Study debunks link between student ‘grit’ and retention

Study raises doubts over value of ‘character education’ in universities

December 15, 2018
True grit tug of war team

Teaching resilience at universities may be a waste of time as students’ levels of “grit” have no discernible impact on whether they drop out, a study suggests.

Tracking the results of 1,603 US undergraduates who took psychological tests to measure their grit levels, researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago also found that the “direct effect on academic performance…of academic perseverance was modest”.

“Having grit might not be enough for students to overcome other barriers,” concludes the study, titled “Noncognitive factors and college student success” and published in the Journal of College Student Retention last month.

This was particularly evident for African American students, who recorded the “highest levels of grit”, but had the “lowest levels of academic performance”, reports the paper.

The study’s findings may give pause to efforts by some universities to introduce so-called “character education” to improve student resilience as they move from school to the first year of university.

Mental health campaigners including Sir Anthony Seldon, vice-chancellor of the University of Buckingham, have called on institutions to teach core modules on resilience and emotional well-being in the first year.

The latest research, led by Susan Farruggia, assistant vice-provost for undergraduate affairs at UIC, found that “academic mindset” had a “strong” effect on academic performance – with those students showing high levels of self-confidence, intrinsic motivation and a sense of belonging to an institution more likely to do well.

As “only participants’ academic performance had a strong positive effect on retention”, institutions should seek to remedy poor results if they wish to control student attrition, the report says.

However, Johnny Rich, chief executive of the UK outreach organisation Push, said that the study’s “modest” conclusions should not be used to dismiss the need for character education in universities.

“This is an issue that will keep rearing its head until we tackle it,” said Mr Rich.

He added: “Teaching is not the right way to develop positive student behaviours, but we can create opportunities for students to develop and be challenged, and spaces where they can fail and come back strongly, thereby helping to build a growth mindset.”

jack.grove@timeshighereducation.com

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