Where the Science of Psychology Meets the Art of Being Human

The Proven Way to Improve Academic Performance

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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.

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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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