The Proven Way to Improve Academic Performance

A growth mindset is the belief that intelligence, ability and human traits are not fixed, but can be improved with time, effort and help from others. The impact this belief can have on achievement is remarkable, with an abundance of research showing it can improve academic performance. The good news is that is something that can be instilled in anybody.

With a growth mindset, achievement is attributed to effort, rather than natural ability or genes.

Carol Dweck, a Professor of Psychology at Stanford, has lead research in the area and findings from decades of research clearly demonstrate that mindset frames behaviour. 

The Effect of a Growth Mindset

A growth mindset – the belief that intelligence and ‘smartness’ can be learned and that the brain can grow and change – can significantly improve academic performance. People with a growth mindset:

  • interpret challenge as an opportunity to learn and improve, rather than as a threat to inherent ability;
  • value effort (because ‘trying makes you smarter’);
  • show persistence and resilience in the face of difficulty;
  • are more likely to seek help rather than hide their struggle.

The Effect of a Fixed Mindset

Those with a fixed mindset on the other hand, believe that that intelligence is finite and unchangeable and either you are smart or you are not. Success is attributed to ability rather than effort.

Research has shown that a student (child, adolescent or otherwise) with a fixed mindset is:

  • less resilient;
  • less likely to ask for help;
  • more likely to give up in the face of failure;
  • more likely to shrink from challenge, preferring instead to choose easier work that makes them look and feel smart;
  • more likely to hide their setbacks and misunderstanding.

Not surprisingly, a fixed mindset has been shown to predict lower academic achievement.

Can Mindset be Changed?

Yes. Absolutely.

Teaching the principles of a growth mindset can redirect thoughts such as ‘I’m just not a science person,’ or ‘I’m hopeless at maths,’ towards, ‘If I work at it I’ll get better at it,’ refocusing students on their potential and subsequently influencing behaviour.

Dweck has found that in the US, around 40% of students have a growth mindset, 40% a fixed mindset, with the remaining 20% mixed.

Growth mindset is now broadly accepted as having a profound affect on learning and achievement.

Nurturing a Growth Mindset

The shift from a fixed to growth mindset has been facilitated by teaching about the plasticity of the brain and explaining how the brain can grow and change with time and effort.

Brain plasticity is widely accepted in the scientific community, with evidence coming from people who have suffered major brain lesions. Despite their brain injury, those people have been able to learn reading, writing, bike riding and other abilities that require the brain to grow in response to effort.

There is an excellent free resource here that explains how to develop a growth mindset in kids and teens including a video that helps with Step 2 by explaining the science simply, in a way that younger kids will understand and teens (hopefully) won’t feel patronised by. Here is a brief summary. :

Step 1

Explain that people can strengthen and change their brain and that with effort, people can become more intelligent and better at learning. Try something along the lines of, ‘Working at a particular task or learning for a particular subject not only makes your brain better at that particular thing, but it actually strengthens and grows the brain so it’s better at things in the future.’

Step 2

Talk about the science underlying the growth mindset by explaining how certain experiences (such as studying) strengthen connections in the brain, making the brain smarter by ‘rewiring’ the brain. 

Explain that there are plenty of real life studies done by scientists that have shown this works. Here are two of them which are also shown in the video:

  • In one study, one group of mice were put into an empty cage and another group were put into a cage with puzzles and other mice, providing them with plenty of opportunities to learn and grow their brain. When they tested both groups of mice, the mice from the stimulating cage were smarter and their brains were heavier.
  • In London taxi drivers, the part of the brain that deals with spatial awareness is bigger than it is in other  Londoners. The longer the taxi drivers have been in the job, navigating their way through city streets, the larger that part of the brain.
Step 3

Share a story where you’ve become better at something with effort. A real-life example will help give backbone to the research you’ve just spoken about. Hearing about the research is one thing, but hearing a real life example … well that’s unbeatable.

Step 4

Ask what they would tell other people, given what they know about mindset. This draws on extensive research on persuasion that confirms the ‘saying-is-believing’ persuasion technique. Research in this area has found that this can lead to long-term changes in behaviours.

Step 5

Praise them for their effort (‘You’ve worked really hard on that,’) rather than for their innate skills and intelligence. This will help to foster a growth mindset by emphasising that effort is more powerful than innate ability.  

This was demonstrated in a study by Carol Dweck involving 400 5th graders. The students were given a relatively easy IQ test and then praised for their intelligence ‘Wow, you must be really smart at this!’ or for their effort, ‘Wow. Great job. You must have worked really hard at this.’

Later, each student wasoffered one of two options – either they could do a harder test, in which they  they ‘would learn and grow,’ or an easy test, which they ‘would surely do well on’.

Of the group who were praised for their intelligence, 33% chose the harder option. Of the group who were praised for effort, 92% chose the more challenging task. Think about that.

Any  conversation that exposes kids and teens to the idea that people can change will make a difference. Have the conversation and keep having it until it becomes a part of their reality and it would never occur to them that it might be otherwise.

The research around growth mindset is compelling and is expanding all the time. Academic success can be greatly influenced by a growth mindset but many of our schools (despite having brilliant teachers) are getting it wrong. See here for why. For this reason, it’s important that we do as much as we can to nurture a growth mindset in our children. 


As a personal aside, I’m such a believer in the importance of a growth mindset because I’ve seen the effects of it for myself (as if the research wasn’t convincing enough but anyhoo …). I have a 12 year old and a 17 year old and I’ve been actively nurturing a growth mindset for about while now. When I say actively, I also mean gently. Many kids, (tell me it’s not just mine!), will rarely be convinced of anything straight up but with consistent and gentle conversation important messages will get through. I’ve seen a big difference in the way they approach study, the way they apply themselves to their work and their results. Mindset isn’t magic, but it works. Have the conversation with your kids or your teens and watch them go. There a few things better than watching people live up to their potential, especially when those people are the ones in your tribe who you’ve known had it in them all along.

4 Comments

Irene

My children have just moved from an international school that supported and encouraged a growth mindset abroad back to a community secondary school that does not seem to have developed this important skill (yet). I have been searching on line for more information without needing to buy several books or pay a subscription for some genuine advice and direction, that will help me as a parent to encourage my children to maintain their growth mindset even if many around them have not quite learned how to use theirs yet.
I just wanted to thank you for sharing this information in a very clear and approachable way. I hope to use some of these methods with some of the young adolescen children I work with. Thank you so much.

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Would you be more likely to take advice from someone who listened to you first, or someone who insisted they knew best and worked hard to convince you? Our teens are just like us. If we want them to consider our advice and be open to our influence, making sure they feel heard is so important. Being right doesn't count for much at all if we aren't being heard.
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Hear what they think, what they want, why they think they're right, and why it’s important to them. Sometimes we'll want to change our mind, and sometimes we'll want to stand firm. When they feel fully heard, it’s more likely that they’ll be able to trust that our decisions or advice are given fully informed and with all of their needs considered. And we all need that.
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"We’re pretty sure that when you say no to something it’s because you don’t understand why it’s so important to us. Of course you’ll need to say 'no' sometimes, and if you do, let us know that you understand the importance of whatever it is we’re asking for. It will make your ‘no’ much easier to accept. We need to know that you get it. Listen to what we have to say and ask questions to understand, not to prove us wrong. We’re not trying to control you or manipulate you. Some things might not seem important to you but if we’re asking, they’re really important to us.❤️" 
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The move towards brave doesn’t have to be a leap. It can be a shuffle - lots of brave tiny steps, each one more brave than before. What’s important isn’t the size of the step but the direction.

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You know who I love? (Not counting every food delivery person who has delivered takeaway to my home. Or the person who puts the little slots in the sides of the soy sauce packets to make them easier to open. Not counting those people.) You know who? Adolescents. I just love them. 
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Today I spoke with two big groups of secondary school students about managing anxiety. In each talk, as there are in all of my talks with teens, there were questions. Big, open-hearted, thoughtful questions that go right to the heart of it all. 
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Some of the questions they asked were:
- What can I do to help my friend who is feeling big anxiety?
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Our teens have big, beautiful, open hearts. They won’t always show us that, but they do. They want to be there for their friends and for the adults in their lives. They want to be able to come to us and talk about the things that matter, but sometimes they don’t know how to start. They want to step up and be there for their important people, including their parents, but sometimes they don’t know how. They want to be connected to us, but they don’t want to be controlled, or trapped in conversations that won’t end once they begin. 

Our teens need to know that the way to us is open. The more they can feel their important adults holding on to them - not controlling them - the better. Let them know you won’t cramp them, or intrude, or ask too many questions they don’t want you to ask. Let them know that when they want the conversation to stop, it will stop. But above all else, let them know you’re there. Tell them they don’t need to have all the words. They don’t need to have any words at all. Tell them that if they let you know they want to chat, you can handle anything that comes from there - even if it’s silence, or messy words, or big feelings - you can handle all of it. Our teens are extraordinary and they need us during adolescence more than ever, but this will have to be more on their terms for a while.  They love you and they need you. They won’t always show it, but I promise you, they do.♥️
Sometimes silence means 'I don't have anything to say.' Sometimes it means, 'I have plenty to say but I don't want to share it right here and right now.' We all need certain things to feel safe enough to put ourselves into the world. Kids with anxiety are thoughtful, observant and insightful, and their wisdom will always have the potential to add something important to the world for all of us.

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