Best of times – worst of times: How GRIT mindset changed a college

College students working together in groups throughout the classroom

It is impossible to tell Lone Star College-Tomball’s story without thinking of the first twelve words of Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities, “it was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” It was a season of declining enrollment, budgetary challenges, and lower than acceptable performance on key student success indicators. Simultaneously, it was the season of hope, togetherness, and determination. It was an age of knowing that we could be better. It was the age of knowing our students needed more of us. We had to be smarter. We had to work harder. We had to think bigger.

So we did.

Given the adversity we faced as an institution, we collectively explored the concept of grit (as defined by Angela Duckworth) and mindset (as defined by Carol Dweck) for a little over a year. Throughout the 2014 – 2015 school year we held workshops, explored a common read, and engaged in cross-disciplinary discussions. I charged our Phi Theta Kappa chapter, Alpha Rho Mu, to “do something with this grit stuff.” We began looking at college completion, persistence, retention, and success through a different lens…a more focused lens. Grit and mindset became part of our daily language. We were gaining momentum, and my intuition that we were onto something important was affirmed by the fact in Spring 2015, Alpha Rho Mu was recognized as the most distinguished chapter internationally (out of 1,285 of them) and by the many requests to speak on grit that came my way.

Female college student looking at books on a shelfIn the midst of this productive and informative season, something was still missing, however. Was it just the quantity of grit that mattered? How do you tell a student who has taken developmental math eight times to just have more grit? We struggled with these questions. But, Paul G. Stoltz, PhD, whom we met in the summer of 2015, emphatically answered the quantity of grit question with a resounding “no.” It is not just the quantity of grit that matters. The quality of grit matters most.

Due to the gritty foundation we had already established, LSC-Tomball was fortunate to become a partner with Dr. Stoltz and Pearson. There was synergy and energy, and we all wanted the same thing…to make a difference. So beyond professional development, we agreed that research was essential. From the beginning we agreed that the research must: (1) have minimum burden on the faculty and students; (2) have statistical rigor; and (3) be compelling…even epic. Using social science research design methods and standards, we set out to explore whether GRIT could be grown in one semester and if infusing GRIT had an impact on student retention, persistence, completion and success. We wanted to know if GRIT feedback in the classroom made a difference and if the degree to which an instructor emphasized GRIT mattered. Backed by Institutional Review Board approval in the fall 2015 semester, LSC-Tomball conducted perhaps the most rigorous and groundbreaking GRIT study to date.

Beyond the excitement of conducting research that had the potential to have tremendous impact on student success, seeing our college faculty eagerly and heartily embrace this effort was equally rewarding. In addition to ensuring we didn’t burden the faculty, two other reasons drove the success of this initiative: (1) we were truly focused on student success – beyond college completion; and (2) we were expanding the narrative to include people (students) – not just policies and processes.

Initially the results are promising! We see real increases in enrollment, persistence and completion. There are also positive unintended consequences. (Read the case study for more complete methodology and results) In addition to growing GRIT in our students, we also became GRITtier as individuals and as an institution. Through our adversity and challenges we faced (and continue to face), we have increased our capacity to dig deep, to struggle, even sacrifice, for our most worthy goals. We have learned the optimal qualities of GRIT (Growth Mindset, Resilience, Instinct, and Tenacity) – on a personal and an institutional level.

When LSC-Tomball began exploring grit mindset, we were simply trying to make a difference for our own students and to reverse the negative realities of our current situation. To have the opportunity to be a GRIT leader with Dr. Stoltz and Pearson was beyond what we hoped or imagined.

Perhaps the worst of times really are the best of times in disguise.


About the Author
Lee Ann Nutt, Ed.D.

Lee Ann Nutt, Ed.D.

Lee Ann Nutt, Ed.D., has served as president of LSC-Tomball since February 2015. Prior to that, she was vice president of instruction for three years and served as acting president. Before joining LSC, Lee Ann served as the vice president of instruction for North Central Texas College (NCTC) in Gainesville, Texas. She joined NCTC in 1999, where she served as the dean of continuing education and provost of the NCTC Corinth campus, before becoming the vice president of instruction. Dr. Nutt holds an Ed.D. and an M.Ed. in higher education administration with a focus on community college leadership and a B.B.A in management from Texas Tech University.