Forget IQ. Just work hard!

I mentioned this back in December, but it's worth repeating. Dave Munger ("High IQ: Not as good for you as you thought", Cognitive Daily) reported on some research by Angela Duckworth and Martin Seligman that investigates the question,

Could a more robust measure of self-discipline demonstrate that it's more relevant to academic performance than IQ?

To address this question, Duckworth and Seligman conducted a two-year study of eighth graders, combining several measures of self-discipline for a more reliable measure, and also assessing IQ, achievement test scores, grades, and several other measures of academic performance. Using this better measure of self-discipline, they found that self-discipline was a significantly better predictor of academic performance 7 months later than IQ.

As Munger comments, "Most impressive was the whopping .67 correlation between self-discipline and final GPA, compared to a .32 correlation for IQ." That's certainly impressive.

Self-discipline, of course, means that students spend more time on task. From this perspective, John R. Anderson's ACT-R model of learning supports the stance that self-discipline is important. ACT-R is a theory of how people think and learn.

The original ACT (Atomic Components of Thought) model was the one that posited the different types of knowledge, declarative and procedural. Anderson and Schunn's article "Implications of the ACT-R learning theory: No magic bullets", as the title suggests, asserts:

the ACT-R theory makes it clear that there is no magic bullet that allows some way out of these enormous differences in time on task [between 9th grade students in Pittsburgh and in Japan]. For competences to be displayed over a lifetime, time on task is by far and away the most significant factor.

This perspective is a crucial one for language learning. Many try to speed up language acquisition through various strategies such as mnemonics. As the article states:

There has been a long-standing strand of research in human memory looking at the advantage of mnemonics and various memory-enhancing strategies in terms of learning material. Such mnemonics strategies have been recommended for domains as far ranging as foreign vocabulary learning and learning of chemical formulas. However, the important thing to recognize is that these techniques speed the initial acquisition of the knowledge. Speed of the first steps on the learning curve becomes insignificant if ones goal is long-term possession of the knowledge. Such mnemonics drop out with practice and the critical factor becomes, not saving a relatively small amount of time in initial acquisition, but rather investing substantial amounts of time in subsequent practice. It is not clear that there is anything to be saved in subsequent practice by use of mnemonics.

In other words, practice makes perfect--not learning gimmicks.

So, for Munger the question becomes, How (if we can) teach self-discipline? For me, the question becomes, How can we foster an environment in which self-discipline is the norm?