We all experience disappointment, hurt, and even anger when university course results aren’t quite what we hoped for. Sometimes we realise that the results are actually what we deserve; we simply didn’t do the work required to earn a better result. But sometimes we know that we worked incredibly hard. In this instance getting past the emotional impacts of failure and working out a way forward can seem daunting. Employers are very interested in how potential employees have responded to past failure and what they learned from the experience in terms of situational analysis, self-awareness, problem solving and a growth mindset.
Denis Waitley a well-known human behaviour expert, motivational author and speaker said, “failure should be our teacher, not our undertaker. Failure is delay, not defeat. It is a temporary detour, not a dead end.” At university a poor result for a course means that there was more to learn or to understand, and/or that there were barriers to communicating your learning in the required way. Failing to pass a course does not define you or your intelligence. However sensible, future-focused action steps in this situation could include: ensuring that you read and understand course outlines; taking note of all feedback from assignments and tests; asking for help from academic staff, tutors, and Student Learning Support in a timely fashion and finally, making sure that your study, revision and exam techniques, are effective.
However there may be more to under-performance than can be entirely resolved by the aforementioned action steps. At the heart of a lot of academic failure and underachievement is our beliefs about what intelligence is, and our beliefs about our own intelligence. A fundamental and profoundly damaging belief is that intelligence is ‘fixed’. The evidence from psychological and neurological research is that it is not.
Over 30 years ago, Dr Carol Dweck, an American psychologist, became interested in students’ attitudes in relation to academic failure. While some students rebounded, others seemed devastated and demotivated by even the smallest setbacks. After studying the behaviour of thousands of children, Dr. Dweck coined the terms ‘fixed mindset’ and ‘growth mindset’ to describe the underlying beliefs people have about learning and intelligence. When students believe that they can become smarter, they are motivated to put in the time and effort, resulting in significantly higher academic results. For optimum results, both learners and teachers work together to cultivate and practice a growth mindset.
Dr Lara Boyd, an American neuroscientist describes, in an excellent TedTalk from two years ago, how her research into neuroplasticity, proves the brains ability to grow. Her findings align with the observations made by Dr Dweck in her earlier research.
So before embarking on those sensible future-focused action steps to improve your exam performance, ask yourself these two questions. Do I have a growth mindset? How might having a growth mindset improve my learning at university and as a life-long learner in the workforce?