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Dealing with exam results – lessons in mindset

Teaching strategies  

Helping learners to deal with a wide range of emotions on and after results day is always hard. There are some students running around, hugging each other, thanking their teachers, calling their families and weeping with joy. They have the grades they wanted and, especially if they are Cambridge International A Level or Cambridge Pre-U grades, a confirmation of that university place or job.

But then you have the others. I think about Lyn. She’s always worked hard and scored highly. Her self-confidence came from doing well in exams. Something has gone wrong this time around, and her Cambridge IGCSEs didn’t go so well. She’s devastated. Her confidence is destroyed, and you don’t know how you are going to help her regain it when she comes back next term to start her Cambridge International A Levels.

Then there’s Greg. He doesn’t do much work at all, and he almost sounds proud of it when he talks to his friends. He hasn’t turned up to the school to get his results in person, and he probably won’t even read the letter from the school for ages when it arrives at home. Greg has just scraped enough to join your Cambridge International A Level class next term with Lyn, and you aren’t sure how you are going to get him to take it more seriously next time.

For both Lyn and Greg, Carol Dweck’s work on mindset could be really helpful. Dweck refers to an experiment where two groups of students are given an easier test, which they all do well at. One group of students is praised for the way that they have worked. The other group is told that they must have succeeded because they are really clever – naturally good at the task. The students are then given a more challenging task. The students praised for the way they worked are more excited by the challenge and more likely to embrace the task. The students praised for their ability are less enthusiastic, and they do less well than the other group. Then they are given a task of a similar difficulty level to the first task, the group praised for being clever do worse than they did the first time. The group praised for the way they worked to do better. The group praised for being clever are developing a fixed mindset, and the other group, a growth one.

At the Cambridge Schools Conference last September, we heard a keynote speech from Matthew Syed. Syed talks about the importance of learning from mistakes. He pointed out to us that the airline industry has a really honest approach to making mistakes.  Instead of a culture of blame, the focus is on the work that needs to be done to improve. So with any mistake, however small, an honest and productive conversation is held to decide what lessons need to be learnt. This is a growth mindset approach.

What does this tell us that can help Lyn? Lyn is showing some classic fixed mindset characteristics. Lyn thinks that she did badly because she is not clever enough. Even though she has succeeded in the past, her previous confidence in herself has been destroyed and she is demoralised. This could mean that she is less likely to ‘turn things around’ next time. What Lyn needs to understand that it is not about her as a person. Doing badly in the test doesn’t mean that she as a person isn’t intelligent. But the work she did was not yet good enough to get a high grade.

This is not just solved by having a superficial ‘feel better about yourself’ conversation with Lyn. What it means, is spending time with her to help her to think reflectively about her preparation for this examination. How did she revise? How did she approach the papers? Were there aspects of her study earlier in the course which need revisiting? Using good Assessment for Learning (AfL) and metacognitive approaches, a teacher can help Lyn to start planning what she can do differently next time. Having a reflective approach, and then being prepared to keep working to improve your understanding and skills, is not easy. Making one change might not be enough. Developing understanding and skills can take time. Lyn might need your help to overcome several more setbacks before she starts improving.

Mindset theory can help Greg too. Greg might believe that there is no point in trying, so he’d rather ‘fail’ by his choice, than work hard and still not succeed. Again, if Greg believes that success is down to a fixed intelligence, he won’t see any reason to work. Greg needs to understand that a failure to succeed in the past is about the way that he’s worked, and not necessarily about his intelligence. Again, if Greg can be encouraged to see he can make a difference, he will be able to make improvements. Greg is probably going to need time talking about what he wants from his education, so that he can gain motivation to work. He is going to need to learn new study habits, and he will probably need lots of small targets to help him see that changes can make a difference. These targets will need to be challenging but manageable.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that Greg and Lyn are both guaranteed top grades, even if they work hard and reflectively. But the research of academics like Dweck suggests that we put too much down to whether a learner has innate intelligence or ability, rather than whether they are developing the techniques and understanding they need to succeed more highly. So whilst we can’t guarantee Lyn or Greg a high grade next time, the determination and resilience which we can encourage them to develop, the reflective approach they can take about their learning, gives them more opportunity to succeed at a higher level. So perhaps next time they will both be students cheering at their success.



Praise for Intelligence Can Undermine Children’s Motivation and Performance Claudia M. Mueller and Carol S. Dweck Columbia University Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 1998, Vol. 75, No. 1, 33-52

Mindset: How you can fulfill your Potential. Carol Dweck, Random House, New York, 2007

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