Cool Nerdy Non-Cog Finding

Grit, conscientiousness, character, whatever you want to call it -- matters a lot in our business of helping kids become first-in-family to get a college degree.

There's a big question of whether grit can be taught. Last January, in Commonwealth Magazine, I reviewed 2 books which examine this.  

A challenge in this work is that "non-cog" skills are tough to measure.  In fact, our friend Roland, in his recent study of Harlem Children's Zone, noted that a particular new grit "test" didn't seem to correlate with actual grit. 

That's why I was heartened by a recent blog post by Jay Greene. He describes some new research by Julie Trivitt and Colin Hitt. They write:

Answering basic survey questions is not a difficult task, cognitively. It can be boring and even tedious – to some the process can seem frivolous. In this respect, a survey is much like a homework assignment...

...Researchers have found that conscientiousness, independent of measured cognitive ability, is an important predictor of whether a student will routinely complete homework. Completing homework is important to high school graduation; it is especially important for grades, which determine postsecondary prospects. Grades and personality surveys could provide valuable information when assessing the non-cognitive impacts of certain programs.

Yet most researchers do not often have access to grades. If researchers are revisiting past datasets, they cannot ask respondents to retroactively complete personality tests.

Got it?  The puzzle is: how can researchers examine conscientiousness?


(Researchers) can analyze survey item response rates, which we posit is a proxy for conscientiousness....We find that these measures, independent of measured cognitive ability, are predictive of educational attainment.

That is, a kid who conscientiously fills out some survey that the teacher told her to fill out....and actually answers the more likely to succeed later in school....and therefore filling out surveys (if low-stakes) is suggestive of grit.  Is this a huge effect?  No.  See below.  It's more of a useful nugget as researchers try to tease out what's really going on here with non-cog.