Based on our work with students every day and in our review of the research on academic performance (and really, any type of performance), we’d encourage anyone wrestling with doing better in school, preparing for a standardized test, obtaining admission to college, graduate school, or business school, to follow four simple rules.
This article will describe these four rules, and also provide links to easy-to-read books that explore each in much more detail. At the end of the article, we’ll offer a brief summary of how these rules work together to improve academic performance.
Rule #1: Adopt a growth oriented, ownership mindset
It turns out that what we believe about the nature of intelligence, ability, or even personality traits can literally determine how successful we’ll be in a variety of areas. Why? Because, some beliefs dramatically increase your ability to learn, improve, and take ownership over your education, while others prevent you from even trying to learn new or difficult things, let alone actually learning enough to excel at them. A belief that you can improve, that you “own” your education, leads to extremely high levels of “grit” and the drive to persist when you are struggling. So, your mindset matters – a lot.
Adopting the growth mindset is critical. It’s a foundational concept and the absolute key to improving and excelling at anything. It unlocks your ability and your willingness to follow the rules we’ll be discussing next. The growth mindset theory was developed by Dr. Carol Dweck, a Stanford Psychologist who, for years, has been studying the impact of mindset on performance and success in a wide range of age groups. She identified two basic mindsets: fixed and growth.
People with a fixed mindset tend to think their abilities, personalities, and intelligence is given at birth, and can’t be changed. They may tend to avoid activities at which they fear they’ll fail, since this will expose a lack of ability which of course, can’t be changed. People with a growth mindset believe that abilities and talents are built up over time through hard work, persistence, and feedback.They believe, accurately, that the brain is a muscle that can be improved and built to “grow” through exercises that make it strain, but ultimately get bigger and better.
To learn more about rule #1, consider reading these books:
Rule #2: Build the right skills deliberately
It turns out that words and concepts such as natural intelligence, talent, and ability, don’t really mean what many of us tend to think they mean. Instead of having, say, mostly to do with your DNA and “natural gifts,” they arise from intense, highly focused, and high quantities of practice. But, that practice must be performed in specific ways that build skill. This literally means that Mozart and Albert Einstein may not have had fundamentally different mental capacities than your or me -they just completed far more deliberate practice in their areas of expertise.
So, you might have a growth mindset, and you might have a lot of grit. But, you may not build academic skills all that efficiently or effectively if you aren’t studying in very specific, scientifically proven ways.
Rule #2 is all about an incredibly powerful concept called deliberate practice, which research suggests is the key determinate of whether someone can become an expert at something or achieve high levels of performance. It requires intense practice for reasonable (not that long) periods of time, with high levels of focus and lots of mistakes with immediate feedback. If you are practicing deliberately, you are focusing on the building blocks of the skills you are trying to build, pushing yourself beyond your limits, and ultimately creating new mental pathways in your brain that build skill over time. This rule also requires that you are employing a strategy, and that you’ve determined what skills you need to build in the first place (see rule #4).
In other words, when it comes to practicing or studying, both the quantity and quality matter. The more deliberate your study or practice habits, the higher the quality.
To learn more, read these books –
Rule #3 Fuel your body and mind
Athletes pay close attention to their bodies, but the rest of us, and even those involved in highly academic or intellectual tasks that require lots of brain function, tend not to. Rule #3 is about recognizing and adopting some powerful but very simple rules about nutrition, exercise, sleep, and stress.
Studies repeatedly show positive correlations between eating right, exercising regularly, and getting enough sleep and academic performance. It’s easy to roll your eyes a bit at this, as it seems obvious. But, the problem is that many of us don’t actually come very close to eating right, exercising regularly, or getting enough sleep! We just don’t. Here’s what it would mean to follow this rule:
- Eat right – 5-6 smaller meals a day, balanced mix of carbs, lean protein, and fats with every meal, basically no refined sugar, and very little to no saturated fat
- Exercise regularly - 30 minutes of some sort of physical activity every day (brisk walking), with at least 2-3 days of moderate physical activity that includes some amount of resistance training
- Get enough sleep – ~ 8 hours for kids, and at least 6 hours for adults
And, there’s one other element of rule #3 that we need to address: having a healthy mind.
Just because you have no major or minor diagnosed mental health disorder, doesn’t mean you have a completely healthy mind. If school, sports, or social situations tend to make you nervous and highly stressed, your performance suffers.
You’ve probably heard that the right amount of stress is a good thing, but too little or too much stress is a bad thing. The idea is that if you are too care free, you may let important tasks fall through the cracks, and end up dropping the ball on that big school project. At the same time, if you are extremely nervous about performing poorly and get really worked up before a big test, you might find yourself having a lot of trouble concentrating or thinking clearly. Too little stress or too much stress is bad, but the right amount of “stress” can lead to clear thinking, appropriate focus, and an extremely helpful sense of calm and confidence that allows you to execute on test day or deliver a great presentation in school or at work.
How do you go about improving the health of your mind?
One painfully obvious way to do this is to prepare in advance. So many students are stressed out before big tests, but a large proportion of those students also didn’t practice or prepare as much as they could have. On test day, not only do you know less of the material because you haven’t practiced, but your confidence level is lower, and your stress level is higher. It’s a vicious cycle. So, practicing and preparation not only build knowledge and skills, but they naturally increase confidence and reduce stress.
But, the more interesting, and less well known, approach to reducing stress is to practice something called mindfulness.
Practicing mindfulness is new to most people. The following is borrowed from Joshua David O’Brien, founder of the Mindfulness Community of Central Pennsylvania.
“Mindfulness Meditation is a practice of being fully and attentively present in the moment…in formal practice we use the breath as an object of awareness. We follow the physical sensations of the breath as it flows in and out of the body…one of the first things we learn when we try to do this practice is how easily distracted the mind can be. All sorts of thoughts, ideas, feelings, and sensations call for our attention and we find we’ve forgotten all about the breath. When we realize we’ve been distracted, the appropriate response is to simply return to awareness of the breath with kindness, gentleness, patience, and a little dose of curiosity about ourselves…as with any new skill, this becomes a little easier each time and develops best if we set aside any self-conscious judgments or expectations about how our meditation is developing. The practice is to simply relax and wake up to the awareness of what is happening in the present.”
One particular University of London study showed that chronic stress negatively impacts your memory, problem solving abilities, ability to concentrate, and in general, your ability to learn new things. Luckily, over 250 studies have shown that mindfulness effectively reduces stress and anxiety. In some cases, it’s as effective as prescription medications.
For an easy to read, practical guide to being more mindful to reduce stress, read –
Rule #4: Develop and employ specific strategies
To truly achieve high levels of performance in general, you should actively apply all or most of the above rules. However, rule #4 is critical to achieve specific results in any given area. It may seem obvious, but if you don’t set specific goals, understand exactly what is required to reach them, and develop clear plans for what you will and will not do to achieve the goal, you’ll be much less successful than people that do these things. Setting goals, researching what is required to reach those goals, and developing specific plans that lay out what you will or will not do, is the essenece of developing a strategy.
As we’ve learned before, research shows that successful people aren’t smarter, or harder workers. They tend to focus on the ability to improve (growth mindset), which makes them grittier, and when they practice, the do so deliberately. However, what they also tend to do is think more strategically about what they’re doing in school, business, and life. They set goals, focus on the process of improving, and think positively, but realistically, about being successful, so that they can uncover and address roadblocks.
What do all of these statements mean for a student? A student functioning strategically would, for example, start thinking about college early in high school. He would make choices about classes and activities that result in the type of resume required for admission into his desired colleges. In any specific class, he’d carefully read the syllabus, understand how the final grade was to be determined, and take advantage of extra credit, participation, or office hours to maximize his point total and grade. These steps aren’t rocket science, but they do require planning and foresight.
To learn more about being strategic to be more successful, read –
As you may have already guessed, many of these rules are linked, and complementary. To use a business term, there are synergies to following all of the rules at once. In other words, I suspect you’ll get more out of each of the rules by following them all, i.e., 1+1+1+1 = 5 or 6, not 4, when it comes to these rules.
But, let’s assume not all of this resonates with you. You just don’t believe each of the four rules really matters. Of course, I'd encourage you to do some research, because there really is a lot of evidence to support everything written above. And, I'd encourage you to pick and choose what does resonate with you, and try to build a system for improving performance that works for you. After all, the fixed mindset student with poor eating, exercise, and sleep habits who rarely studies will be more successful if he follows specific strategies!