Blog: The Educated Reporter

Grit? Motivation? Report Takes Stab at Defining Terms

Source: Flickr/U.S. Department of Education (CC BY 2.0)

Education writing is famous for its alphabet soup of acronyms and obscure terms, but it could just as well be faulted for trafficking buzzwords in search of clear definitions.

Ideas like grit, motivation, fitting in and learning from one’s mistakes, often summarized as noncognitive factors, are just some of the concepts floated more frequently these days. A new paper released this week seeks to provide clarity to this fast-growing discipline within the world of how students learn.

The California-based Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching is behind the paper providing definitions for many of the terms and phrases that have emerged from the recent push by psychologists, economists and education experts to delve more deeply into what compels students to understand complex new material.

Each concept has its own section and is accompanied by summaries of key experiments that gave rise to the ideas’ relevance – fascinating in their own right – and key reference points for reporters whose inboxes are inundated with the latest effort to boost student grades and college prospects.

Two Types of Motivation

Take motivation, for example. In the research world there exist two types: intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation is learning for the love of learning – the ideal mindset of a student, the authors of the report write. But for various reasons, that thirst for knowledge lags in many young people, and so researchers have come up with different approaches to spurring that enthusiasm for knowledge among students.

One popular intervention to boost student motivation is the use of money – rewarding kids with cash for displaying positive results. But not all motivators are created equally. Harvard scholar Roland Fryer studied financial incentive programs at various schools, discovering that when students are rewarded for reading a book, they tend to perform better on standardized tests than when students are promised cash prizes for scoring highly on those tests.

One explanation for why rewarding inputs beats rewarding outputs is because the former is a clearly defined task – read a book, improve your reading scores. Incentives for scoring well on tests, on the other hand, require a whole host of activities that the student may not have a total grasp on, like productive studying habits. The Carnegie paper does note that when students come to expect the rewards, their motivation can dip.

Research suggests that, in the United States, the more motivation students say they have, the better they perform on various academic assessments. But that trend doesn’t seem to apply across countries. I wrote about a study that argued that the international education powerhouses – Finland and South Korea, for example – have students who report they’re less motivated than U.S. students, yet still perform much better on these assessments than students in the United States.

Other concepts explained in the Carnegie report include the idea of mindsets – having faith in one’s ability to understand complex tasks through effort, patience and an appreciation that failure is part of the process. I explore this idea in greater depth here.

Measuring Belonging and Perseverance

Grit has its own section, thankfully. The concept is backed by numerous studies led by Angela Duckworth, the scholar most associated with the concept. At its essence, grit tries to measure a student’s passion and perseverance for long-term goals, as the Carnegie report explains. One major experiment highlighted asked students 12 questions about their study habits, such as whether they finish what they begin and if new ideas or assignments distract them from previous ones. Duckworth and her colleagues found that student responses to these questions predicted their grade point averages, even if their test scores were low. The grit questionnaire also was found to be more accurate in predicting whether students at military academies would complete their first year than IQ tests or assessments produced by West Point, the Carnegie report notes. Still, while the research is promising, student grit shouldn’t be tied to teacher evaluations, Duckworth and her colleague wrote this year .

Stereotype threat – the idea that individuals who are confronted with stereotypes based on their race, ethnicity, social status or gender hurts their performance at work and school – is also explored in the Carnegie report. The Education Writers Association at its 2013 National Seminar featured Claude Steele, considered the nation’s foremost scholar on stereotype threat. Here’s a post summarizing how this scholarly concept plays out in the real world.

In many cases, talented students who have the potential to do well underperform when put in situations that accentuate those stereotypes. EWA’s Emily Richmond explores a 2013 study on how removing the timed element of tests led to girls scoring higher on math tests than boys. Sometimes the stereotype threat is activated in seemingly benign ways. Richmond writes that “research has found that when girls were asked to identify their gender prior to taking the Advanced Placement math exam, they scored lower than they did when the question wasn’t asked until after the test—or not at all.”

The Carnegie report tackles more ideas than can be covered in this space, but another section that stood out were the positive effects adult mentors have on low-income or minority students. Beyond the studies, the Carnegie paper provides examples of organizations putting these ideas into practice. From the report:

A program that expands on these encouraging findings is Building Assets, Reducing Risks (BARR), an initiative that was established 15 years ago by teacher-counselor Angela Jerabek at Minnesota’s St. Louis Park High School, then a low-performing school in suburban Minneapolis. BARR reaches students by first helping teachers: It trains educators specifically on how to enhance their relationships with students in a way that improves students’ connections to school, thus their motivation to learn.

Each section of the Carnegie report includes caveats about these research concepts – which I appreciate. (In the stereotype threat section, the report’s authors note a study that found no instance of stereotype threat in an experiment concerning girls and math). There’s also a section dedicated to the difficulty of measuring in students these psychological traits.

As more organizations propose school-based reforms that implement some of these ideas on grit, perseverance and motivation, often for a fee, it’s important to keep abreast of the studies and concepts that fuel these interventions.