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How Children Succeed, or, Grit is the New IQ

This post takes its title from Paul Tough’s excellent new book “How Children Succeed“, which draws its inspiration from the growing scholarship and research in non-cognitive attributes and their role in success and failure. Tough’s goal is to collect research that covers this from a wide range of angles, and substantiate his thesis that “grit, perseverance, and the hidden power of character” are crucial to childhood (and beyond) success in school and other endeavors.

My institution is what they call “highly selective”, meaning that the admission screening for applicants is quite serious, and every student entering the University has been academically and personally successful in the past.  We use what admissions people call a “holistic” process to review applicants, and I really do believe that the admissions folks read every word of every essay.  There can be no doubt that we get a tremendously strong set of students to join our community.  The question is what happens to them once they get here, and why?

I’ve done a little analysis of a recent first-year class;  this is data from one of the last few years.  Turns out that there is quite a lot of scatter in the data and that SAT is not an especially good predictor of first year GPA.  This is perhaps not surprising, since the complaints about the predictive power of the SAT seem pretty well established.


Does SAT Predict First Year Grades? The figure at left shows both a scatter plot of the data (n = 588) and a red line indicating the best fit linear model.  A change in SAT score of 10 points corresponds to a change in first year cumulative GPA of 0.02 point (95% CI: 0.016-0.023).  These results are statistically significant (p < .001). This means that the difference between a 1400 and a 1600 on the SAT corresponds to a GPA difference of about 0.4.  Non-trivial.  This data has a correlation coefficient of 0.42, however.   There is a lot of scatter in the data, the residuals are all over the place, and in general the data doesn’t seem to be very tidy.  Nonetheless, these observations are not out of line with this, or this, or the summary here.  There is a huge amount of “validity” literature about the SAT, so go have a look for yourself.  But the bottom line from this data is that SAT is a weak predictor of first year GPA.

fall_springDoes First Semester GPA Tell Us Anything About GPA in Later Semesters?  Things tighten up quite a bit when we look at how first semester GPA predicts second semester GPA.  The figure at right shows a scatter plot of the data (again, n = 588) and a best fit linear model illustrated as a red line.  A change in fall GPA of 0.1 points corresponds to a change in spring GPA of 0.086 points (95% CI: 0.079-0.093).  This result is statistically significant (p < 0.001).  The correlation coefficient is 0.70.  The fall-spring GPA relationship of nearly 1-to-1 is important and useful.  This fit is more robust, the data hug the linear model much more tightly, and in general the predictive power of the model is higher.

So, now back to the original question about why some kids succeed and why some do not.  By any measure, the students entering Uva are academically talented.  In fact, these data show:

  • our applicant pool is tremendously strong
  • GPA is not a great predictor of first year academic performance
  • our second semester is harder than our first (since the slope of the fall-spring GPA correlation line is less than 1)
  • most of our students do well the first year (mean GPA = 3.18, median GPA = 3.20)
  • only about 56 students ended the first year with a GPA below 2.5

My theory, based upon a huge volume of conversations with student about why they struggle, is based upon grit.  My sense is that students in the low-GPA crowd are intellectually talented and capable, but are not prepared for the adversity and challenges that they face in college.  Many of these students are unable to adjust their approach to learning to suit their new environment–whatever they have been doing to achieve academic success in high school and even before…well, they just keep doing it (even though it’s not working).  They don’t have the tools to adapt and adjust, to make the hard decisions about how to succeed, and most importantly to rebound from failure.

Grit is defined as perseverance toward a long-term goal.  It characterizes how we respond to failure, how we rise to meet a challenge, how we engage with our work.  Go ahead, get your grit score.  In Paul Tough’s work, grit is just one of a set of non-cognitive skills that plays a fundamental role in childhood and lifelong success.  And I am pretty well convinced that these sorts of traits are the ones that see a student with 1500 SAT score end his or her first year of college with a 2.2 GPA.  It’s not about intellect.  It’s not about IQ or SAT or AP exams or anything else.  It’s about preparation to meet a challenge, and preparation to grow as a person through experiences and–gulp, dare we say it?–failure.  It’s about openness to experiences and having a malleable mindset.

The challenge:  what is the right intervention in higher education to cultivate grit and other key non-cognitive skills in students who clearly have the intellectual capacity to succeed?

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