Beyond Academic Skills: Soft Skills, Grit, and Building a Growth Mindset

Standardized testing often produces anxiety and negative feelings in students. Nearly half a million students took College Board’s redesigned SAT for the first time on March 5, 2016, and social media echoed with their collective despair. They bemoaned the increased complexity and length of texts as well as the challenge of the multi-step math problems (especially without use of a calculator!).

Teachers, on the other hand, have largely responded positively to the redesigned test, noting the alignment between the reading passages and those they teach in class and the more in-depth assessment of core algebra skills. How do educators defeat this anxiety in students and ensure they are prepared on test day?

The high-stakes nature of college entrance exams like the redesigned SAT is, unsurprisingly, a tough moment for many students. This feeling of dread isn’t inevitable—there’s more we as educators can do to make this moment one of triumph, not despair. That means not just preparing our students for the skills assessed on the test, but also preparing them for the emotional challenge of preparing for high-stakes tests.

Soft Skills

Perhaps just as important as the academic skills are those skills often referred to as “soft” skills. These skills aren’t as quantifiable as those we’d measure with percent mastery or a score on an assessment, but we’d argue that they are anything but soft, and are essential to student success not just on college entrance exams but throughout high school, college, and career. They include student emotional intelligence, ability to work with others, leadership skills, and other interpersonal abilities. Perhaps most important, however, is education’s newest buzzword: grit.

Grit and Student Performance

Recent research has found that innate “talent” is not the greatest predictor of student success. Angela Lee Duckworth’s groundbreaking research into the importance of “grit”—what she describes as “passion and perseverance for long-term goals”—in performance. Intrigued by the surprising performance of her middle-school math students in New York City, she began investigating the importance of non-talent factors in student performance.

To assess the impact grit had on performance, Duckworth first provided a grit questionnaire to juniors in Chicago Public Schools in order to evaluate how willing students were to persevere through challenging situations. She then tracked their progress and graduation rates. What she found was astounding: grit was the greatest predictor of graduation even when matched for all other characteristics, including income and test scores.

So what does this mean for our students? Well, it’s clear that college entrance exams are a challenging task requiring perseverance. Perhaps more importantly, preparing for these exams is a task that requires an incredible amount of grit. Duckworth emphasizes that those with grit treat life as a marathon, not a sprint. We need students to build their college readiness skills in just the same way. Grit is an essential characteristic in students.  So how do we build grit?

Building a Growth Mindset

We are the first to admit that no one has “cracked the code” on ensuring every student has the “grittiness” necessary to ensure that they will persevere through challenges—challenges like reading a high-level text, or continuing through a multistep word problem, or learning a new grammar skill and applying it in a new situation. Perhaps the most promising indicators, however, come from Carol Dweck, who has done incredible research into developing the growth mindset.

To understand what a growth mindset means for students, it might be best to first examine its absence. Students without a growth mindset instead have a fixed mindset: the idea that their skills and talents are unchangeable.  Dweck’s research has found a number of alarming behaviors in students with fixed mindsets. Following the completion of a challenging task, students with fixed mindsets said that, when presented with a similar task in the future, they would be likely to cheat. They also said that they’d be likely to avoid difficult tasks in the future. Examination of student processing (through brain scans) found that students with a fixed mindset were largely inactive when reviewing their errors on a challenging task.

On the flip side, students with a growth mindset believe that intelligence and skills can be developed. They are focused on what they can do next to improve. Growth mindset leads to increased perseverance in challenging problems and scenarios and stronger grit ratings.

So how do we help our students build their growth mindset? Students benefit from learning more about the brain’s plasticity—the ability to change and grow. Reading more about the way the brain learns and changes can be important for students that may be stuck in a mindset preventing them from being successful. This is even more essential for students that have historically struggled in school or on tests—overcoming that failure-based mindset is essential to develop the grit necessary to learn the missing skills to succeed in the future.

As teachers, we must focus on rewarding process over success. By teaching students to focus on hard work and trying new strategies—processes that lead to learning—they will develop their growth mindset organically.

Building Skills

Many educators have heard Dweck’s theories about mindset and incorporated them into their lessons and instruction. Dweck herself has observed her own research become popular in professional development across the country. She cautions, however, that it’s not just about encouraging students to “try hard” or increase effort.

Though effort is a critical component of building a growth mindset, it’s also important to pair it with building their own skills and problem solving methodologies. Kids must learn when and how to switch strategies and when to seek help. Effort is a strategy, but not the goal; the true goal is learning.

So let’s imagine those stressed-out students leaving the SAT once again. Those students, perhaps, approached the test as a sprint. They found themselves exhausted and out of breath—they weren’t quite as fast as they thought, or perhaps the race was a little longer than they anticipated.

Students who have instead approached their preparation for college entrance exams (and college readiness) as a marathon, instead show up prepared and ready to demonstrate their abilities. They’ve got a set of strategies to support them when things go awry, and they know that this test is a marker of their hard work and perseverance—not an indictment of an unchangeable characteristic.

We’re Here to Help

If you have any questions on this topic or anything else we can assist with, reach out to us directly at the location nearest to you. We will be happy to help!

Learn more about Angela Lee Duckworth’s research.
Learn more about Carol Dweck’s research.

Matthew Pietrafetta

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