To continue on from the counterintuitive benefits of studying less, I thought I should address a topic equally as important in the way we study – our mindset.
But before I do, I’d like to explain why I’m focussing on “soft” topics rather than the clear, hard facts. The highly agreed facts are already well documented all over the internet and are the simple keys to a solid study technique which I thoroughly endorse – I’m choosing however to build on top of these resources rather than re-invent the wheel, which gives me the chance to discuss some exciting and often controversial research in the science of learning. So let’s carry on!
While studying an education paper this year in medicine, I came across this table in the research which demonstrated the different approaches students may have while studying their subjects, whether positive (approach-oriented) or negative (avoidance-oriented); learning focussed (mastery goals) or achievement focussed (performance goals).
This simple table carries an astonishingly large amount of insight into our mindsets, and I’ll attempt to unpack as much of it as possible in this post.
First is how negative or “avoidance-oriented” learners perform more poorly in comparison to positive “approach-oriented” students. While at first it may seem obvious that someone hoping to get 100% in an exam will most likely score higher than someone hoping not to fail, the real value is in the more subtle examples. And it’s a surprisingly common mindset trap which holds back many from reaching their potential. Think of a hard-working student who’s afraid of letting down their parents, afraid to move down a class, or afraid to lose to their friends – all very common situations in society because of our fear of failure. I’ll explain this with my own personal story.
My Personal Experience
Although I personally had an ambitious positive approach to study most of the time, my school used to idolise top students to almost “legendary” status, fuelling the popular culture of “no one can beat ____, he’s a genius!” This mindset subconsciously pervaded through to me that I began to accept that I could do well, but would never beat those legendary students. I did relatively well throughout, but was limited from doing more by this fear. My year 12 results put me very close to the top student, and it shocked me; I didn’t think that was physically possible. But I’ll never forget my brother Patrick’s pep talk that Summer which would shift my mindset for the rest of my academic career. I was writing my year 13 goals to be read to the school during assembly, and explained to him “I’m so tempted to write Dux on there. I mean I’m so close already, but the problem is I can’t possibly beat ____”.
His response was so incredibly casual: “Bro are you serious? This guy’s got nothing on you. Bro, you can easily take him out. Just write it, who cares – you’ll easily get it”. He kept going, and as those words came out of my brother’s mouth, I was filled with astonishment; how could he so easily and confidently put down such a great hero like that? But on the inside, it sparked a burning passion within me; that I could perhaps take him on. I nervously wrote Dux as my goal despite being a clear underdog at the time. No one else in the school did. For my first time ever I came first in the mid-year school examinations, did it again for mocks, and finally managed to take out Dux at the end of the year. In the 10 sets of exams before these, I had not once been first (and came in the top 5 about twice) and here I came first three times in a row. I realised the potential my brother had unleashed in me by dreaming big for that top spot instead of being afraid. Thank you Patrick!
Mastery Vs Performance
Right, so I’ve addressed the importance of a positive approach to study, but what about learning Vs achievement focussed study?
As you may can probably tell, I was very highly achievement driven in my high school years, putting me in the top right box of the table. But being performance based alone wouldn’t have gotten me very far at all. You see, to quote every single rapper out there, I was in it “for the love of the game” too. What do I mean by that? Did I genuinely love study? Honestly, no I didn’t at first, but I did let my curiosity run wild when I studied and soaked up the material as if I loved it, until it funnily enough became really exciting! Ironically, once you’re actually studying for the sake of learning, then the achievements start to come!
“See I don’t live for glamour,and I don’t care for fame
I’m in this for the love of the game” – Jay Sean in Kevin Rudolf’s “I made it”
And it’s a basic recurring theme in just about everything in life; if you’re simply after the money, fame or success, then you probably won’t get it; you must first love what you do and work hard at it to get there. That’s why I now identify with the top left category much more than the top right – I primarily focus on learning, with achievement no longer being the core focus. You’ll find a lot more discussion about this online around “Process vs Outcomes” and why process is far more important. You may even notice how I most often refer to study as learning rather than education and it’s more than just semantics – learning places emphasis on process while education focusses on outcomes!
And that ends my long post on mindset, although I’ve just scratched the surface with regards to its power here. But finally, I’d like you to ask yourself honestly, what learning mindset do you fall under? Do you dream of what you can achieve? Or do you fear how you could fail? Do you primarily focus on learning, or more on results? Are you somewhere in between? Hopefully these questions along with this post allow you to start reflecting on your own approach to learning, and it’d be great to hear about your mindset or opinions in the comments!