The Holistic Student Journey Bolstered by Grit


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Two short years ago, Lone Star College–Tomball’s current president Dr. Lee Ann Nutt, made a simple New Year’s Resolution: read 12 compelling books — one each month — for professional and personal development. The first book ignited a series of events that led to a grassroots movement that is now successfully changing the culture and curriculum of the college. That book was Paul Tough’s, How Children Succeed. “It was my first introduction to grit as one of seven predictors of a child’s success,” said Nutt. The mom of a 10 and 12-year-old, Nutt could not separate what she was reading about how children learn from her role with the completion agenda at Lone Star College (LSC). Tough’s book led Nutt to her second book, Mindset, by Dr. Carol Dweck, which led her to Angela Lee Duckworth’s work on the power of passion and perseverance.

The Grit Project

“I had been involved with completion work with LSC through Completion by Design and other initiatives focused on policy and promise, but I always felt something was missing,” she said. “When I read these books, I felt like I had found the missing piece of our student success puzzle,” she said. Intrigued, she returned for the start of the spring semester and casually mentioned the concepts of grit and mindset to some colleagues who decided to also read Dweck’s book and explore Duckworth’s research.

“I did some of my own professional development, and introduced an hour-long ‘Grit 101’ presentation that was well attended by faculty and staff who also had a positive reaction to the research,” said Nutt. The movement got legs and the Faculty and Staff Research Council took on ‘The Grit Project’. “We didn’t think we were going to change the world. We just wanted to have fun learning and find new ways to help our students, but it really took hold.”

Helping students is top of mind for Nutt who will be the first to tell you that while she admires and supports the work of the completion agenda, she thinks it’s just one part of the student journey. She makes clear in any conversation that she isn’t just concerned that her students succeed in a class, she is more concerned that they succeed in life.

A More Holistic Approach to Institutional Effectiveness

“I’ve been doing Institutional Effectiveness for so many years,” she said. “What always bothered me was we measured IE with what we call now autopsy data — it was after the fact — too late to help and only good for reporting. In higher ed we still don’t pay enough attention to student input data; we keep processing output data. We needed a more holistic approach to IE where we could learn more about the environment the student is in, and what they brought with them.” She stresses that she is not anti-completion agenda, but thinks mandates and automated processes have placed more emphasis on policy and procedures than on the moral obligation of doing everything possible to help students learn how to be successful in life. “It’s really an employability agenda – a life agenda – than it is a completion agenda,” said Nutt.

“When you look at the holistic student journey we do them a disservice when we take away their chance to learn about themselves from their own data,” said Nutt. They don’t all come to us gritty, self-aware and resilient. They often come scared, apprehensive and easily convinced they don’t belong at college. Our students come with complicated lives. They are bigger than a degree. I believe with our work with grit we are helping them do better in their classes and that will translate to doing better in their jobs and their lives when they graduate.”

Building Mindset and Grit to Overcome Adversity

Today the grit movement has taken hold at LSC Tomball and GRIT Gauge™ scores are recorded as each student takes a self-assessment. Faculty are inspired to build grit into the curriculum, with some faculty reporting that the work is actually making them more resilient instructors and leaders.

“We have basically three buckets of students,” explains Nutt. “There are students who just show up gritty and unstoppable – you’ve seen the single mom taking a full load and keeping a 4.0 heading into nursing school. She’s got it and nothing is stopping her. Then we have students with fixed mindsets who are scared and take any sign as confirmation they don’t belong. The third bucket are those students who gets good grades without much difficulty and who have had pretty easy lives. They are not used to experiencing failure or consequences, so the first time they do experience some adversity they are not sure how to respond so their parents blame the college instead of encouraging the student to try harder.”

“I’m currently working with Dr. Paul G. Stoltz who has years of reliable data and research around this topic,” said Nutt. “He stresses that it’s not just the amount of grit – it’s what kind of grit that matters. You want good, smart and strong grit. Sometimes quitting something might be an act of good grit, it just depends.”

Peer Mentoring from Honor Society Students

Sharing grit stories is another way that LSC-Tomball is changing the culture to help students achieve a higher level of good grit. For example, one semester the honor society Phi Theta Kappa sent pairs of students into each and every Student Success Course. Incoming, first-time in college populations are required to take this course. Each pair of peer mentors told their story of personal achievement and triumph over adversity. “One will mention how they started in developmental math, another might talk of being in poverty. They show you can overcome obstacles,” she said. Students are also recording their grit stories using tools such as Adobe Spark.

Nutt knows a bit about overcoming adversity herself. “Students might look at me and think, what does she know, she’s had it easy all of her life. What I know is that when I was 13, I experienced a family crisis that put me on a very difficult journey, one I didn’t want or ask for. Through sheer determination, I learned to be very independent and goal-driven at a very young age. I didn’t know it then, but looking back, I made it because I had grit.”

Expanding Research and Reach

Her current vision is to integrate the GRIT Gauge™ assessments into the Civitas Learning platform and apps, and look for tipping points where grit is actually helping a student increase their likelihood of persisting, completing and succeeding. “The possibilities in this work are amazing. We didn’t set out to change everything; we were just inspired. It’s an amazing journey and the research is just getting started.”

It’s one that is garnering national attention. And on October 14, Nutt and team hosted the first Grit Summit at LSC-Tomball. Paul G. Stoltz was the keynote speaker and colleagues from across higher ed attended as part of her Global Grit Initiative. “This is bigger than Tomball,” said Nutt. “This is bigger than Texas. This is global.”

Dr. Lee Ann Nutt

Dr. Lee Ann Nutt was named president of Lone Star College -Tomball in February 2015. Previously, she served for three years as LSC-Tomball vice president of instruction. Dr. Nutt is committed to the four values instituted at LSC-Tomball in Summer 2013 (Learning, Leadership, Community and Connection) to articulate the college's commitment to the growth of its students as well as its role in the community at large.

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