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True grit as a measure of success

Are good students born smart or are they self-made strivers– or is it some combination of the two? Recently a team of Northeastern University College of Engineering faculty members dug deeper into these questions.

What they discovered and put into writing earned them the 2010 American Society for Engineering Education’s Paper of the Year, and the Best Presentation award at the organization’s annual conference.

Professors Beverly Jaeger, Susan Freeman and Richard Whalen, inspired by extensive research by psychologist Angela Duckworth, hypothesized that students could be better poised for success if they possessed greater “grit” along with a baseline level of aptitude.

“Grit,” or persevering in the face of setbacks, involves tenacity as well as the ability to be resourceful and seek assistance through available resources. The term exemplifies the ability to keep trying while there is still opportunity to succeed, noted Jaeger.

The team, with assistance from undergraduate industrial engineering student Rebecca Payne, set up profiles of students to better understand how faculty can foster this idea of “grit.” They developed a student survey with 17 questions focused on level of effort, perseverance and other measure of grit, designed to yield a “grit score.”

Amongst the researchers’ findings was a preliminary conclusion that there are significant differences in grit based on factors such as gender and participation in organized athletics. For example, said Whalen, first-year engineering females scored higher on grit than their male peers, partly because they are a minority in the engineering disciplines and have to be grittier to survive.

Jaeger, Freeman, and Whalen said they hope the research will shed valuable light on best practices in educating future engineers, and they plan to expand the study to include the effects of experiential education on grit.

The three instructors also are part of the core team of the College of Engineering’s Gateway program, which supports and guides first-year students in their transition from high school to college and into their areas of engineering interest.

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