Research Insights: Is Grit Legit?

Fall 2018

By Carrie Grimes

If you’re in education today, you’re probably well-versed in grit. Not the kind that circles the bathtub drain after an afternoon at the playground, but the kind that has invaded pop culture as the secret ingredient to student success. In my work in independent schools over the past 20 years—as an early childhood educator, an admission professional, and a school counselor—concepts of resilience, determination, and intrinsic motivation have always been part of the zeitgeist. Long before “grit” was a buzzword, I witnessed its essence in the hearts and minds of the disabled inner-city teens I counseled during my graduate school practicum at New York University’s Upward Bound program. Despite the often grave physical, emotional, and socioeconomic odds stacked against them, many of my Upward Bound students embodied an ennobling stick-to-itiveness that propelled them to complete high school and secure scholarships to local colleges.  
I’ve been exploring student motivation more recently in my doctoral program at the Peabody College of Education and Human Development at Vanderbilt University. My coursework in psychology of learning summoned me to re-examine Angela Duckworth’s 2007 landmark study, “Grit: Perseverance and Passion for Long-Term Goals,” in light of a more recent analysis of the concept in a 2017 study, “How True is Grit?” by University of Maryland psychologist Katherine Muenks. 

The Original Research

In her study, Duckworth asserted that grit is a personal asset that can be honed, serving as a success mechanism in diverse populations ranging from at-risk youth to elite military recruits. She defined grit as perseverance for passion in long-term goals and said it can be found in people who approach their goals as a marathon: They are consequently undeterred by the failure, boredom, or disappointments they may encounter along their journey. 
Duckworth and her colleagues devised the Grit Scale, which calibrated one’s effort and interest over time, exclusive of IQ. When applying the Grit Scale, study participants rated themselves on how they approach setbacks and challenges. The goal of the scale is to measure one’s noncognitive contributions to personal success, and Duckworth discovered that an individual’s score is an excellent predictor of achievement in the face of challenges. 
Ultimately, Duckworth posited that grit may indeed have a larger impact on success in life than intelligence. The research, including 5,000 participants, demonstrated this across diverse domains such as college campuses, the Scripps National Spelling Bee, West Point military academy, and a large cross-sectional sample of adults of all ages. Her research went viral, and parents and educators alike clamored to find out: How can our kids become grittier?

10 Years Later

Muenks and her colleagues further explored grit in the study “How True is Grit?” declaring that “inner grit” is a yin-yang of one’s “perseverance of effort” and one’s “consistency of interest” in a pursuit. Muenks’ experimental research design unpacks Duckworth’s definition of grit, and illuminates the murkiness of grit when it’s intermingled with neighboring psychological constructs such as personality, self-regulation, and engagement.
The researchers wanted to know: Does Duckworth’s definition of grit as a singular construct hold up, or is grit two distinctly separate constructs: perseverance of effort (PE) and consistency of interest (CI)? Does grit uniquely predict students’ academic success at the end of a semester, or are other similar yet distinct factors being lumped into our collective notion of grit? Finally, is grit consistent across high school and college populations, or does grittiness vacillate depending on a student’s maturity? They hypothesized that the structure of grit might vary depending upon the developmental stage of a subject, and therefore a reconsideration of grit’s definition may be required. They also theorized that other similar psychological constructs might distinctly influence academic outcomes when put toe-to-toe with grit. 
The two participant groups in this study were private high school juniors and Mid-Atlantic college students. Five-hundred students (controlled for gender, ethnicity, and other constructs) completed a series of randomly ordered items at the onset of the semester, measuring scales of grit, conscientiousness, self-control, cognitive self-regulation, effort regulation, and behavioral engagement/disaffection. For two of the scales, subjects were instructed to reflect on two of their current classes. Students in both groups also shared some background information on their educational history and personal demographics. At the end of the semester, students’ grades in the aforementioned classes, along with their overall GPAs, were collected.  
In their data analysis, Muenks and her colleagues tested Duckworth’s definition of grit against two other possible models, with both age cohorts. While there were subtle differences, overall, results for both cohorts supported Duckworth’s proposal that grit is a single overarching construct that has two subscales embedded within it (PE and CI).

The Jangle Fallacy

Besides reinforcing Duckworth’s definitional structure of grit for both age groups, the other major finding of the study was that grit is one of many overlapping factors that predict students’ academic success. Arriving at this conclusion required Muenks and her colleagues to run four models, two of which assumed grit was a stand-alone predictor of success, and two of which presumed it overlaps with other various characteristics connected to students’ self-regulation, personality, and engagement. Considering grit in isolation, the findings clearly demonstrated that PE was a notably stronger force than CI, when it came to getting good grades. When discretely compared across the study, other constructs like effort regulation predicted grades more strongly than grit did. In the latter models, the resulting psychological stew of very similar concepts lacking in individual clarity revealed an example of what is known in research as “the jangle fallacy,” or the error of referring to the same construct by different names. The jangle fallacy’s emergence in the study led this team to purport that “researchers as a whole must do a better job of defining constructs clearly and consistently, and developing measures…that fit definition and do not include items reflecting other constructs.” 

What This Means for Schools

Since Duckworth’s research on grit took center stage, a myriad of independent schools and federally and state-funded education agencies have latched onto grit as the secret ingredient to improving outcomes for students. In light of their findings, Muenks and her colleagues “suggest some caution be taken in advocating grit interventions as a way of enhancing school performance.” They encourage those who design policy and interventions to adopt a heightened awareness regarding other constructs that intermingle with grit, so as to ensure a match between initiatives and desired outcomes. 
For independent schools in particular, there is a responsibility to discern the complexity of these variables so that curricular and socioemotional initiatives accurately reflect the distinct definitions of these constructs. When our schools are investing in efforts to improve student-learning outcomes, we must be responsible consumers of the most current research to guide our practice. 
At the end of the day, Muenks’ study illuminated that perseverance of effort is the proven predictor of academic success—not consistency of interest. So, if a student doesn’t remain interested in French, it’s OK for them to switch to Spanish. Her grades are likely to be best if she focuses on continuing to work hard, and exercising diligence in all the schoolwork she undertakes, whether she genuinely likes it or not. In essence, while grit’s legit, it might also be overrated. 

Read More

For additional insight and perspective on grit, check out these posts on the Independent Ideas blog:
Carrie Grimes

Dr. Carrie Grimes is a professor at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College of Education and Human Development and is the director of the Independent School Leadership master's program.