Developing Grit and Recognizing Grit

One of the recent emphases in education, especially college mathematics, is ‘student grit’.  Grit is what allows students to succeed when there are barriers, and we can recognize success (usually).  However, the concept of grit is not productive unless we can recognize and develop grit prior to that point.  #gritmath

The context for this post is a recent test in our quantitative reasoning course (Math119).  Our first set of topics dealt with dimensional analysis; every conversion in class was completed by that method.  Overall, students did about as well as I’ve seen.

However, some students did their work in an indirect fashion.  Take a look at this first example:




And, this example:





In both cases, many of our math classes would say “Just move the decimal point”.  I did have a few students complete the problem that way.

More importantly, many of us would tell these students that their method is wrong.  However, the first example is conceptually perfect; the error in the answer is strictly due to the rounding of the conversion facts.  The second example is also pretty good … except for the inversion of a basic conversion.

I think both students showed significant ‘grit’ in working these problems.  Although I don’t generally want students to do a problem in a complicated way when a simpler way exists, it is impressive that both students were able to salvage a problem begun in a non-standard way.

I’m not suggesting that any grit shown in these two cases is equivalent to the level needed to complete a math course.  However, I do think that developing grit is the same as developing other traits:  We start small, make it explicit, and practice.

One of the wonderful things about a good quantitative reasoning course is that there is a focus on non-standard problems.  Methods are emphasized, but we don’t focus on procedure as much as we do reasoning.  This environment lets students explore and develop in ways that traditional math courses don’t.

I suspect that our traditional math courses either discourage grit or prevent much development.  With such a strong focus on procedures and correct answers, students are often doing the ‘instructor dance’ — following steps because it will please the instructor.  Student traits can not develop in a overly structured environment.

It is important that we recognize the difference between “incorrect thinking” and “different thinking”.  Different thinking is part of trait development, like grit.  Students can not show, nor develop, grit unless I provide them opportunities to work differently.

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