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Find the “Grit” to Succeed as an Online Student

Posted on Thursday June 6, 2013 by Michael Keathley

Most people are aware of the importance of being academically prepared for college and the workplace. Students have it drilled into their heads, especially in high school, that they’ll need writing, math, and other such skills to succeed in postsecondary education and their future careers. Students are assessed specifically for these academic skills upon admission into a college. Based upon the results, over one-third of enrollees are placed into a series of developmental or remedial courses before starting their program level courses so that they can brush up on their skills.

However, this typical process presents two problems. First, many students who are assessed as underprepared do not continue on to college. Those who do continue with enrollment frequently drop out at some point in the review sequence. Second, some underprepared students seem able to succeed without refresher courses in core skill areas, such as reading, writing, and arithmetic.

For this latter group of students, there appears to be something more. For example, we may know someone who was not a stellar K-12 student who somehow succeeded in college or as a professional. What do these individuals have that makes them successful? Better yet, how can you obtain that “something extra” along with your academic skills to help ensure that you triumph in your edventure?

A new approach to assessing preparedness may now prove beneficial for entering college students, especially those who test into the developmental levels. Along with formal assessments of your abilities in composition and math, you can also be assessed for what is being labeled ‘grit,’ meaning your level of commitment, self-management, and social support—all proven indicators of success in your college career. What you should understand is that, like academic subject areas, these attributes can be developed to increase your chances of success.

To help you understand what is meant by grit and how to cultivate these attributes, here is more information on the Educational Testing Service’s (ETS) SuccessNavigator assessment and the characteristics needed to assure a victory in your edventure.

At the core of the ETS’s introduction to the new SuccessNavigator assessment test is an issue that many of us who work in higher ed have known for some time. Developmental education can be detrimental to some students who have identified weaknesses in certain academic skill areas. In fact, as ETS researchers Ross Markle and Steve Robbins pull from a 2008 study by the Community College Research Center in a summative article for the ETS:

    • “40% of students placed into remedial math and 41% of students placed in remedial reading failed to enroll after placement in these courses,” perhaps because being labeled “developmental,” “remedial,” or “underprepared” may feel discouraging or embarrassing.

    • “31% of students in math and 44% of students in reading completed their developmental sequences.”

    • The lower students are placed in the developmental sequence, the less likely they are to complete it because the process of obtaining college ready academic skills starts to feel more like an “obstacle course.”

    • Enrollees also have expressed feeling that “facing three or four semesters of developmental courses can seem ‘confusing, intimidating, and boring.’” (“Breaking the Developmental Education Logjam: A Holistic Approach to Acceleration.” SuccessNavigator. March 2013).

What must be understood is that a better approach is needed. Clearly the traditional approach to developmental education works for a small percentage (less than half) of students. What is needed is a measure of an “x-factor,” the “something else” that causes the larger group of academically underprepared students to opt out of college, often even before they start.

ETS has settled upon what appears to be the answer. The organization feels that a holistic approach is needed, an assessment test that not only measures academic preparation, but also other factors that influence a student’s success. These factors boil down to: commitment, intentionality, self-management, and social support. ETS has labeled the combination of these characteristics as ‘grit.’

With this in mind, the new SuccessNavigator assessment test can help provide a broader profile for college admissions to help students who fall within the traditional developmental ranges of assessment tests by subclassifying those who demonstrate a high level of grit. It is these students who are committed, directed, self-disciplined, and socially networked for success. These are the students who research shows would benefit by a more accelerated entry into college.

Although on its website, this subcategory of student is not defined more concretely, my experience working with postsecondary students at this level leads me to believe that a good example would include many of the typical online students who, at an average age of 34, may not have continued their education beyond a high school diploma or equivalent, but who have done well working at a job and/or raising a family.

Another likely example of students who may test as academically underprepared for college while possessing the grit to succeed are veteran students who may also have been away from academia for a few years or more, but who certainly demonstrate commitment, intentionality, self-direction, and camaraderie.

Working adults, military students, and others who come to postsecondary education by navigating a slightly different path than traditional college students typically exhibit other skills of value, such as collaboration and leadership. It’s understandable why students in this subcategory may feel uncomfortable enough after being placed in a slower paced developmental track to simply not attend. In fact, I have had these students tell me that they do not wish to enroll or to continue because their accomplishments do not seem recognized by academia. If you are one of these non-traditional students who place into developmental courses, you may benefit from assessing your level of grit by means of a test such as this one offered by ETS.

In addition to the SuccessNavigator assessment that is offered to schools at only $5.00 per student, there are other ways underprepared students with grit can obtain and demonstrate that they have grit.

True Grit
Markle, Robbins, ETS, and other researchers are largely in agreement that identifying and acknowledging students with grit—even those who may be underprepared for college—can lead to greater college success for these adult learners. As an online educator, I concur and would add that this success also has the potential to reduce the cost of higher education (e.g., because these students will spend less time in school) and to increase their level of satisfaction, more quickly turning the education-career process into a lifelong, rewarding edventure. But what do these terms mean and how can you attain and document your possession of them?

    Commitment: It may seem odd to think that anyone would consider going to college without having a sense of dedication to the idea. However, if you speak to any of us who have advised students, especially at the beginning of the traditional academic year, and we will tell you that yes, some students show up to enroll in classes without a true sense of why they are there. For example, I once spent about two hours working with a student as we tried to figure out an academic plan for her. Once we were nearly finished, she stood up and announced that she had suddenly decided to apply as a waitress at a new local restaurant instead. She then left my office and the university. College Measures provides in-depth statistics that bear out the high attrition rates due to lack of commitment and the cost, not only to these students but also to their respective institutions and higher education in general.

    To have and demonstrate grit, you must be dedicated to the pursuit of postsecondary education. To help you determine and strengthen your level of commitment to higher learning, consider your motivation(s). For example, do you want a new career or a better job? Are you hoping to set a good example for your children and help your family by furthering your education? Being able to articulate your reason(s) for wanting to go to college can help you find for yourself and demonstrate to others that level of commitment to postsecondary education that is necessary for your success.

    Intentionality: Prospective students must not only be committed to the pursuit of higher learning, but they must also have a clear sense of what exactly it is that they intend to accomplish and a plan for doing so. Perhaps that underprepared student with grit wants to earn a business degree to work her way up to a promotion with a current employer. Maybe a veteran student, upon returning from Afghanistan, wants to pursue a leadership role within the field of peace studies with the goal of helping to reduce world conflict.

    Whatever concrete purpose you may have for furthering your education, focusing and learning to articulate your intent will also help you stay engaged in the process, lessening the chances that you will drop out even if you need to brush up on some skills such as writing or math. This intentionality will also demonstrate to others that you have the grit to succeed.

    Self-Management: Both commitment and intentionality require some practice with self-discipline. Here you can take the skills you have in juggling your job and/or family responsibilities and apply them to your education. How will you find time to access your classes, study, and complete coursework? . How will you turn distractions, such as having to work overtime or caring for a sick child into continued academic success? What if your Internet service goes out or you need assistance with an assignment? What resources exist to help you? Plan for your success as you would strategize for a work-related project, a family vacation, or a military maneuver.

    Social Support: At this point, you may be thinking: This is too much for me to do on my own. This is exactly why research including that of the ETS and its holistic assessment points to the need for a good social network of support for college students, especially those who may be underprepared. As you commit to your education and intent and plan for your success, think about who may form what I like to call your academic pit crew. Consider carefully who in your life may be able to assist you with information, encouragement, childcare, and other such types of support.

Although the value of testing for grit is just in the beginning stages of debate among experts, there are some realities here that students, especially those who fall within this subcategory of academic unpreparedness should not ignore. More specifically, attrition rates during the first year of college and the resulting costs to individuals and higher education are too high. Those students who do succeed tend to posses this “something extra” known lately as “grit.” You certainly can learn to assess your own level of commitment, intentionality, self-management, and social support; then improve upon any that seem weak.

Students who want to triumph in their own edventure would do well to consider taking the SuccessNavigator assessment and thinking about how they might have the grit to win.

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