Non-Cognitive Qualities All Educators Need to Know About: Grit, Mindset and Motivation

by: Debbie Niderberg and Hollis Dannaham

In this article, Debbie Niderberg and Hollis Dannaham bring to light some of the recent research on the importance of “grit” as a determining factor in student success.

With ever increasing stakes for our day schools to retain students and amply prepare them for both academic and life success, we have to ask ourselves, are we doing enough? Are we providing them with the opportunity to develop the skills necessary to succeed in our ever changing world, and what are those skills? According to researcher Angela Duckworth (2007), most school curricula were designed to develop math ability, language skills, and critical thinking, all cognitive based skills. In fact, though, she asserts, that it is the non-cognitive skills of grit and persistence that are the best predictors of success and should be taught and nurtured in our schools. The challenge is even more pronounced, we suggest, for our Snapchat generation of students, who are accustomed to the immediate availability of a plethora of media and information and for whom the process of research and discovery is not automatically embedded in the school experience, as it once was by necessity. The good news is that there are plenty of ways, in the classroom and beyond, to nurture the non-cognitive skill of grit, and research evidences that the results of this investment are impressive.

The research

Angela L. Duckworth of the University of Pennsylvania and Christopher Peterson of the University of Michigan conducted a series of six studies to research the question of why some individuals accomplish more than others of equal intelligence. They researched a large sample of successful individuals across a range of disciplines including investment banking, painting, journalism, academia, medicine, law, as well as graduates of West Point and spelling bee champions. They found that people with similar IQs at the same age, but with more grit, defined as the perseverance and passion for long-term goals, achieved higher levels of success than those with self-reported lower levels. These students earned higher GPAs in college, despite lower SAT scores, and made fewer career changes. “Grittier“ cadets at West Point were more likely than their counterparts to complete their first summer of training program, and grittier competitors in the Scripps National Spelling Bee outranked less gritty competitors of the same age (Duckworth and Peterson, 2007).

What can we, as educators, do to help nurture this non-cognitive, yet critical, skill? This article will look at three non-cognitive factors – grit, mindset, and motivation – which correlate with academic and life success, and offer strategies that educators can use to support and foster these key qualities in our students.

One of the most compelling theories explaining grit and how students’ mindsets about their own intelligence affect their academic performance has been developed by Dr. Carol Dweck of Stanford University. In her research, she found that students with a “fixed mindset” believe that they are born with a certain amount of intelligence that does not change throughout life, and that this impacts their mindset for learning and limits stamina in the face of setbacks. In contrast, students with a “growth mindset” believe that with additional effort they can increase their intelligence and as a result, they evidence more grit (Dweck, 2013).

The results of a series of six studies conducted by Carol Dweck and Claudia Mueller (Columbia University) with a group of ethnically and economically diverse fifth graders showed how subtle differences in praise can have dramatic effects on students’ mindsets and resilience. In one group students were given a moderately difficult set of problems from a non-verbal IQ test, and praised for their effort (“That’s a really high score. You must have worked hard at these problems.”). In another group, the researchers provided the same questions, but praised the students’ performance and their intelligence (“That’s a really high score. You must be smart at these problems.”). To measure the students’ reaction to setbacks and resiliency, they then provided a very difficult set of questions, and followed up with a third set of questions that were comparable in difficulty to the first set. The results of the experiment were striking (Dweck and Mueller, 1998).

Those students who were praised for their intelligence ended up with a “fixed mindset” and became stuck in concerns about their ability. They did not want to try hard problems. They also interpreted their failure on the harder problems to mean that they lacked ability and showed less interest in finishing the questions at home. Finally, they performed worse on the third set of problems than they did on the first set, even though the problems were at the same level of difficulty. By contrast, students who were praised for their effort developed a “growth mindset” and showed the opposite response to the same setback. They chose to work on hard problems and thought they could improve their performance with continued effort. They also wanted to take practice problems home with them. Finally, their performance on the third test improved.

In this example, value was placed on the effort and the process, which in turn motivated the students to try harder, leading to success. Former Harvard professor Kathleen Cushman’s research interviewing thousands of students on motivation further builds on this. She identifies two factors required for motivation, or as she coined it, the” Motivation Equation”: Students need to see value in the task and they need to have an expectation of success in order to feel motivated (Cushman, 2010). In Dweck’s fifth grade study, the students who did not expect to succeed at the hard problems lost motivation, whereas those who saw value in the effort evidenced greater motivation and stamina.

From research to practice

There are many ways to cultivate the trait of “grit” in a classroom. One of the most direct ways is to consciously model and help nurture a classroom culture that celebrates effort, reduces risk, reframes failure as growth, and helps nurture a growth mindset.

For example, teachers can change the way they respond to incorrect answers to foster a growth mindset and build resiliency. When a student answers incorrectly, rather than moving on to a student with the right answer, the teacher can help the student figure out how she arrived at her answer. (“That is incorrect, but let’s take a look at how you came to that answer so we can all learn from it.”) Another effective way to respond to incorrect answers is with questioning. Through targeted questioning the teacher is guiding the student to persevere through the challenge and provides him with a sense of accomplishment for figuring it out himself. Teachers can also encourage students even when they do not know the answer to show what resources they tried to draw on in order to arrive at the answer, even if it did not work.

It is vital to provide daily praise for effort. Instead of using non-specific comments such as “great job” or “excellent” or ability based comments such as, “Wow, you are so smart!” it is important to shift praise into effort based comments such as, “You showed excellent persistence in solving that problem, even though it was challenging,” or “I like the way you tried three different strategies until you found the one that worked.” In addition, when commenting on student work it is important to give critical and specific feedback such as, “You have an excellent introduction; the first sentence really hooked me to read more. The second paragraph, however, needs some revision. Look back at what you wrote and see if you can explain your thoughts more clearly.”

In addition to modeling, teachers can explicitly teach the growth mindset to students ranging from kindergarten through college. Current research on brain plasticity demonstrates that through effort, new neural pathways are created in the brain. In 2012, Hollis Dannaham (co-author of this article) was hired as a consultant by an inner city charter school to help figure out how to raise the reading achievement of a cohort of sixth graders who were reading significantly below grade level. After the students were assessed it was clear that they had never mastered basic phonics skills, and some struggled with short vowel sounds. In the first lesson they were shown an MRI of a brain of a good reader during reading. They were then shown an MRI of a brain of a struggling reader during reading. They were taught about brain plasticity and then shown the brain of a struggling reader who had worked hard and practiced daily on a phonics program. This image was a closer match to the good reader’s MRI. The students became very invested in the process of learning and practicing phonics. As a result, their reading levels rose and they performed better on the State ELA exam. This demonstrates another example of how the growth mindset increases motivation, fosters grit, and leads to greater achievement.

Helping students to set goals for themselves introduces them to the value of planning and the persistence that is required to achieve those goals. It can be consciously taught and reinforced through daily activities in many areas of school life.

Amy Lyon is a fifth grade teacher who set out to introduce her students to the concept and benefits of grit. She began by having her students discuss the importance of goals, and had them set their own SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Time-bound) goals. In class, she focused on the process of assignments rather than the final grade. She also helped the class become more mindful of points where they were already demonstrating grit, such as the writing process. Finally, she had students interview a person who had exerted a lot of effort toward a longterm goal, a project she called “The Perseverance Walk.” The students were required to create and present a “life lived with grit”: their interviewee’s goals, obstacles, and the end result of their person’s journey (Lyon, 2014).

One of the most important things to consider when setting goals is to make sure they are attainable for the student. The Soviet psychologist Lev Vygotsky referred to this as “the zone of proximal development,” that is to say, a goal that is challenging enough to motivate and achieve, but within the range of development and reach (Vygotsky, 1978). Curriculum goals can be broken into small, achievable steps that students can check off as they complete, to foster the process and maintain motivation. In lower grades teachers often create “I can…” charts that students use to check off their progress as they proceed. This is a great strategy for completing long-term projects. Providing students with a choice in the method or topic of their assignments is a simple way to boost motivation. Another way to help motivate students is by connecting learning and classroom tasks to what is meaningful to them in their immediate lives or for their future. This gives value to the task, which is an important piece of the motivation equation.

Grit can often be developed in an area of passion and/or extra-curricular activity, and these skills can be transferable to academics. Hannah was eleven when she was diagnosed with central auditory processing disorder (CAPD). In school she was receiving “C’s” and “D’s”, and professionals told her parents that because she could not retain more than fifteen syllables she would never go to college. They recommended a vocational track. The summer after tenth grade, she followed her passion and attended a horseback riding camp. She was placed in the highest group, a challenge which required that she follow the teacher’s instructions continuously in order to be successful. The instructions were significantly more than fifteen syllables. She succeeded at camp, but more striking was the impact that it had on her academics. When she returned to high school the following fall, she began receiving “A”’s and “B’s”. She continued on to college, completed two masters’ degrees, and is pursuing a doctorate. This is the power of grit and motivation!

The research on the non-cognitive skills of grit, mindset, and motivation unequivocally demonstrates the critical role these qualities play in achieving success academically and in life. It is our job as educators to embed them into our daily activities, model and explicitly teach these values and skills, and most importantly, develop classroom opportunities that nurture a growth mindset and help students develop grit and motivation.


Cushman, K. (2010). Fires in the mind: What kids can tell us about motivation and mastery. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Dweck, C. S. & Mueller, C. (1998). Praise for Intelligence Can Undermine Children’s Motivation and Performance Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (75) 1, 33-52.

Duckworth, A. L. and Peterson, C, . (2007). Personality Processes and Individual Differences: Perseverance and Passion for Long-Term Goals. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, (92) 6, 1087–1101.

Lyon, A. (2014). Grit Curriculum Lesson: The Perseverance Walk. Edutopia.

Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in Society: The Development of Higher Psychological Processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

For further reading

Aguilar, E. (2012). How children succeed: Grit, curiosity, and the hidden power of character. Edutopia, 2012, aguilar

U.S. Department of Education (2013). Walter Seager and Kurtis Topert (eds.) How to foster grit, tenacity, and perseverance: An educator’s guide: Promoting grit, tenacity, and perseverance – critical factors for success in the 21st century.

Dweck C. S. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. NY: Random House.

Dweck, C. S., Walton, G., and Cohen, G., L. (2014). Academic tenacity: Mindsets and skills that promote long-term learning. Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. pdf

Duckworth, A. L. and Eskreis-Winkler, L. (2013). True grit. Association for Psychological Science. observer/2013/april-13/true-grit.html

Duckworth, A. L. (2013) The key to success? Grit. lee_duckworth_the_key_to_success_grit?language=en

Ray, B. (2014). Q&A with Daniel Goleman: How the research supports social-emotional learning. Edutopia. supports-sel-betty-ray

USC News (2015). If the tough gets going, when should the tough give up. up/

Debbie Niderberg is Executive Director at Hidden Sparks. Previously she served as the Executive Director for The Nash Family Foundation. Hollis Dannahamis is an External Coach at Hidden Sparks. Hollis created Transform Boundaries, an organization dedicated to helping schools teach to struggling learners. She served as the Director of Academic Intervention at Explore Charter School and co-created the Carmel Alternative High School for at-risk teens. Hollis also worked as a learning specialist at the Student Success Center of All Kinds of Minds.

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