Student Experience Research Network Blog

Three members of the Student Experience Research Network were featured at the Education Writers Association’s 69th National Seminar in Boston this week. Angela Duckworth, Ron Ferguson, and Mary Murphy presented their research on grit, early childhood development, and college persistence, respectively.

Angela Duckworth clarifies core messages and misconceptions about grit

New York Times journalist Kate Zernike interviewed Angela Duckworth, professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, in a conference-wide session about Angela’s new book Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance.

In her remarks, Angela explained the importance of providing challenge and support to promote grit, emphasizing that challenge alone is not enough: “human beings thrive when they know they’re in a secure place where other people truly respect them.”

Angela said the concept of grit has been misinterpreted and misapplied by some in education. There is “no grit curriculum yet,” she said, and simply holding a “grit week” or exhorting your students to be “gritty” on standardized tests is missing the point.

Instead, she advised educators to think about fostering deliberate practice in the course of their daily classroom instruction, which can help students persist and make progress: setting clear learning goals, giving students strategies to work through difficulties, providing feedback they can use to improve, and offering opportunities to revise.

In response to a question about the resources required to create a school culture that fosters gritty behavior, Angela noted that teachers and principals create culture and convey messages to their students every day, whether those adults are conscious of it or not. And when it comes to developing grit or any of the other socio-emotional competencies, the adults in the room have a vital role to play.

“Kids do not become gritty or optimistic or emotionally intelligent without the teachers and other adults in their life helping them get there,” she said. If a student isn’t being gritty, “the very next sentence should be ‘what should I do to help you get there?’”

Angela also noted that it’s important for adults to have empathy and try to understand the uniquely challenging circumstances that their students may face. For some students, the act of getting to school every day requires grit. But not giving these students the challenges, supports, and opportunities to develop passions and engage in deliberate practice—both inside and outside the classroom—is a disservice to them.

“It’s a crime that kids in this country have such unequal opportunity to do so many different things,” Angela said. “If you’re a poor kid, people only care that you got test scores of a certain level, they don’t care that there’s a yearbook or you got to try out for a play or play sports.”

Ron Ferguson shows how you can teach an entire city research-based child development techniques

In a panel session on education and equity with other preeminent scientists, educators, and authors, Mindset Scholar Ron Ferguson, an economist at Harvard University, presented his work on the “Boston Basics” campaign—a cross-sector collaboration among the Black Philanthropy Fund, the Achievement Gap Initiative at Harvard University, the Boston Mayor’s Office, Boston Medical Center Pediatrics Department, and WGBH.

Ron explained that the campaign was a response to years of research showing that the foundations of academic skills are built by the age of two, and that skill gaps exist along socioeconomic, racial/ethnic, and gender lines well before the first day of kindergarten.

Instead of standard programs, which Ron noted can often be expensive and difficult to scale, he and his collaborators designed Boston Basics to be integrated into the institutional framework of the city in a way that “people can’t avoid it.”

The campaign engages multiple delivery platforms (e.g., faith-based organizations, hospitals, barber shops and beauticians, child care and community centers, libraries, schools) to ensure that the parents and caregivers of every child born in Boston learn and practice five critical, research-based child development techniques:

The campaign is premised on the idea that conveying simple messages about small but pivotal behaviors to parents repeatedly and in key social contexts can be a high-impact way of setting up all children for success by building essential pre-academic cognitive, emotional, and social skills through daily interactions between children and their caregivers.

Mary Murphy explains how to boost college success by attending to students’ psychological experience of college

Many colleges and universities across the country are struggling with a vexing question: Why do so many qualified students fail to succeed and graduate with a post-secondary degree? And why is this particularly true for low-income students, students of color, and first-generation college goers?

Mary Murphy, an assistant professor of psychology at Indiana University, described what the College Transition Collaborative (CTC), is doing to try to help institutions understand and solve this challenge. CTC is an initiative launched with the support of the Student Experience Research Network.

As Mary explained, CTC is working with over two-dozen colleges and universities to design, test, and implement strategies that reduce students’ experience of ‘psychological friction’ in the transition to college, which is a key factor in student performance and persistence.

‘Psychological friction’ consists of the worries and fears many students encounter about whether they belong in school and whether they are smart enough to succeed in school. First-generation college goers, students of color and students from low-income backgrounds are especially susceptible to such ‘psychological friction,’ Mary explained, and these thoughts hinder students’ ability to develop friendships, focus on their studies, and seek out help if they are struggling.

The CTC is developing interventions to help incoming students prepare for and better navigate their first year in college. The 45-minute social belonging intervention CTC is currently testing uses stories from older students to help incoming students anticipate challenges they will face in college and plan ways to overcome them by writing their own advice for future incoming students. The intervention raised grades among African-American students at a selective private university and reduced the racial achievement gap by 50%, Mary said.

Buoyed by the results, Mary explained that the CTC is now conducting randomized controlled trials (RCT) of the intervention across all incoming students at 27 colleges and universities across the country, to try to identify what works best for different types of students in different settings.

Mary noted that the CTC is also currently recruiting colleges to take part in an RCT to test ways of reducing the psychological friction experienced by students placed on academic probation, which leads many students to fail or dropout—even though most schools intend the probation process to be a way of helping students get back on track to graduate.

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