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What role does "grit" play in learner achievement?

Hello colleagues, I know of at least one adult literacy program that is using Angela Duckworth’s grit scale during their intake and orientation process. This program found that the adult learners who achieved their goals also scored highest on the grit scale. Duckworth defines grit as “the tendency to sustain interest in and effort toward very long-term goals (Duckworth, Peterson, Matthews, & Kelly, 2007).”

If you have not seen Dr. Duckworth’s fascinating 6-minute TED talk on this topic, you can find it here

Duckworth has made very brief (8-item and 12-item) grit surveys available for educational use on her webpage

What do you think about the role of grit in achieving one’s goals? What would you say are some of the implications for using a grit survey as part of adult literacy programming?


Susan Finn Miller

Assessment Moderator


S Jones's picture

I think it's *huge* -- but also entirely too easily misunderstood.

Grit can be what provides the traction for a student to get their academic vehicle moving forward... and the tougher the terrain, the tougher the "grit" has to be.   It's a little bit like "spoons," though, per the "spoon theory"  ... a person might have to ration their grit.   

All the grit in the world doesn't help on metaphorical mud, and sometimes students can ever so grittily just keep spinning their wheels... 

I'm watching a student in her penultimate semester in our nursing program spend *hours* reviewing for a test ... grit personified.  



Susan Finn Miller's picture

Hi Susan, Thanks for sharing the story about the learner who personifies grit. I know many of us can think of  adult learners who do so. It's amazing to me how strong some people are in overcoming challenging -even overwhelming- life circumstances. The spoon story illustrates this well for individuals who are dealing with chronic illness.

What do you think about using a grit scale as part of adult literacy programming? What would you say are the pros and cons of using an assessment like this?

Thanks so much for adding to the conversation!

Warmly, Susan

Assessment Moderator

S Jones's picture

  My initial reaction -- but I'd love to hear other thoughts  -- is:  for crying out loud, another assessment??? 

   Also that there is entirely too much tendency for people to leap from "that's my score" and to fixed mindset thinking.   

   I think there would be better avenues than an "assessment" to explore and develop grit.... unless we are *also* assessing what we do in terms of how it encourages and supports and develops student grit instead of grinding it down into oblivion (with things like endless assessments and Our Judgment Of You).

   That said, it's my nature to be curmudgeonlyl about such things and I am interested in hearing other sides :) 

Anne W's picture

Regarding the idea of more assessments, here's an opportune moment for me to insert more of Larry Ferlazzo's thoughts:


Helping students to think about how they learn and to assess themselves is the Ferlazzo’s big goal. “We want students to be able to see it in their self-interest to be thinking about their thinking when we’re not around, when they’re not even going to get graded on their meta-cognition and awareness,” he said. If students can do that, they will not only be more motivated, but they will have a deeper skill to take with them beyond the classroom.

This version of personalized learning is quite different from the data-driven computer-based learning dominating education conversations today. Ferlazzo is all for data, but he doesn’t think tech-based data collectors are assessing some of the most critical data points. He’s thinking about the quality of student questions, whether they are relating topics to other things they’ve learned, and if they can effectively help a peer learn. Helping students to identify personal learning styles, tricks to improve research and studying and an awareness of how he or she learners, is much more personalized than any data report spit out by a computer.


Susan Finn Miller's picture

Anne and Susan, Thanks for weighing in on this. There are so many different types of assessment and the ways we use these tools varies greatly depending on our purpose. Learner self-assessment is meant to be empowering in the ways Ferlazzo describes.

It would be great to hear how folks are using learner self-assessment to empower adults.

The grit scale can be used in a variety of ways. As mentioned, I know one program that is using the grit scale during intake. There are few seats available, and this program wants to ensure learners will be successful. They have found that the grit scale, along with other pieces of information, including a one-on-one interview and TABE results has been helpful in decision-making.

What do you think about using a grit scale as one piece of evidence for screening?

Cheers, Susan

Assessment Moderator

David J. Rosen's picture


I would be interested in seeing (an) example(s) of a grit scale. Can you tell us where we might look at them?

As for using them for screening, this would be useful for identifying students who may need to get "grit training" or other non-cognitive skills training that a program can provide, but not for screening learners out. Many adult learners need this training and with it may succeed in a learning program where without it they may not. YouthBuild Programs are a good example of providing out-of-school young adults noncognitive skills training, through their "mental toughness" training (success in which is a prerequisite for enrollment in some Youthbuild programs but not in all) and in other ways.

David J. Rosen


Susan Finn Miller's picture

Hi David and all, Angela Duckworth has made very brief (8-item and 12-item) grit surveys available for educational use on her webpage

I agree that equity is a very real concern when including a grit scale as part of the decision-making process in screening. Identifying learners who may be weak in the area of grit and supporting them to develop more of it, would seem a worthwhile goal. I know Duckworth is studying the issue to better understand how people develop grit and how it can be nurtured. I'm not sure if the research has clarified these issues yet.

Carol Dweck's work on mindset would seem relevant here. What learners believe about achievement being due to effort versus inborn talent has a huge impact on achievement. Believing in the efficacy of hard work is important. There's a lot to say on this. I hope members of the community will add to the conversation about how they view grit and the role of one's mindset in achieviing goals.

Susan Finn Miller

Assessment Moderator

David J. Rosen's picture

Thanks Susan.

The (non-children) Duckworth grit surveys get at issues that adult learners need to attend to.  I wonder if there are any other grit surveys that have been developed for adults. Anyone know?

The capacity to be "gritty" may be a set of "performance character" skills that can be learned well in one context and then can later be applied in others as needed, Some character skills such as honesty and optimism are traits that one can assess in oneself generally, because if one has them they are by definition (almost) always swiched on. Other character skills, however, such as grit, working hard, and following-through are skills that once one has learned them one may use only when needed. The Duckworth grit scales that ask one to assess one's general, ongoing level of grit are difficult to answer for those who may have these skills but who only apply them when needed. For example, they may only apply these skills when in school, in some work situations, when studying for a college admissions or licensure test, or when preparing for a tax audit; using grit skills may not be a regular feature of their daily living. I can imagine retired people who were once known for their grit, or students during the summer, not showing up as "gritty" using the Duckworth surveys even though they may actually have excellent grit performance character skills which they use only when needed. If I am right, then assessing adult learners who have been out of school for some time and who may be unemployed, especially if they are comparing themselves to people they know who are working or in school may produce a falsely low level of grit on the Duckworth scales. This is one very good reason not to screen someone out of a program based on a grit scale assessment administered during an application process. As Duckworth points out, for different reasons, these grit assessments should not be used in high stakes contexts.

I think these assessments would be excellent to use in a program orientation, once someone was assured that they were enrolled. Students need to think about whether they can -- when needed -- stick to it when the going gets tough, and more important _how_ they can help themselves to stick to it. For example, students can learn how they can connsciously and deliberately reward themselves for sticking to something, finishing tasks that may be boring, frustrating or in other ways unpleasant but that are necessary in order to accomplish their objective or goal. They can practice using these non-cognitive skills. They can then reward themselves for achieving their goals. As a personal example, when I realized how difficult writing a graduate level dissertation would be, and how tempted I might be to quit and go to work, especially as I needed income to pay tuition, I asked my dissertation advisor what I should do. He suggested that I find a reward that would be very meaningful to me, something that I would not ordinarily do but only if I finished my dissertation, and that I hold this out as my reward, and then when I finished, fulfill my obligation to myself when. I took the advice, chose a six-week trip through west Africa, where several years before I had lived and had friends. This was not something that I could lightly give myself considering the cost of travel and the amount of time away from work. For me, it worked. I could then apply my "grit" skills because I had a tangible and meaningful reward in my daily sightline. Of course, I had to get a job to pay for the trip as soon as I returned. 

My comments here are more about the context for when to use a grit assessment, not as much about the assessment itself, however, when and how an assessment is used is also important.

David J. Rosen


Susan Finn Miller's picture

David, Thanks for sharing your story of how you motivated yourself to complete a demanding task, i.e., a doctoral dissertation. Adult learners in our programs face similar challenges related to their learning goals. It seems to me this approach to delayed gratification can be taught with smaller important goals, too. For instance, when I pass the math portion of the high school equivalency test, I will reward myself in some meaningful way. We can even break this down into smaller goals, e.g., mastering some specific area of math or spending 20 minutes studying vocabulary, etc.

Your point about how grit might be applied differently by individuals depending on life circumstances resonates with me. How one’s grit level may shift and change over a lifetime is an interesting question, too. I believe Duckworth has done research with older individuals as well as children, but I have not read her complete body of work.

It would be great to hear additional ideas and reactions from members about grit in our work with adult learners.

Cheers, Susan

Moderator Assessment

S Jones's picture

       I almost always recoil against assessments that I could answer essentially every single question with "it depends!"  

       I also suspect many students may have lots of grit but don't know what it looks/feels/thinks like in an academic setting.   Students who attend regularly and Do Every Assignment sometimes engage on a different plane than what's needed to get a good grade from that teacher / learn the material (and of course those two things can be completely different, sometimes).  When they do those early writing assignments with shortcuts and without really stretching their reading comprehension and expressive langauge skills , that's a kind of "grit" that can help them get around obstacles... except then they don't have the skills to do the harder assignments.   (I'm thinking of some students with really lousy spelling/ grammar who can pull things together for short assignments or when most of the content is pretty literal re-statement of things, but who are then in 'way over their heads when they're supposed to think/write for themselves and make their own sentence structures.) 

    I also think "grit" is a term that's 70% connotation and 30% denotation.   Why not use "perseverance" if you mean sticking to a challenging task?  "Resourcefulness" if you mean seeking out ways to get aroiund obstacles?   "Responsibility"  for developing an internal locus of control?

     I'm also influenced by my K-12 associates on Twitter which share things like this    



David J. Rosen's picture

Susan, thanks for sharing this link. It's quite pertinent to this discussion (on the LINCS Assessment CoP.) Formative assessment of non-cognitive skills could be useful for students and teachers, but school systems, the government, funders and others have no business collecting that kind of data on individuals. If they want to know if non-cognitive skills (e.g. grit) training works, they can collect pre-post cognitive skills data (with the permission of teachers and students). If the purpose of teaching non-cognitive skills is to improve the cognitive skills of adults (and possibly their children) then we should see some gains in cognitive skills. For adults, aggregate (NRS) cognitive skills data at least are already collected by education programs and schools, state government adult education agencies, and the U.S. Department of Education.

David J. Rosen

Susan Finn Miller's picture

Susan, Thank you for raising these important issues. I believe most of us in adult literacy education are actutely sensitive to the fact that traditional schooling does not work for a lot of people. For instance, I heard Robert Redford interviewed this past week on the radio program Fresh Air. He confessed that he was always a terrible student. He said he figured out that his real education was going to start once he left school. I once heard the late George Carlin talk about how meaningful his Montessori-like schooling was in his early years, but when he left that school to enter a traditional one, he was uninterested and hated school.

These famous individuals are likely similar to many learners who were not successful in traditional schooling. No discussion about  non cognitive skills, such as grit, should be separated from a discussion about how we design and organize instruction to engage learners. Drawing upon grit to complete tasks that are completely irrelevant to one's personal life, is not that easy for any of us. When we are able to tie those instructional tasks to personal goals that are relevant, this should make persistence easier. (I'm relating to David Rosen's example of a pianist making a plan to learn a difficult piece of music. This individual was highly motivated to accomplish this specific goal.)

What are some efffective ways to engage learners in talking about grit as it relates to their short- and long-term goals? Might these conversations lead to ways to improve our instruction to make it more engaging?

The link you shared brings up the ethical question of collecting data on non cognitive skills, which raises serious concerns about how such data might be used.

Cheers, Susan

Assessment Moderator



Arthur Upham's picture

True confessions: I first heard about the Grit Scale and Dr. Duckworth's work through Paul Tough's How Children Succeed, so I am very grateful for his entire overview there. Seems to me both that grit is critical, and that learning to handle fear and failure is just as fundamental. Grittiness means not giving up, picking oneself up and being thoughtful/ self-aware/ learning with hope that the next time can be different. Life challenge and journey for many, including me, I further confess.

Rachel Baron's picture

I have definitely seen the importance of grit in my ABE and GED classrooms. The students who are able to make themselves come to class, do the homework, deal with disappointment, and survive difficult situations out of class without giving up on schoolwork are often the ones who go on to succeed. For example, one of my students continued to come to class regularly and do homework despite chronic illness, marital troubles that lead to temporary homelessness, extreme financial difficulty, family members with drug addiction, her own history of drug addiction, and a non-passing score on her first GED test. In the end, she did manage to pass her GED test before the date set for a major surgery, which was her goal. That was a triumph of grit.

I understand that if a program has limited seats, they would rather serve students like the one I described above, and I think that if I had a small program and could only invest limited time and resources, I might consider resticting it to those students who would be most likely to follow through. Even as things are, I know that part of the reason we structure our orientation the way we do is to filter out the students who aren't able or willing to keep a couple of appointments.

At the same time, one of the points of Peter Tough's book was that these skills can be taught. If we only teach those students who already posess grit and other positive character traits, we are leaving behind those who might benefit most from our services. Carol Dweck's book Mindset also makes the point that the ability to deal positively with mistakes and hardship is not an inborn trait, but one that is learned--and can be taught. If a program is able to teach grit or a growth mindset, then it is not only helping its students to succeed academically, it is giving them tools that can help its students with all aspects of life.

We use reading and math test scores to help determine the type of tutoring or class a student will benefit from. That is why we assess these skills at intake. My hope is that if a program deems grit to be such an important trait that it is worth assessing before a student enrolls, then that program will also use those test results to guide instruction in a way that will help the less "gritty" students develop this important trait.


Susan Finn Miller's picture

Arthur and Rachel, Thanks for your comments about grit. I first learned about grit through Paul Tough's fascinating work, too.

We have all met students who demonstrate the kind of grit you descrbe, Rachel. We marvel at their tenacity and incredible ability to overcome so many enormous obstacles. I've always wondered why some people are able to overcome while others seem unable to do so. Duckworth's research offers some initial thoughts, but there is much more to learn.

You mention Carol Dweck's work on mindset, which I agree is relevant. Jim Dillon wrote in a recent blog on this topic, "Someone with a growth mindset thinks, 'no matter how long it takes or how hard it is, I will learn what I want or need to learn.'" While those with a fixed mindset atrribute success to innate ability.

Dillon argues that the focusing too much on standardized testing fosters s a "fixed mindset" in students.

In what ways are you trying to foster grit and/or a growth mindset with adult learners?



Assessment Moderator



Kathy_Tracey's picture

Hi All, 

I posed this video on our i-Pathways blog in September. I liked what she had to say. Along those lines, I would also encourge reading David and Goliath by Malcolm Gladwell and /or Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces that Shape Our Decisions. 

I'd love to hear your thoughts on any of these books and how they apply to our adult learners. 

Happy reading!


Susan Finn Miller's picture

Thanks for this, Kathy. I came across an interesting blog post on mindset that might be of interest to you and others The author outlines steps teachers can take to nurture a growth mindset within students.

The simple steps include:

1. Believe it

2. Teach it.

3. Model it.

4. Nourish it.

5. Assess it.

I encourage you to read the blog post to get more details about the steps. The final step, assessment, emphasizes the importance of formatiave assessment, which is all about ensuring all students are leanring. Personally, I have not addressed mindset in any specific way in my teaching, but I will do so in the future. I think talking directly about these ideas with students is really important.

What do others think?

Cheers, Susan

Assessment Moderator

David J. Rosen's picture

Rachel, Susan and others,

Rachel, you and others have made the point that grit can be taught to adults, and you give a good example of one of your students who has shown that she has these skills. You wrote:

For example, one of my students continued to come to class regularly and do homework despite chronic illness, marital troubles that lead to temporary homelessness, extreme financial difficulty, family members with drug addiction, her own history of drug addiction, and a non-passing score on her first GED test. In the end, she did manage to pass her GED test before the date set for a major surgery, which was her goal. That was a triumph of grit.

Did you teach her these skills? Do you know how she acquired them? Can you ask her? (That's the kind of question that one usually has to reflect on, as are all "How did you learn that?" questions.)

Anyone: What exactly do you do when you teach grit? Is there a grit curriculum? Grit lesson plans? An article or other writing about how to integrate grit skills in everything you teach? Something else?

Anyone: How would you teach your students grit, and since this is the Assessment CoP, how would you and they assess how they were doing in learning the skills?

Susan's comment earlier that a large goal (like my goal to finish my dissertation) can be broken down into smaller objectives or steps that also can be rewarded by the learner is a great insight. Many years ago, when I hired mentors, I was interviewing an accomplished pianist and music educator to be a mentor for one of our independent study students. I asked him, "How would you help this student be disciplined in improving his piano skills and other music-related learning?" After a moment to reflect he said, "I usually practice for several hours at a time. When I have a really difficult piece to learn I break it into smaller, more manageable sections. I open a package of chocolates and put them in front of me on the piano. I assign a chocolate to each section. When I master it, I eat the chocolate." Although chocolates may not work for everyone, the idea of breaking difficult work into smaller, manageable sections will work for most people, and the insight that many of us need to reward ourselves as we go is incisive."

Anyone have other examples of teaching, or students using, this strategy? Anyone have other grit teaching -- and formative assessment -- strategies?

David J. Rosen

David J. Rosen's picture

Susan and other Colleagues,

This discussion has stimulated me to begin an Adult Literacy Education (ALE) Wiki area on non-cognitive skills. I have added to it some of the resources suggested here, as well as other resources. A wiki, as you may know, is a web page that anyone (in this case, anyone who registers) can add to, so I invite you not only to look at this ALE Wiki area but also to add to it (or correct it, if this is needed.) See the "How to Add Text" section at the bottom of the ALE Wiki page. Don't worry about making mistakes. You can easily correct them, and I monitor everything added to the ALE Wiki, so I can fix things too. It's impossible to "mess up" a wiki page; it can always be fixed.

The grit discussion -- which I hope will continue here -- could be archived there if someone chooses to do that.

In addition to LINCS CoP discussions, those who are interested in exploring or delving deeper into non-cognitive skills for adult learners, skills such as grit, now have a place to easily find resources to help them learn about this, as well as to share their own knowledge.

The web address for the ALE Wiki is  The web address for the non-cognitive skills area is  Please take a look, add useful information, and visit it peridiocally to see the added resources and other information.

David J. Rosen