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Developing a growth mindset - the secret to exam success

Seedlings in a tray of earth

The term "growth mindset" was coined by Carol Dweck, Professor of Psychology at Stanford University.

She became fascinated as to why some children shrink in the face of problems and give up, while others avidly seek challenges, almost as a form of inspiration. What she discovered was that the type of mindset students held was at the heart of these two differing views.

This search for resilience in the face of challenge and adversity has become her life's work and something that has guided her research for over 40 years.

Fixed – When students have a fixed mindset, they tend to believe abilities are carved in stone - that you have a certain amount of talent or intelligence and that's that. They perceive challenges as risky and worry that they could fail. The fact that they hit obstacles, setbacks or criticism is just proof their views were correct in the first place.

Growth – In contrast, when students have a 'growth mindset', they believe that talents and abilities can be developed and that challenges are one way of doing this. Learning something new and difficult is in fact the way you get smarter. Setbacks and feedback are not seen as confirmation of frailty, but as information that could be used to improve.

This does not mean that people with a growth mindset think talent doesn't exist or that everyone is the same. To them it's more a belief that everyone can get better at whatever they do, and improve through hard work and learning from mistakes.

How can you develop a growth mindset?

The good news is that you can develop a growth mindset.

But just to be clear, the world is not divided into those with a growth mindset and those with a fixed one – a mindset is not a character trait. Everyone is a mixture of fixed and growth mindsets. You could have a predominant growth mindset in one area but there can still be a thought or event that acts as a trigger and moves you into a fixed one.

The secret is to work on understanding your triggers so that you're able to stay in a growth mindset more often.

Beliefs – Ask what you believe about yourself and the subject you are studying. Do you believe you are below average, not very clever or that the subject you are studying is too hard? If this is the case you have wandered into a 'fixed mindset'.

What you believe is neither true nor false. What we can say is that it's certainly not "helpful" to believe you are not clever, and is not what someone with a growth mindset would do.

Talent vs effort – Thinking that people are either naturally talented or not is a classic example of being in a fixed mindset. You may never be top of your class but you can improve, and this is achieved by making more effort and working harder.

Positive self-talk – We all have voices inside our head, it's called your inner speech. It has a significant impact on what you believe and how you behave. If you find your inner speech is telling you to give up or that you will never understand a particular topic or subject, change your voice, tell it off, and then say something more positive.

Dweck says that just by adding NOT YET to the end of your statement can help. For example, I don't understand portfolio theory – at least NOT YET. 

For more information on the growth mindset in relation to passing exams, we delivered a presentation to ACCA. The whole presentation can be watched online.