The right way—and the wrong way—to teach grit

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The right way—and the wrong way—to teach grit

Administrators and instructors often recommend the wrong strategies to students when it comes to developing grit, argues David DeSteno, a professor of psychology at Northeastern University, for the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Many educators teach students that to develop grit, they must learn to suppress their emotions and desire for instant gratification. But asking students to delay gratification by willpower alone simply does not work—especially when students are tired, lonely, anxious, or stressed.

Working toward long-term goals is no longer a struggle to overcome desires for pleasures in the moment. Rather, future goals, because of the increased value attached to them, simply become more attractive to pursue in their own right.

David DeSteno, professor of psychology at Northeastern University

Nearly every college student reports feeling one of the above emotions at some point in their college career, according to research by the American College Health Association. DeSteno points out that efforts to exercise willpower can actually make them worse. On top of that, stress can take a toll on memory and learning ability. Considering all those challenges, it’s no surprise that willpower is ineffective.

Instead, DeSteno recommends teaching students to be more resilient by partnering with other students to achieve goals. Cooperation requires students to share with and invest in others, and fosters the development of good character. Feelings of gratitude, compassion, and pride in one’s own ability encourage students to accept sacrifices of immediate self-interest for the greater, future reward of prosperous interpersonal relationships.

In this way, cooperation shifts the brain into focusing on the future and helps students build a gradual sense of self-control. DeSteno explains, “Working toward long-term goals is no longer a struggle to overcome desires for pleasures in the moment. Rather, future goals, because of the increased value attached to them, simply become more attractive to pursue in their own right.”

To develop grit, DeSteno suggests that educators teach students how to tap into and use these positive emotions rather than simply suppressing negative ones. An emotional learning curriculum centered on harnessing positive emotions not only improves mental health among students, but also teaches them sustainable methods for achieving long term goals and maintaining valuable relationships (DeSteno, Chronicle of Higher Education, 3/18/18).

Learn how colleges help students build resilience