Improving Student Success through Skill Set and Mindset: A Q&A Session (Part 1)

Three male college students working at a table full of books

Student success and retention drive many of the conversations that occur on college campuses every day. To contribute to the conversation, we recently hosted a webinar that featured David T. Conley, Ph.D. and Paul G. Stoltz, Ph.D., two of the foremost experts on skill set and mindset. During the webinar, Dr. Conley and Dr. Stoltz revealed how the development of skill set—learning, cognitive, and transition skills—could be connected to a gritty mindset to equip ALL students with the tools to succeed academically and professionally. Based on years of research, Dr. Conley’s Four Keys to College Readiness and Dr. Stoltz’s powerful GRIT™ construct provide a precise, actionable program for guaranteeing every student a better chance at academic achievement and career success.

The event was a huge success; hundreds of educators attended from around the country! (In case you missed it, you can still watch the recording). The interest level was high and as a result we received numerous follow-up questions from the audience. This blog post is the first of two where Dr. Conley and Dr. Stoltz have taken the time to answer those questions in detail. 


Q: How can we buy into the “Grit” research while also acknowledging that many of our first-gen or nontraditional students start far behind in resources. Is it really fair to conclude they lack “grit” when they really lack basic resources? That’s one thing that bothers me about the “grit” movement. Can we acknowledge that we don’t all start out on equal footing?

Stoltz: I could not agree more! We do not start out on equal footing. In many ways, that’s the point and potential purpose/power of GRIT. Among almost any population that lacks certain advantages, there are those who dig deep, and yes, suffer, sacrifice, struggle, and stumble, to transcend their circumstances, and beat the odds. One way I gauge the importance of anything, is to simply remove it. A gritless individual stands virtually no chance of rising above, overcoming any limitations. But with the right kind and dose of GRIT, the possibilities expand immensely.

Q: How do we teach or “manage” Resilience (adversity Response) with students?

Stoltz: In its essence, what our research shows, it’s about A) making them keenly aware of and B) striving to improve their CORE Response to adversity (Control, Ownership, Reach, and Endurance).

  • Control—What facets of the situation can I potentially influence?
  • Ownership—Where and how can I step up to make it even a little bit better?
  • Reach—How can I contain or minimize the downside? Maximize the upside?
  • Endurance—How can I get past this adversity as quickly as possible?

Q: I love the idea of infusing mindset and building GRIT into our courses across the curriculum. This could lead to having a professionalism grade or other activities within our courses and not just base students’ grades on task completion as you mentioned in the webinar. What type of rubric would you suggest using for gauging students’ effort towards building grit and keeping a growth mindset?

Stoltz: Pearson is devising a series of instructional support materials and assignments that demonstrate how to infuse pedagogy with GRIT exercises accompanied by rubrics that illustrate how to offer student feedback on both content knowledge and the GRIT !

Q: I believe that I have pretty good GRIT, yet I still feel stifled by others that I work with. Is it possible to use GRIT to overcome obstacles of the human kind?

Stoltz: I often speak about the core human drive to “ascend”—to move forward and up in our lives, with a sense of purpose and significance—which is often suppressed by others. Staying true to our purpose in life is tough, especially when people or life conspire against it. Some people Quit. Most people go partway and Camp. A rare few continue to Climb, until their final breath. It takes a lot of GRIT. But here’s the key. Climber’s re-route. They must be agile with their strategy and path, as well as how (or with whom) they invest their efforts and energy, in order to continue their ascent. The key point is being a Climber is all about GRIT. It’s all about finding ways to maybe re-route and proceed in spite of whatever limitations, obstacles, frustrations, and chasms you may confront.

Q: Is there training for specific subject areas, for instructors, to apply GRIT in the classroom? This was an awesome introduction to the concept of GRIT… I would like to be GRIT certified.

Stoltz: Thank you. We’re working with Pearson on a digital badging system, where people can earn authentic GRIT-based credentials, based on certain accomplishments and efforts. Pearson is creating a rich library of academic and subject-based applications that will provide opportunities to grow and improve the quality of GRIT. Stay tuned! It’s likely to be a real game-changer.

Q: Is there any correlation to the age of the students and their level of GRIT?

Stoltz: So far the research shows, unlike language acquisition for example, there is no correlation between age and baseline GRIT, or GRIT improvement (the degree to which one’s GRIT improves, when the GRIT Gainer tools are applied.) I find that very encouraging for people of all ages.


Q: The challenge seems to get faculty to change their mindset that all students can succeed and to get over wanting to teach the students they want to teach instead of teaching the students they have…

Conley: One of the first steps in changing mindset is to use data to describe better the current nature of entering students. The CRI helps paint a much more complex and nuanced portrait of the entering class, one that indicates strengths as well as weaknesses. Getting faculty to focus on potential student strengths rather than obsessing on student deficiencies can help change mindsets.

Q: How do you make students understand that end result test scores is as important as retaining information they have gained? Students feel one test down, I am done with it now move on to next rather than is it building block to next course?

Conley: This is where student understanding of structure of knowledge in the subject area is important. If they get the big ideas of the discipline, these tend to carry over to the next course. The other strategy is to emphasize the connections between the courses in a sequence in a major. This can be accomplished by including some of this information in each course syllabus, showing how the goals of each course connect and even overlap to some degree. Finally, getting students to understand that one of the key purposes of college is development of the intellect, not just job preparation, can help them to understand why things build upon one another.

Q: What can you do with a student that is so fearful of making an error that it curbs their learning ability?

Conley: Such fear is often the result of the student having an aptitude-based mindset. These students believe that if they make a mistake it discredits their whole belief system that they do well in the subject because they are “smart” or “good at” the subject. Getting them to embrace the idea that effort is far more important than aptitude, particularly in learning new material, and that brain science indicates that the brain grows the most when challenged. This means that constructive errors are more powerful learning experiences than getting everything right. Also worth pointing out that students who are getting everything right are probably not challenging themselves fully, which is not the best use of college.

Q: I wonder what your studies show about differences in Skill Sets and Mind Sets between traditional and nontraditional students? My campus serves more than 90% nontraditional students; it appears to me that persistence among nontraditional students is very high.

Conley: Our research suggests that these factors are about equally important across all groups of students. Sometimes non-traditional students have different problems regarding Key Transition Knowledge and Skills. They often feel like they don’t “belong” in college, and they can be intimidated about fitting into the culture of college. However, non-traditional students often have higher skill levels in the area of Key Learning Skills and Techniques, acquired from on-the-job experience. I would also agree that their persistence is higher because their goal orientation is generally stronger.

Q: What should high schools be doing to better prepare students for post-secondary?

Conley: This is a gigantic question. However, based on our research, high schools should be doing more of every component of the Four Keys. The high school curriculum needs to emphasize more thinking and problem solving over procedural, compliance-based learning. Students need to understand more of the structure of knowledge in the subject areas and develop a stronger effort-based mindset. Their classes need to teach them and help them develop more specific learning skills and techniques, such as personal self-management, goal setting, study skills, technology use, collaborative learning, etc.

Q: I have had some departments implement a Professionalism grade that includes being on time, acting accordingly, etc.. What are your thoughts on this grade?

Conley: I think this is a really good idea. It helps students value these behaviors while keeping them separate from academic learning. I have been encouraging high schools to do something like this.

Q: If I’m understanding what you’re saying about skills sets, we need to modify behaviors? Is that correct?

Conley: Yes, modifying behaviors is most important rather than trying to change attitudes. Changes in attitude generally follow changes in behavior. Once students see what they can do and accomplish, their sense of self-efficacy changes accordingly.

Q: Are resiliency and tenacity adequately addressed in today’s teacher preparation programs?

Conley: Certainly not. In fact, one of the problems initial teachers have during their first year is exactly in these areas. One way to accomplish this is through graduated field experiences, with each being more challenging and requiring more student independence. In this way, the program can support prospective teachers as they experience the inevitable frustration and challenges encountered in the classroom and can teach them how to persist productively.



New White Paper Now Available – Dr. Conley and Dr. Stoltz have recently authored a white paper, On Track: Redefining Readiness in Education and the Workplace. This paper compares and contrasts three readiness models and offers recommendations focused on how new approaches to college and career readiness can be used to support smarter and earlier interventions and open college and career pathways to all learners.


About the Authors
David Conley, Ph.D.

David Conley, Ph.D.

David T. Conley, Ph.D., is a professor in the department of Educational Methodology, Policy, and Leadership, and a director at the Center for Educational Policy Research in the College of Education at the University of Oregon. Dr. Conley conducts research on issues related to college readiness, college and high school course content analysis, high school-college alignment and transition, and large-scale diagnosis and assessment of college readiness. His findings have been published in numerous technical reports, conference papers, book chapters, and journals, such as Education Week, Educational Administration Quarterly, Educational Policy and Educational Leadership. He earned a bachelor’s degree at the University of California, Berkeley, a master’s of arts degree at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and a Ph.D. from the University of Colorado, Boulder. Connect with him on Twitter @drdavidtconley.


Dr. Paul G. Stoltz

Dr. Paul G. Stoltz

Paul G. Stoltz, Ph.D., is considered the world’s foremost authority on the science and method of measuring and strengthening GRIT. His methods and teachings are used at Harvard, MIT, Cornell, Stanford, Carnegie Mellon, and by top organizations in 63 countries.  Selected as “One of the Top Ten Most Influential Global Thinkers” by HR Magazine, “One of the Top 100 Thinkers of Our Time”, by Executive Excellence. He is founding director of the GRIT Institute, and the Global Resilience Institute, conducting research in 29 countries, as well as Founder and CEO of PEAK Learning, Inc., the global research and consulting firm, since 1987. Featured in the world’s top media—Fortune, Forbes, Success, Business Week, Financial Times, Wall Street Journal, Asia 21, Fox, ABC Nightly News, NBC, CBS, The Today Show, and multiple appearances on The Oprah Show—Dr. Stoltz’s top priority is applying his vast experience and research within higher education, specifically to students in their first year of college. Developing effective strategies toward college completion – and sustainable employment – has never been timelier.