Three Questions for Pharmacy Educators to Consider Regarding Grit

By Jeff Cain, EdD, MS

I have been fascinated with the topic of grit since I started participating in obstacle racing six years ago. Persevering through roadblocks to reach a goal is at the very core of that sport, and I am continually impressed with people who exhibit such “grittiness”. This personal interest led to a professional interest and along with a resident, I wrote a literature review on the topic.1 This research taught me that although the concept of grit is fascinating, the construct of grit for use in academic and research purposes can be utterly frustrating. Defined by Duckworth as “perseverance and passion for long-term goals,”2 grit is easy to describe and discuss, but I underestimated the sheer complexity of the construct, which has issues with measurement (eg, self-report and reference bias)3 and correlation with other non-cognitive traits (eg, conscientiousness).4 Each question that we sought to answer seemed to result in even more questions, and the review led us into a proverbial rabbit hole. Even Duckworth admits that the popularity surpassed the science,5 and this popularity spawned many educational initiatives and programs that may be lacking a solid foundation. Discussions during and after our 2017 AACP Annual Meeting session, “Grit. Resilience. Performance: Tales from the Trenches,” revealed just how much pharmacy educators still want and need to understand about grit. Here are three questions for the Academy to consider.

1. Are we interested in grit or something else?

One of the major challenges of studying grit from an academic and research standpoint is the correlation with numerous other non-cognitive traits—specifically conscientiousness, resilience, mindset, and self-control. Many of these variables are as good or better for predicting elements of success.4 The question we must ask when developing a research question is “Exactly which non-cognitive trait is most meaningful in describing what we want from students?” For example, one contemporary concern is student mental health during times of academic difficulty. Grit seems like an appropriate construct for that, but perhaps the lesser-known “academic buoyancy” is actually more precise in understanding this concern.

2. Are we interested in gritty students or gritty pharmacists?

Pursuit of educational attainment is not the same as pursuit of professional excellence. This is a subtle, but important contrast, especially when we attempt to correlate grit with measures of success. As educators, we tend to focus on academic performance as our primary indicator of success. However, perhaps the most academically talented students do not really need grit for good performance, and the gritty students are the ones who actually have to struggle and barely make acceptable grades. Success in school is a good starting point for research, but by definition, since grit is revealed over longer time periods we may need to look beyond graduation for other measures of success. If you asked pharmacy instructors whether they prefer good students or good pharmacists, I assume that most would choose the latter. The movie Rudy provides a good illustration. Rudy personified grit in his pursuit of playing football at Notre Dame and overcame multiple obstacles to make that happen. However, he wasn’t a great student in terms of academic success. School was not his passion; football was.

3. Are we prepared to help our students and graduates become grittier?

One of the logical and important questions that educators tend to ask about grit is, “Can it be taught?” The disappointing answer is that there is no solid evidence that it can be taught in traditional educational formats and settings.4 You don’t teach perseverance by telling people to persevere and you don’t teach passion by telling people to have it. But are there alternative methods? Some suggest that you can inform people about mindset and teach them to exhibit grit-like attributes, but that authentic perseverance comes from experiences of learning through failure.4 If that is true, are we willing to design and implement curricula and assessments in a manner that push students to their limits, allow them to fail, and help them rebound? In the current era of financial and societal pressures that almost universally dictate extensive student support services, remediation opportunities, and high retention, how much time and resources are we willing to devote to a different approach of letting students fail and helping them become stronger because of it? That’s a risk for both students and schools. Teaching grit sounds good, but is it really something pharmacy educators can or should pursue?

Just as I continue to compete in and be fascinated with the passion and perseverance required in obstacle racing, I continue to be fascinated (and sometimes frustrated with) the construct of grit within academic settings. Hopefully these three questions will launch other discussion points for a concept that a large number of us feel is both interesting and important. I invite you to add to the discussion here.


1. Stoffel J, Cain J. Review of grit and resilience literature within health professions education. Am J Pharm Educ. 2017;In press.

2. Duckworth, Angela L., et al. Grit: perseverance and passion for long-term goals. J Personal Soc Psychol. 92.6 (2007): 1087.

3. Credé M, Tynan MC, Harms PD. Much ado about grit: A meta-analytic synthesis of the grit literature. J Pers Soc Psychol. 2016:e-pub ahead of print.

4. Willingham DT. Ask the cognitive scientist: “Grit” is trendy, but can it be taught? Am Educ. 2016;6:28-44.

5. Duckworth AL. Don’t grade schools on grit. The New York Times. March 26, 2016.

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Jeff Cain, EdD, MS is an associate professor in the Department of Pharmacy Practice & Science and Director of Education Technology at the University of Kentucky College of Pharmacy. Jeff’s educational scholarship interests include innovative teaching, social media, and contemporary issues in higher education. He is actively involved with preparing aspiring academicians for a future career in pharmacy education and scholarship. In his free time he is a husband, father, obstacle racer, and president of For Those Who Would, a 501(c)(3) charity in the adventure and endurance racing communities.

Pulses is a scholarly blog supported by Currents in Pharmacy Teaching and Learning


  1. Some very good questions in here, Dr. Cain! This article brings to mind a host of outdated assumptions that still drive education practice in pharmacy. Some examples: 1) failure means you’re not smart, 2) good grades (being smart) is the most important thing, 3) a good student necessarily equates to a good pharmacist, 4) if students fail, I’ve failed as an educator. When I think of these assumptions, I’m reminded of Dweck’s mindset work, and how easy it is to fall into rigid beliefs about people, because at the end of the day, everyone develops and grows differently. And the variability in that growth is difficult to track, when we’re dealing with individuals. Good article!

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Thank you for your thoughts on this topic. We have been wrestling with this as well as we move towards holistic admissions and it seems to get less clear the more we investigate. The challenge is that we know students need it but there isn’t a good way to measure it. And there are other factors that can help fill in for a student with less “grittiness”. I suspect we are a long way from figuring how this does and should interface with pharmacy education but at least we are talking about it and starting to do research to try!

    Liked by 1 person

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