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Does Effort Count?

posted: 10.6.09 by Traci Gardner

High on the list of phrases that make me cringe you’ll find these: “Does effort count? I worked hard on this.” So many sighs have followed those sentences. They encapsulate one of the hardest concepts in writing instruction. Writing improvement is hard work, and even modest gains can take a long time to appear.

I’d gotten to the point where I simply ignored effort in grading conversations. It just seemed easier. A paper either earned a B, or it didn’t. Whether the student worked hard didn’t matter. It turns out that I was wrong.

I read “The Truth about Grit” in The Boston Globe two months ago, and its conclusions have been nagging at me ever since. The article explains the history and study of what you and I might call effort. According to psychologist Angela Duckworth from the University of Pennsylvania, grit is what makes one person succeed where an equally intelligent person fails. It’s the idea of applying hard work and perseverance to a task. It’s the same notion, the article explains, behind Edison’s axiom “Genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration.”

In fact, grit can actually be a predictor for success. Entering first-year cadets at West Point made it past summer training if they tested high for grit, according to a study by Duckworth. Another study by Duckworth found that students who become finalists in the Scripps National Spelling Bee also tested high for grit. Fifth graders praised for their grit actually did better on IQ tests than students praised for being intelligent, according to a study by Carol S. Dweck from Stanford University.

It’s not grit alone that makes the difference in achievement. Dweck points out that students need to understand that “talent takes time to develop, and requires continuous effort.” They need what she calls a “growth mindset.” In short, students must believe that they develop abilities over time, not that they are born with them.

That notion fits perfectly with what we know about teaching people to write. People are not born great writers. They have to work at it persistently, and the development process can take a long time. In other words, to improve as a writer, you need that same growth mindset. If you believe that you cannot write, that you just weren’t born with the ability, you may never excel. To become a better writer, you have to believe that if you work hard enough and long enough, you can improve your writing.

As I’ve thought about “The Truth about Grit,” I’ve come to realize two things. First, it’s crucial to help students understand that it takes a long time to improve as a writer. They need to cultivate a growth mindset where writing is concerned. Second, it actually matters whether I tell a student that I can tell she’s worked very hard on her paper. Effort, it turns out, counts far more than I ever realized.

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Categories: Assessment, Learning Styles, Writing Process
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One Response to “Does Effort Count?”

  1. Nick Carbone Says:

    Effort matters. It should be rewarded. I like contract grading for that reason: if a writer completes all the assigned work — discussion forum posting, drafting (and I define what counts as a completed draft or revision), peer-review, collaborative projects, attendance, homework — if they do all that, they worked hard. I reward that by guaranteeing they will get at least a C.

    I believe in the work, the value of it and that by doing it, writers will learn about writing, about themselves as writers; they will learn how to set goal, how to self-assess their own progress; they will learn some strategies they can apply beyond the class, if they choose to do so, for continuing to self-assess their writerly growth and to manage and complete other writing assignments or projects they engage. I believe too that by writing a lot — and the course has all kinds of writing they do, from insanely informal to strict adherence to fully-proofed, revised, and deadline met formal academic papers — they will improve their writing.

    The contract requires writers to then review their work, present evidence of learning by citing and analyzing that work, including evidence of improvement as an self-aware writer and of their writing, in an argument they make for a grade higher than C.

    C is for effort; B’s and A’s are for articulating and showing the growth over the semester that is the fruit of that effort.

    Note: the captcha code for this post is rather enticing. The two words are lengthy absinth. Now there’s a cocktail to try.