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Predicting student success: More than just GPA

On Monday, Feb. 16, the Office of Analytic Support and Institutional Research hosted a presentation on Non-Cognitive Factor Research in Student Success in JRC 101. The talk was lightly attended and faculty and staff comprised a majority of the audience.

Non-cognitive factors are determinants other than academic ability and intelligence that influence academic performance. Currently, researchers at Grinnell are using two different scales to measure non-cognitive factors: the Duckworth Grit Index and the Educational Testing Services Success Navigator. Within the class of 2018, 90% and 65% of students, respectively, have participated in surveys that were used for data collection.

The Duckworth Grit index is a survey composed of 12 short statements that require students to self-report whether the statement describes them. Students are then given a score from one to five, five being the most gritty, which represents the extent to which they are motivated to achieve long-term goals and how well they respond to setbacks and stress.

Amongst the class of 2018, there was a wide distribution of Grit scores, the lowest ones being around 1.5. In terms of predicting first-semester GPA, there was a low correlation between Grit score and academic success.

“We’re excited to see how Grit relates to overall GPA and retention over time,” said Kaitlin Wilcox, Assistant Director for Analytic Support & Institutional Research.

The ETS survey is longer than the Grit test and measures proficiency in four core areas: academic skill, commitment, self-management and social support. Researchers described the ideology of the test as similar to that of the Grit score, but producing a different product, as the result gives shows students how they score on four different distribution scales.

Researchers found that out of the four areas, academic skill was the greatest predictor of first-term GPA for the class of 2018.

Randy Stiles, Associate VP for Analytic Support & Institutional Research, and Wilcox both noted that, as the tests were administered to this year’s first-year students, they currently only have one outcome: first-semester GPA. Because of this limited timescale, it is still too early to tell whether either of these non-cognitive success tests is predictive of academic success at Grinnell. For these reasons, students’ scores have not been shared with them, only used for data collection.

 Randy Stiles of the Office of Analytic Support and Institutional Research discussed different predictors of student success. Photo by Mary Zheng.
Randy Stiles of the Office of Analytic Support and Institutional Research discussed different predictors of student success.
Photo by Mary Zheng.

Ultimately, the goal for this research is to increase the College’s graduation and retention rates, which are relatively low as compared to similar institutions.

This research will be used to determine which non-cognitive tests should be administered to students and then what support systems should be put in place to help students who are flagged as having low non-cognitive scores.

“We want to make sure we can provide as much support as possible for students during their time at Grinnell,” Stiles said. “We want every student to have the best experience possible.”

According to Stiles, more than half of students who withdraw from the College have an overall GPA of 3.0 or above, underscoring the need for non-cognitive research to explain why students who are perform well academically choose to leave Grinnell.

Although these students might not be performing poorly by general academic standards, an overall GPA of 3.2 or below puts a student in the bottom quartile for academic performance at Grinnell, showing the importance of relative performance. Regardless of actual GPA, a decrease in semester-to-semester GPA is a predictive factor for withdrawal from the College.

Daria Brosius ’15, Executive Director of the Wellness Lounge, found the singular focus on GPA as an indicator of success problematic, especially considering that the high level of academic difficulty and mental health were cited as the most common reasons students leave the College.

“Why aren’t [the researchers] focusing on making sure students are adequately supported instead of relying on problematic and nebulous measures such as ‘grit’ to arbitrarily measure students’ success? Success is more than just GPA; success is the ability to participate fully in life at Grinnell. Without adequate support, many students are unable to complete their Grinnell education, let alone achieve any measure of ‘success,’” she wrote in an email to The S&B.

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