Wilbur O. and Ann Powers College of Business

Accounting study finds student success isn’t driven by ‘grit’


University of Pennsylvania psychologist Angela Duckworth says it is perseverance and persistence that determine a person’s success, not one’s intellect.

In fact, Duckworth delivered a Ted Talk and wrote the book on that belief, “Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance.” In it she calls grit, not talent or intellect, as the most dominant trait a person must possess to succeed in life.

Three Clemson University School of Accountancy researchers took Duckworth’s claim to heart and set out to determine if College of Business students’ success was driven by grit, the buzzword that’s making its rounds in classrooms and boardrooms alike.

Jeremy Vinson, assistant professor; Jeffrey McMillan, professor and Lydia Schleifer, associate professor conducted their study on 356 students taking an introduction to accounting course. The study spanned two semesters and included 224 in-class lecture students and 132 online students.

“We primarily sought to answer one question, “is grit related to success in an accounting course?”, Vinson said. “We used the Duckworth 12-question grit scale and combined it with two other measuring assessments. At the end of the semester, we analyzed students’ assessment answers as they related to their course grades and overall GPAs.”

What the three researchers found from their assessment is that factors, other than inherent traits tied to grit, played a bigger role in a student’s short- and long-term academic success.

“In some cases, especially in ours which surveyed a general group of business students in an accounting course, it was factors under students’ control were more associated with academic success rather than traits associated with grit,” he said.

Vinson said the Duckworth grit assessment surveyed specific groups of students, whereas the Clemson study targeted a broader student group taking an introductory course. That, he said, may have played a role in the Clemson study finding controllable factors affecting long- and short-term success versus traits such as perseverance and persistence.

“For example, our study found that one student with a little grit and another with a lot of grit performed the same in the course,” he said.

He said the Clemson study showed what drove course performance for classroom students varied slightly from that of students taking the course remotely.

“The performance driver for the in-person students was self-efficacy, or a belief that you can accomplish something. The other driver was effort regulation, which means being able to overcome difficult or boring tasks,” Vinson said. “For online students, self-efficacy was one of the drivers, but instead of effort regulation it boiled down to using your time well and having an appropriate place to study.”

Vinson said the two things that mattered in course performance were within a student’s control, and the researchers’ initial thought about grit being important to online students, wasn’t the case.

“We thought maybe the online students needed more grit. But what showed up was those taking the course remotely needed to focus on using their time efficiently and have the right place to study. For the classroom students, even though a task might be boring you have to keep up the effort to succeed. That may sound like grit but, by definition, it isn’t.”

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