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Successful Students: Smart Or Tough?

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2010 Annual Conference & Exposition


Louisville, Kentucky

Publication Date

June 20, 2010

Start Date

June 20, 2010

End Date

June 23, 2010



Conference Session

Research on the First Year I

Tagged Division

First-Year Programs

Page Count


Page Numbers

15.1143.1 - 15.1143.21



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Paper Authors


Beverly Jaeger Northeastern University

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Beverly, Rich, and Sue are core members of the Gateway Team of full-time faculty in the College of Engineering at Northeastern University in Boston, MA. While they concentrate on first-year engineering courses teaching across all engineering disciplines, they also teach specialty courses in the Department of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering at NU.

Each of the NU team has published and presented papers on approaches and techniques in engineering education. Combined, Sue, Rich, and Beverly have earned several teaching awards and are proponents of active, engaging, and effective learning practices.

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Susan Freeman Northeastern University

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Richard Whalen Northeastern University


Rebecca Payne Northeastern University

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Rebecca Payne is a junior in the Industrial Engineering Program at NU and is voluntarily assisting with this undergraduate research initiative. She is also an Honors student minoring in Mathematics while pursuing a dual degree MBA at Northeastern. She has worked for several years as a mentor teaching science and engineering at several local high schools.

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NOTE: The first page of text has been automatically extracted and included below in lieu of an abstract

Successful Students: Smart or Tough?


Grit is defined as perseverance and passion for long-term goals.5 As a trait, grit has been measured in the educational realm and the associated metric has shown to reliably predict a significant percent of student ‘success’. This paper describes the initial work of an ongoing longitudinal study to measure the grit of first-year engineering students using a validated and established self-reporting survey tool.5 Preliminary results of the survey show that there are significant differences in grit scores among student cohorts of gender and student athletes; there are some measurable differences across academic levels and differences among engineering majors. Trends exist between Honors and Non-honors students, yet there is little correlation with SAT scores or absolute age at the university level. Our hypothesis is that students can be better set up for success if they possess more grit, more toughness and determination. While both grit and success may be challenging to define and measure by some standards, we anticipate this research will provide new insights and direction for continued efforts in cultivating the engineers of 2020.


In recent years, there has been a shift in achievement-focused measures in the educational domain. Intelligence tests are earning less credibility while focus on effort-based activities abounds in an attempt to minimize the competitive element in educational experiences. In engineering, it is generally agreed that a baseline level of intellect, perception and ingenuity should be combined with a sufficient amount of perseverance, or grit, in order to succeed. One trait is rarely effective without the other. According to experts studying the features of grit, it is defined as perseverance and passion for long-term goals [and] entails working strenuously toward challenges, maintaining effort and interest over time, despite failure, adversity, and plateaus in progress.4 How does this relate to our students in engineering?

For the last decade or two, Northeastern has had a strong focus –to do more than just teach engineering: that is, to set students up for success. The Undergraduate Deans in Northeastern University’s College of Engineering have put in place a strong team of advisors, tutors, and faculty for first-year engineering students. As noted, they have assembled a team of Gateway instructors dedicated to teaching first-year students as their full-time focus. As well, there are a multitude of mechanisms in place –both curricular and extracurricular– that support and assist the students if they avail themselves, and are served up even sometimes when they do not seek assistance. Remarkably, retention for this program has been remaining strong around 92% for many years. Other colleges at the University have adopted elements of this engineering education model with similar success. In addition, average SAT admissions scores at Northeastern University have also been rising.

So can we attribute part of the success to the “smarter” students we are selecting? To our talents as faculty? To the support programs? Considering that it is likely a combination of all of the

Jaeger, B., & Freeman, S., & Whalen, R., & Payne, R. (2010, June), Successful Students: Smart Or Tough? Paper presented at 2010 Annual Conference & Exposition, Louisville, Kentucky. 10.18260/1-2--16281

ASEE holds the copyright on this document. It may be read by the public free of charge. Authors may archive their work on personal websites or in institutional repositories with the following citation: © 2010 American Society for Engineering Education. Other scholars may excerpt or quote from these materials with the same citation. When excerpting or quoting from Conference Proceedings, authors should, in addition to noting the ASEE copyright, list all the original authors and their institutions and name the host city of the conference. - Last updated April 1, 2015