Despite this and other successes administering the Grit Scale (she’s used it to study Scripps National Spelling Bee Contestants and Ivy League college students, among others), Duckworth acknowledges that questionnaires have significant pitfalls as a research tool: answers can be faked and respondents are often biased when evaluating people they know. Even more significant, people don’t have a good intuitive sense of the appropriate scale to use when assessing their own personalities.

“Let’s say I ask you to evaluate yourself on the question, ‘I am a hard worker.’ What standard would you use?” Duckworth says. She ran into this problem recently while studying delay of gratification in students in the US and Taiwan. On objective measures US students showed much less self-control, but on surveys they gave themselves higher marks than Taiwanese students gave themselves.

The success of Duckworth’s research will hinge ultimately on whether she and her colleagues can devise measurement tools that produce more replicable and precise results than the ones they are using today. Or, as she puts it, “If we cannot figure out how to measure these characteristics in some kind of reasonable timeframe, with some kind of objectivity, the research will grind to a halt because we can’t measure what it is that we want to actually study.”

Measurement innovations are at the heart of two large-scale projects that Duckworth is launching this year: The first is a three-year-long study of self-control funded by a grant from the John Templeton Foundation. Students ranging from pre-kindergarteners to college seniors will be asked to complete boring software tasks while resisting the temptation to divert their attention to more entertaining pursuits.

On the day I visited Duckworth she was holding a conference call where the project team was debating whether to have kids use iPads or computers in the experiment. (The concern was that very young kids wouldn’t be dexterous enough with a mouse; in the end the team decided on iPads and within a couple weeks Duckworth had rounded up an additional $10,000 of funding to pay for them).

“So kids are going to be doing these boring tasks on iPads while trying to resist the temptation of switching over to play Angry Birds,” Duckworth says, referring to the notoriously addictive online game. “We’ll measure how well kids exert self-control in the face of temptation to take immediate gratification. Once we have these measurements established the question will be identifying strategies kids can adopt that will make it easier for them to do well in these tasks.”

The second study is on college persistence and will be carried out over the next two years with a $1.8 million grant from the Gates Foundation. College persistence has become a hot topic recently, as evidence has emerged showing that even when low-income students catch up academically with their middle-class peers, they still end up dropping out of college at disproportionately high rates. Most recently, the KIPP Foundation reported that while its intensive approach to academic instruction succeeded in getting 80 percent of its students into college over the last decade, only 33 percent of those students ended up with a college diploma. That number is above the 8 percent of low-income students nationwide who complete college, but it still falls well short of college graduation rates for middle-class students.

┬áIn the Gates project, Duckworth and a group of high-profile collaborators will conduct several studies that attempt to quantify the personality factors that distinguish college graduates from college dropouts with similar demographic and academic backgrounds. Their goal will be to “provide new insight into student factors that predict college persistence and develop strategies to cultivate them via school-based interventions.”

Duckworth’s part of the study is based on the work of Anders Ericsson, the Florida State University psychologist whose work on the personality characteristics and training habits of truly exceptional performers was popularized in Malcolm Gladwell’s recent best-seller Outliers. Duckworth and her research team will conduct an in-depth analysis of a small number of high school students from minority backgrounds who demonstrated superior academic growth from ninth to 12th grade. These superstar students will be compared against peers who entered high school at similar levels of achievement but made significantly less academic progress en route to graduation. One technique she’ll be using to make the comparisons is an innovative new measure called an “emote-aloud protocol” in which participants are instructed to narrate their feelings as they perform a demanding task.

“We’re going to be applying the same methodology that Ericsson used to understand Olympic athletes to understand kids in school,” Duckworth says. “We’re going to put the kids under the microscope to understand what high-achieving kids do differently. We’ll follow them through college and see whether the habits we identify actually have a payoff when they’re in a new environment. We want to know what achievement personality looks like in kids and how we get more of it—what do you do, what do the parents do, what do the schools do.”
 


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