Research Psychologist: Angela Duckworth

Research Psychologist: Angela Duckworth

2013 MacArthur Fellow Angela Duckworth studies grit and self-control, two qualities that help determine students' success in the classroom and in life.


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Angela Duckworth is a research psychologist and a 2013 MacArthur Fellow. She is bringing new dimensions to educational psychology by focusing on grit and self-control, qualities she feels have been underemphasized compared to student intelligence or aptitude.


Angela began her career in the classroom. Her observations of what her students were able to achieve and which qualities contributed to their success sparked her interest in the psychological side of education. “As a middle and high school math teacher, I observed great variations in what my students were doing, and to me it seemed like intelligence had less to do with it than the amount of time they were willing to put forth. That led me to study self-control and grit, these two related but distinct competencies . . . These to me seem to determine the quality and quantity of effort students put forth.”


Angela says her team’s most important contribution to date is injecting a scientific way of thinking into the campaign to understand student effort. “Some people think you can’t put a number on character, or that these things are ineffable or even spiritual. You can try to measure these things, though not perfectly. Science depends on measurements.” Her team’s direct engagement with schools is starting to pay off. Teachers and students alike have entered into a conversation about the conditions that enable students to focus and succeed. “We’ve had students contact us and say that this work has affirmed how they’ve been successful or given them insight into how they could be more successful. We feel like what we’ve contributed is raising the right questions. We’re not providing all the answers yet, but we’re encouraged by questions like, ‘How can we get ourselves to work hard, what can we do to make working hard easier for us?’”


The scientific method, Angela reminds us, is not always as streamlined as it looks from the outside. Issues along the way often complicate a study or throw the team for an unexpected loop. “Science is very messy. What you read in journals and magazines are the finished products, but for every completed study, there are others that don’t work for silly logistical reasons.” Angela recalls one research project that was complicated by an unexpected geographic discovery. “I had one study that we planned for a whole year, but it turned out that when we got to the school, the cafeteria had just served a really smelly lunch. None of the kids were paying attention because everything smelled like bologna. So sometimes it’s two steps forward and one step back.”


“The broadest and most useful definition of geography in my mind is that it’s the study of places and how places can affect any aspect of human experience or plants and animals and such. The crucial thing is the root geo-, which is place. It’s really about how things vary across places.”


By collaborating with schools around the country, spatial variation has become an important piece of Angela and her team’s analysis. She finds that differences in expectations, learning conditions, and educational resources often change with the location. “We’ve been to all kinds of schools: schools in the poorest congressional district and schools serving the most privileged children in the country. At that level, there’s a lot of variation in simply what is normal. One thing that’s hard to communicate to kids sometimes is that their school and their social group have norms that are different from other places. It’s their whole world, so all they see is like that. But if they had the opportunity to go just across the city block, in some cases, it’s completely different.” Interestingly, Angela has also found a number of characteristics that are fairly common across different communities. “The wealthiest kids and the least-wealthy kids actually struggled with similar things—paying attention in class, remembering the assignment, not interrupting, among other things—so there are some universals that don’t vary as much.”


For anyone interested in educational psychology, Angela emphasizes the importance of analytical thinking. Any question, whether it’s inside the classroom or out, can be addressed with a scientific perspective. “The thing that I’ve learned in doing this work for the last eleven years is that we can think about problems in education—student motivation, doing homework, and so on—like a scientist would. We can understand, measure, and experiment with things like effort and self-control. We ask questions like, ‘If we systematically change the way we assign homework, does it improve outcomes?’” This applies to both teachers in the classroom—who have the biggest opportunity to directly observe and learn from students—and those in a more traditional research setting.


Grit and self-control play important roles in life outside of school and can influence social lives, relationships, and extracurricular activities. “When we look for grittiness, we look for continuity and a certain amount of dedication, and you can certainly see that in things outside the classroom—even if it’s something like calling a friend back when you don’t really want to.” Want to know if you can honestly call yourself “gritty”? Click here to take the Duckworth Lab’s survey and find out how much grit you have.

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Ryan Schleeter
Jeannie Evers, Emdash Editing, Emdash Editing
National Geographic Society
Last Updated

March 1, 2024

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