Student Retention & Success

When it Comes to Student Success, Grit Matters

By May 11, 2015 January 23rd, 2018 No Comments

Among all of the non-cognitive variables (e.g., self-efficacy, growth mindset, self-identity, engagement, study skills, learning strategies, interpersonal skills, and commitment), why has the concept of grit captured our attention? What is it about grit that resonates so strongly with the higher education community?

Grit is a great word.

We can throw out every definition, every concept, and every single data point we want to make our argument about grit (and trust us, we will discuss in more detail below). But take a moment to think about just the word itself. Grit – what a fantastic word. Compare it simply as a word to some of the other non-cognitive variables we listed above. Efficacy. Commitment. Mindset. None of these come close to the power and simplicity of the word grit. On a basic human and cognitive level, our brains, our inner thoughts, and our attention are drawn to catchy concepts, words, and images. Grit captures all of those qualities in a single strong, crisp syllable. To a certain degree, that alone is enough to peak our interest.

The concepts are intuitive.

Catchiness aside, grit—and related concepts such as resiliency and growth mindset—have been a topic of significant discussion across many professions. Regardless of the field, three concepts capture the true essence of grit: focus, effort, and recovery. Can I focus on what I need to do, particularly long-term? Am I willing to put forth the effort to be successful? When I hit a setback, how do I recover from it? Focus, effort, and recovery are tangible concepts that make grit easy for us to understand. On a basic level, even if you have never defined the word grit, those terms capture the thoughts that pop into your head the moment you hear the word.

What makes grit so compelling in higher education is how closely it parallels the story we see every day on campuses across the country. Think about these themes in relation to a first-year college student. We all know a student who has struggled with either setting or staying focused on strong academic goals. We all know a student who either did or didn’t put in the necessary study time or effort needed to pass a difficult exam. We all know a student who experiences something like a poor mid-term or ends up on academic probation and then bounces back or does not bounce back. Grit resonates because even if we have never read a definition, we all know students who share these stories.

The Data Demonstrates that Grit Matters.

In fall 2013, we piloted a set of questions measuring academic resiliency (grit in an academic setting) in the Mapworks Fall Transition survey. The response from clients was overwhelming, resulting in a pilot sample of nearly 56,000 first-year undergraduate students from 39 four-year institutions. We tested ten questions, and ultimately chose four to add to our surveys beginning in fall 2014.

So, grit may be catchy as a word and intuitive as a concept, but how does it relate to student success? Figures 1 and 2 below show academic resiliency compared to both academic performance and retention. The result: academic resiliency is clearly related to both outcomes. Students with higher academic resiliency scores were more likely to have higher fall term GPAs and spring cumulative GPAs. These students were also more likely to be retained to their second academic year.


Figure 1: Academic Performance in First-Year Students by Academic Resiliency



Figure 2: One-Year Retention Rates in First-Year Students by Academic Resiliency

So the visibility and attention being paid to grit makes sense on a number of levels – the word itself, the concepts, and the data.

Are you curious about how academic resiliency relates to other aspects of the first-year student experience? Check out our infographic, “Academic Resiliency and First-Year College Students“, or download the research note entitled, What is the Relationship Between Resiliency and a First-Year Student’s Academic Experience?