guest written by Shahar Link of Mindspire Tutoring & Test Prep
Many people believe that the basic ingredients of success on challenging tests like the SAT or ACT are 1) talent at math or language, 2) how much you learned in school, and 3) how smart you are in general. Both students and tutors can have this belief. It is, however, wrong.
Carol Dweck, in her book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, calls such a belief a “fixed mindset,” which essentially means that a person is stuck thinking that he or she is more or less born with talents for some things and not for others, and it is not really possible to get smarter at doing things that you’re “just not good at.” On the other hand, there is another attitude, a “growth mindset,” which is the idea that if one works hard at something, and really tries to get better and smarter, then one can become highly skilled at virtually anything.
Dweck, a psychologist who has researched the psychology of learning at Stanford University for many years, shows convincingly that people with fixed mindsets don’t get smarter, while those with growth mindsets do. Growth-mindset individuals show much greater adaptability to challenging circumstances, are better equipped to navigate both failure and success, and learn more quickly. Obviously, these are crucial elements in test preparation.
Other researchers have recently come to similar conclusions. Daniel Coyle, author of The Talent Code, writes on his blog: “If you distilled all the new science about talent development into two words of advice, they would be ‘practice better.’ That’s it. Practice. Better.” In other words, genes, “potential,” etc. have nothing to do with it.
Students and tutors who simply assume that there is some innate potential limit to what they can accomplish as they prepare for a test are setting themselves up for failure. Having worked in the test prep business for almost 15 years, I know that there are a lot of people who have the fixed mindset, and what they do is teach the “facts” and then hope students “get it.” The truth is, anyone can “get it” if they put in serious effort, don’t get hampered by failure, stay motivated, and have the right coaching. And tutors can do a lot to make that happen.
Anyone can acquire a “growth mindset” at any age. It’s about a new way of thinking about the meaning of failure — that failure actually means you are learning, because you are pushing against your limits. Once you realize that, you begin to: a) change the way you think, b) challenge yourself more, and c) work harder. Those are the real key ingredients for success on standardized tests.
It is a privilege to be able to provide this lesson to my students, because it is about so much more than test preparation – it is about how to succeed in life.
Carol Dweck’s book elaborates in much further detail how this all works in the brain, and shows the results of hundreds of studies, as well as how teachers, parents, coaches, and even spouses can apply these findings to get better at everything they do, and help others do so as well. Clearly, one’s mindset is a foundational element of success on standardized tests, and if you are working to get a high score, or help others do so, I strongly suggest you familiarize yourself with Dweck’s research. It will certainly improve your results on tests, but more importantly, make you a more fulfilled person in general. And that’s the goal of this whole business really, isn’t it?
About the author: Shahar Link is the founder of Mindspire Tutoring & Test Prep, a tutoring company built on the idea that anyone can get better at anything if they set their mind to it.