Blog: Foundational Research on Grit, Purpose & Belonging

By Ada Ocampo

What do we mean when we talk about developing grit, a sense of purpose and a sense of belonging in students, especially in reference to students from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds? In response to this question, this blog focuses in on three seminal works from key scholars in the field. William Damon, a Stanford Professor, focuses his research on the role that "purpose" plays in youth development with implications to fulfillment later in life. Greg Walton, a Stanford Psychology Professor, has dedicated his works in finding interventions to mitigate stereotype threat with a focus on social belonging. Angela Duckworth, a Professor at the University of Pennsylvania, is well known for developing the concept of "grit" within the academic context.

Sense of Purpose

(William Damon, 2008) *


Related Video: Damon with UPenn Character Lab (2013-14)

Related Article: The Why Question. Education Next (2009).


What is it?

“A purpose is an ultimate concern . It is the final answer to the question Why?... A purpose is a deeper reason for the immediate goals and motives that drive most daily behavior.”


Why does it matter?

People who find a sense of purpose are found to be happier and feel more fulfilled in life.


What can schools do to develop a sense of purpose?

To answer this question, William Damon studies the pathways of many students whose sense of purpose varies. For those students who lead extremely purposeful lives, he identifies a sequence of common steps (Table 1) on the pathway towards purpose. One can imagine ways in which each step can be supported or integrated within a school.

In the context of schooling, Damon argues that schools should move beyond short-horizon thinking such as achieving good grades and, instead, design curriculum which ties the global overarching why of the content at hand. For example, to what end is a student learning to multiply fractions? What career is this connected to? What global problem will the student be able to fix as a result of learning this?

Damon also emphasizes the crucial role that societal culture can play in a young person’s search for purpose. Based on his findings, he draws the connection between a strong community that together leads youth to purposeful ventures. In supporting youth, he advocates for the “ positive youth development approach ” where adults are not “fixing” students, but instead adults are understanding, and engaging children in productive, purposeful activities. Specifically, given current trends, he advocates for a heightened civic education where schools teach students how to engage within their communities and political system to combat the sense of apathy and powerlessness youth are currently expressing.


Social Belonging

(Greg Walton, 2012)


Related Video: Walton interviews with the Stanford Graduate School of Business


What is it?

In psychology, social belonging is the term used to refer to one’s perception of whether their individuality is accepted, valued, or respected by others in a social setting.


Why does it matter?

Low levels of social belonging in educational contexts may lead to lower academic outcomes (i.e. dropout, low GPA). Greg Walton, a Stanford Psychologist, studies the relationship between social belonging and stereotype threat—a situational stressor of confirming negative stereotypes (e.g., “women are bad at math”). Walton argues that social belonging and the experience of being negatively stereotyped (i.e., stereotype threat) are mutually incompatible. If a person is in a social context where there negative stereotype could be proven correct (e.g., Women’s quantitative abilities in high level math course), they will feel that they do not belong in that classroom. Thus, Walton theorizes that increasing one’s feelings of social belonging will mitigate the effects of stereotype threat and improve academic performance.


What can schools do to develop feelings of social belonging?

With this theory in mind, Walton designs a social belonging intervention which has been found to have long-lasting effects on academic outcomes in various contexts. In a college freshman experiment with black and white students, black students who experienced the intervention reported higher levels of social belonging when faced with adversity (e.g. “bad days”) and received 1/3 of a grade point higher than their control group counterparts and the black students’ campus wide, which persisted for the next three years. The intervention changed their academic trajectory. 

The social belonging intervention known as the attributional retraining intervention delivers three key messages: 1) there is an alternative, non-threatening explanation for negative events in school; 2) worrying about negative social experiences and belonging are normal at first in a new school and not reflective of actual lack of belonging to the social group; 3) these negative experiences will reduce over time and you will begin to feel at home. In this intervention, these key messages were delivered through survey results from upper-year students in the same school. Based on psychology-research methods of processing known as “saying is believing,” students also wrote an essay about the change students’ experience in college over time and then delivered their essay as a speech to a video camera, which was framed as a video resource to be shown during freshmen orientation the following year to help future students better adjust to the college environment.

They replicated this intervention at the middle school level and found similar results. The black middle school students reported higher levels of social belonging over three years, received higher grades in 8 th grade, and also experienced less disciplinary incidents.




(Angela Duckworth, 2007)


Related Video: TEDtalk: Duckworth- The Key to Success? Grit (2013)


Related Article: Response: It’s Time to Change the Conversation about Grit (2015).


What is it?

Grit is defined as perseverance and passion for long-term goals.


Why does it matter?

The introduction of the concept of Grit and a measurement for Grit, developed by Angela Duckworth (2007) . Grit has been shown to account for successful outcomes in very challenging contexts (e.g., Ivy League, Spelling bee, West Point Academy). The idea counters the popular belief that only talent decides fate, but instead determined perseverance linked with long-term passion plays a significant role in ultimate success. The idea provides a different lens from which educators can approach their students’ development. 


What can schools do to develop grit?

Research to answer this question is underdeveloped. Only one study focused on spelling bee competitors has drawn a positive relationship between “deliberate practice”-- practice where a student receives immediate informative feedback and has the opportunity to try again and change incorrect methods/answers—and increased levels of grit. Nevertheless, Angela Duckworth offers three theoretical methods to increase grit at Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching’s 2015 Annual Summit.

The first method is to encourage students to focus and appreciate the task at hand instead of imagining themselves in another place.

The second approach is to promote a growth mindset. Duckworth has found that “grittier” students tend to have more of a growth mindset; thus, if you develop a growth mindset, you are likely to also develop grit.

Lastly, schools should build in opportunities for deliberate practice” in educational contexts. Deliberate practice is one in which students set a specific goal, practice, receive immediate informative feedback, reflect on their feedback, refine their practice and repeat. Duckworth argues that individualized immediate informative feedback is often not as present in the classroom as you would expect.


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