By: Gaurav Talwar, 3rd Year Life Sciences Student
Scenario 1: “Wow, that was an easy midterm. I am too good for university… I’ll just party for the next few weeks and cram closer to exam time.”
Scenario 2: “That midterm was awful. This subject isn’t meant for me… there is no point in trying for the final exam. It will be a waste of time.”
If I asked which scenario you would prefer to be in, you would probably choose scenario 1. However, on a closer examination, you might realize that neither scenario embodies the most productive mindset for approaching university, or even life in general.
At SASS, we differentiate between two types of mindsets; a fixed mindset, embodied in the example scenarios above, and a growth mindset, which is what I will elaborate on later in this post. Someone with a fixed mindset believes that they are born with a certain, unchangeable, level of ability in a task, and that regardless of their efforts, they cannot change their proficiency. In contrast, someone practicing a growth mindset takes a more constructive view and realizes that through commitment, practice, and effort, they can develop their abilities.
Being in the midst of my ninth university midterm/exam period, I can confidently say that practicing a growth mindset is one of the most effective strategies you can embrace. Each midterm experience presents a unique opportunity for personal development. Not only do you learn new content and then study it later to improve mastery and recall, but you also learn more about your preferred ways to prepare for exams. With a growth mindset, you can free yourself to refine your ability to tackle the content, to manage your emotions and nerves during stressful situations, and overall feel more optimistic about your learning.
However, developing a growth mindset is a skill itself, and not a way of thinking which you can simply switch on. Here are a few techniques which I would recommend you try to practice this skill:
- Every week, set aside some time to reflect on your progress. What did you learn that week and how did it build on your previous skills? Also, reflect on some goals (more on setting “SMART” goals here) which you did and did not achieve. What was the difference between your approach to each goal, and how will you tweak your approach to achieve the goals you set for the next week?
By consistently reflecting on your progress, you practice your ability to self-regulate. At the same time, you realize that even small changes in your approach to learning can have a large, overall impact on your success.
- When reflecting on an experience (such as a midterm), don’t focus only on the effort or only on the outcome. Instead, praise yourself for the effective strategies which helped you get to the outcome, as explained by Carol Dweck, a pioneer in theories of mindset (more information here). A rationale behind this is the following: If you spend many hours preparing for a test which ultimately goes poorly, then consoling yourself by praising how long you spent studying may not be effective. This is because if you repeat the same approach to studying in the future, then you may face another disappointing result. Ultimately, you may feel that you are unable to develop your skills. Likewise, focusing solely on the result can either make you feel overconfident (if the exam went well), or demoralized (if it didn’t go so well).
The better approach, is to break up the exam into sections (either by question type or content). Then, evaluate what strategies you used to help prepare for each section. Praise yourself for the strategies which helped you do well, while aim to try new strategies to replace those which were not so effective (e.g. doing more practice from a textbook instead of re-reading your notes numerous times, a pitfall I have often fallen into).
- Acknowledge the power of the word “yet”. We all have areas of weaknesses. But instead of viewing the weakness as a static inability, look at it as an area for improvement. So begin by acknowledging the skill you want to improve. Then, realize that you may not be comfortable in this skill “yet”, and therefore can improve in the future. For example, you may not have mastered a key concept in your math class yet, but by approaching your professor during office hours, doing more practice problems, and searching for additional resources online, you can master the topic.
- Once you recognize an area of development, embrace the “Creator” role to develop your skill. Although there can be external circumstances outside of your control, you can still control the way you respond to adversity. Likewise, you can create a more constructive situation, by taking responsibility of your actions and making more effective choices. So if an exam doesn’t go so well, take accountability for the performance, and then work on the alternative strategies you think of (e.g. practicing, approaching your professor and searching online as mentioned in point 3). (For more information on the Creator role and how it applies to a related topic, Stress Management, click )
By practicing the tips mentioned above, hopefully you will begin to view the process of writing midterms as an enriching experience, rather than a hurdle which you can or cannot overcome. So if you find yourself in one of the scenarios mentioned at the start of the blog, reflect on your inner voice. Ask yourself, “Is it my fixed or growth mindset speaking to me?”. If it’s your growth mindset, then perhaps it will sound something like this:
Scenario 1: “Wow, that midterm went well. I guess it indicates that I am on track to understanding the concepts. I should continue using the strategies I am using, and make sure to add in new elements which can make the final exam preparation an even more smooth transition.”
Scenario 2: “That midterm didn’t go so well. I should reflect on where I went wrong. Did I focus too much on certain details while missing other concepts? Or did I know my material but couldn’t focus well during the exam? I should work on these skills to be more successful on the upcoming exam.”
And remember, your growth mindset is your friend. It takes time and commitment to establish and maintain a friendship, but it’s always worth the effort.
For more strategies and information, please click here
Photo courtesy of Ken Whytock under Flickr Creative Commons Attribution license 2.0.