Improving Academic Performance

An Introduction to Grit: A Key to Academic Performance

Posted by Mark Skoskiewicz on Thu, Mar 30, 2017 @ 10:00 AM

grit.jpgOver the past five years, I’ve done a fair amount of secondary research (reading articles, books, etc.) on academic performance. Two of the most interesting and actionable discoveries I’ve made are that A) a student’s mindset is far more important in explaining academic success than I would have imagined and B) a concept called Grit is what seems to power the performance of a student with the right mindset.


The “Growth Mindset” is a concept invented by Dr. Carol Dweck, a Standford Psychologist. Her research shows that individuals can generally be placed into one of two buckets: a) those that have a growth mindset and b) those that have a fixed mindset.

Here, briefly, are the key differences between the two mindsets.

If you have a fixed mindset, you believe your intelligence, for example, is a “fixed’ trait that you inherit. You can “make the best of it” of course, but you’ll be “capped” at performing at a certain level, because you just don’t have the genes or intellectual horse power to succeed in certain academic situations.

If you have a growth mindset, however, you believe your intelligence is something you build over time. Instead of thinking about your intellect as an inherited trait, you view it as a muscle that grows the more you use it (i.e., study, take difficult courses, etc.).

An individual’s mindset might shift when considering academic performance, personality traits, or athletic ability. One might have a fixed mindset in some areas, and a growth mindset in others. For example, you might think you are shy because it’s just your personality, but be more growth oriented when it comes to intelligence or learning new athletic skills.

All else equal, Dweck has shown that individuals with a growth mindset outperform those with a fixed mindset in an academic setting.

The reason for this is, in some ways, very simple and intuitive. Most people would probably not argue that success in school comes from a mix of “IQ” and effort. You can make up for lower innate intellectual horsepower by working hard. In fact, there’s even research which suggests that intellectual horsepower itself is not as “fixed” as most people believe. For example, increased levels of education have been shown to improve IQ scores, and getting the right amount of sleep and eating right has been shown to improve cognitive function.

So, if you have a Growth Mindset when it comes to academic performance, you’ll be better off. In part, this is simply because with more hard work, you’ll improve and learn more. But what is it exactly that drives the growth mindset-oriented individual when the task at hand is particularly difficult?

To perform well in school, you must put forth a lot of effort, solve problems, pay attention, ask question, work with classmates and teachers, etc. A mindset sets the stage for success, but how is that mindset actually implemented?

In Grit: The Power Of Passion and Perseverance, Angela Duckworth suggests a combination of passion and perseverance - or, as she calls it, Grit, explains why some people are successful, and other people are not. .

What is Grit?

To make it through West Point at the United States Military Academy, one must survive the Beast Barracks – a training program designed to filter out those without the mental and physical stamina to succeed. During the admissions process, West Point calculates the Whole Candidate Score; a combination of SAT scores, high school rank, appraisals of leadership potential, and physical fitness measures. It is designed to find the people who will succeed. Remarkably, Duckworth found that the Whole Candidate score didn’t predict who made it through Beast Barracks. Actually, those with the highest Whole Candidate Scores were just as likely to drop out as the those with the lowest.

What did predict success in Beast Barracks, however, was a score on what Duckworth calls the “Grit Scale.” According to Duckworth, people who are relatively “gritty” are resilient, work very hard, and know on a very “deep” level what they want to achieve. Her “grit score” measures those factors.

Duckworth has found that, in almost any domain, the grittier you are, the more successful you will be. Why? Because you simply keep practicing, keep learning, and keep trying different approaches until you succeed.

In an academic context, I have come to believe that students place far less importance on focused effort than they should. Students incorrectly assume that a certain innate “talent” for a subject is required to succeed at what they consider “advanced” courses, when in fact it’s the Grit to engage in sustained practice that matters.

For example, do you think getting a PhD in Physics requires a certain innate talent or IQ level? If you do, you are probably wrong. In fact, it is probably grit, not IQ, that explains why one person obtains a PhD in Physics while another does not, even though they’d like to.

This might not seem intuitive, because after all, getting a PhD in Physics requires mastery of some extremely complicated concepts, but let me explain.

Students seem to observe the best student in class easily answer questions, or the teacher, graduate teaching assistant, or professor breeze through discussions of complicated subjects, and assume there must be some natural ability that underlies their knowledge. What they don’t see is all of the time spent practicing and studying, likely in a very deliberate way. It’s practice, not innate talent, that almost always explains knowledge and understanding of a subject. And, the gritty person is more likely to practice more and stick with difficult concepts until they fully understand them.

Now, I’ll grant you, if you are going to earn a PhD in Physics from Harvard or certainly if you are going to earn a Nobel Prize in Physics, your IQ is probably going to matter. But even then, there is no Physics “gene.” Your effort and your work ethic combine to explain your performance.

For an interesting exploration of these ideas, read this article by Cal Newport, a Computer Science Professor at Georgetown University, who was asked “To what extent does intelligence matter in college success?” Newport begins his response by saying “I don’t believe that intrinsic intelligence plays any significant role at the college level.”


Read the full blog article about why intrinsic intelligence doesn’t drive academic success here.

In my next post about grit, I’ll cover why effort matters twice, and discuss some ways to become grittier