be showing more grit that their peers. Such data is readily available, she notes; it passes her zero-time test.

For college students and adults, Duckworth has developed a 12-item questionnaire that lets people evaluate their own levels of grit. It’s been shown to be effective in situations such as indicating which new West Point cadets are most likely to complete a grueling summer program, versus those more at risk of dropping out.

The grit survey differs in interesting ways from traditional psychological measures of conscientiousness, which is also a prized trait but not the exact focus of Duckworth’s work. She’s more interested in evidence of passion and persistence, having found those strengths tie more closely to people’s odds of carrying out remarkable achievements, rather than their success at everyday tasks. To elucidate this difference, the survey offers statements such as “Setbacks don’t discourage me”—and then asks respondents to say whether they agree or disagree.

Duckworth is much warier of flooding K-12 classrooms with such questionnaires. As she pointed out in a 2015 academic paper, younger or low-achieving students may not fully understand the questions. There’s also a risk that students (or their teachers) may not clearly distinguish between self-control and compliance. Students’ frames of reference may vary widely, too. In highly structured schools, students might regard even the slightest lapse in homework habits as a sign of flightiness, while students in more chaotic settings might portray the same or laxer conduct as a sign of great self-control.

George Anders (@GeorgeAnders) is a New York Times-bestselling author and a journalist with three decades of experience writing for national publications

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