True grit

Grit, or strength of character, can predict the academic success of college students more accurately than standardized test scores or demographic indicators, according to current psychological studies.

Susan Murray sits to the left of student Stephani Dukes. They are working in Murray's office on research about improving student retention via grit.
Susan Murray (left) working with Stephanie Dukes, a sophomore in psychology (right).

But one important question about grit has yet to be answered, says Susan Murray, chair and professor of psychological science at Missouri S&T.

Is it possible to increase grit?

“Grit is a viable construct for exploration,” says Murray. “Grit is egalitarian and encourages people to work at growing and learning. It reminds us that although we might not be able to achieve something yet, with work, we can.”

In one of the first studies in the world to explore methods of increasing grit, Murray’s research team set out to discover if first-year STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) college students could improve their grit score through a targeted intervention.

Murray is the lead investigator of a study titled “Improving First-Year STEM Students’ Performance and Retention: Is Grit the Answer?” published by the American Society for Quality’s journal Quality Approaches in Education with co-authors Nathan Weidner, assistant professor of psychological science, and Stephanie Dukes, a sophomore in psychology.

According to a 2016 report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, about half of students seeking a bachelor’s degree in a STEM field fail to graduate in four to six years. Many students leave STEM fields altogether, making it difficult for high‑tech employers to find qualified workers.

“If we could provide students with a means to increase grit and improve their ability to persevere, we could affect the outcomes of higher education,” says Murray. “Retention rates would improve and the return on investment for college education expenses would be greater.”

To discover if the “grittiness” of first-year college students could be increased through academic intervention, Murray’s research team studied S&T’s three-week summer education program “Hit the Ground Running,” or HGR. The participants were 76 incoming first-year college students enrolling in STEM majors at Missouri S&T for the fall 2018 semester.

Murray and her team measured students’ grit scores — determined by perseverance and consistency of interest — before and after they completed the HGR program. At the end of the program, the students showed a modest overall increase in their grit score driven by an increase in perseverance-of-effort. Their consistency-of-interest showed a small, non-significant change.

“These results highlight the need for more grit studies, especially in higher education,” says Murray. “Because the relationship between grit and various academic outcomes is already established, having the ability to enhance grit in college students may become an effective method for improving their outcomes.”

To follow up on the study, the researchers are re-evaluating the participants after completion of their first academic year to check the relationship among their grit scores, GPA and continuation in their major.

“There’s more work to do,” says Murray. “At Missouri S&T, we’re encouraged by our results and the potential to increase student success through interventions aimed at increasing grit.”

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