Put succinctly, it appears that although IQ is less important than most people think in determining how one performs in school, it obviously still matters. However, it turns out that IQ itself is something that can be improved with practice, just as academic skills are built through sustained effort and deliberate practice.
I think it’s safe, for the purposes of this discussion, to consider “intelligence” or “natural talent” or “IQ” as fundamentally very similar ideas. They are, in theory, all unchangeable traits that you are either born with or not born with. The average person seems to believe that, for example, there are math people, who probably have a very high IQ, who have a natural talent for math. These people are the ones who do very well in high school mathematics, end up in Calculus classes in high school, and are far more likely to become mathematics majors and then mathematics PhDs, or professional actuaries, etc.
But, the general theme that seems to be emerging from lots of recent research, contrary to what the average person might still think is true, is that IQ or talent might matter, but other concepts related to how much and how we practice are more important in determining whether you are successful. In other words, how much and how we practice (i.e., do you engage in deliberate practice when studying?) intersects with our natural intelligence to determine how well we perform or how “good we are” at something.
The evidence that specific types of hard work and approaches to learning might matter more than talent or IQ seems to be mounting.
Carol Dweck teaches us that simply having a growth mindset, meaning you think about your intelligence as something malleable, not something fixed, makes it significantly more likely that you’ll excel in school, because you’ll keep an open mind and keep trying to learn new things. Angela Duckworth introduces us to the importance of grit and plain old-fashioned perseverance in determining who succeeds academically. She has developed a grit score where you can measure your personal level of grittiness.
Barbara Oakley’s book “A Mind for Numbers: How to Excel in Math and Science” offers strategies for how to engage in math and science in new ways to increase your chances of efficiently learning new material. She writes about how to progressively turn ideas into chunks or groups of larger ideas (and thus become better at recalling and manipulating them), why conducting frequent “mini tests” is important, and how to take notes by summarizing concepts vs. copying what you hear verbatim.
The Mathematics PhD teaching you Calculus during your freshman year of high school might find mathematics easy and intuitive, but he might not. He may have studied very hard and in the right ways, sticking with problems for a long time until he understood them, and constantly challenging himself, such that over time, his mathematics skills grew far beyond what the average person could imagine is achievable without some sort of special gift. All that really exists are mathematics skills, which are acquired through practice. Natural math “talent” doesn’t really exist. For example, Cal Newport, an Associate Professor of Computer Science at Georgetown University with a PhD from MIT, runs a blog for high school and college students called Study Hacks. In it, he notes that he personally took AB Calculus AB during his senior year of high school, struggled a little bit, and earned a “4” on the AP AB Calculus exam. The highest AP exam for Calculus is called BC Calculus, and the top score is a 5. Some high performing high school students take BC Calculus during their junior year, score a 5, and then take more advanced mathematics classes at local colleges during their senior year of high school. But there’s Cal, taking AB Calc, earning a 4, and then going on to earn a PhD in Computer Science from MIT.
I might direct you to this previous article we wrote about whether effort or IQ matters more. In it, we discuss a formula that involves talent, skill, and effort. The gist is that even if natural talent exists, it gets combined with effort to determine your skill. And then your performance in a class is determined by your skill and the amount of effort you put forth. Because effort shows up twice in this story, it can be thought of as mattering twice as much as talent or IQ.
Finally, across all disciplines, including academic ones, I further believe that employing strategies is critical to being successful. Employing a strategy simply means you set a goal, and consciously choose what to do, and what not to do, in your quest to reach that goal.
But all of the above does make you wonder. Has the pendulum swung perhaps too far in one direction? Sure, hard work, persistence, and specific study habits can lead to success in math and science. But I’ve personally never thought that pure intelligence or “IQ” wasn’t important. I don’t believe it’s the most important factor, but it’s an important factor, in determining who does well in school. Mathematics skills might be something you acquire through practice, and the harder you work and the more you practice, the more mathematics skills you’ll acquire. That said, doesn’t it make sense that the higher your natural propensity for learning, the higher your fluid intelligence and IQ, the easier it will be to build math skills (or skills in any other academic subject)? In other words, the higher your IQ, the more you’ll learn in any given hour of studying – meaning the more likely it will be that you’ll achieve a particularly high level of skill in a given subject?
In Smarter, The New Science of Building Brain Power, Dan Hurley suggests we’ve gone too far in minimizing the importance of IQ or intelligence (another common term and synonym to IQ is “fluid intelligence” or the capacity to reason and solve problems, independent of any prior knowledge.) However, the main theme of his book is that, just as one can adopt a certain mindset, practice deliberately, and have grit to succeed academically, one can also take steps to improve their IQ or fluid intelligence.
In other words, IQ matters. It might matter a lot. But, it isn’t fixed. With hard work, it too can be improved. In his book, Hurley discusses how, up until 2007 or so, most academic researchers agreed strongly with the prevailing societal belief that IQ was a fixed trait that could be measured. Around that time, however, research started to emerge that performance on tests of fluid intelligence could be improved over time through training of various sorts.
Hurley goes through a fair amount of science behind how fluid intelligence operates. But most interestingly, he reviews the various strategies and tools that can be employed to improve your IQ. Some of the strategies he reviews are what one might call “direct” braining training tactics that involved paying attention to numbers or images and identifying patterns and following movements of images on a screen. These strategies seem like ways to directly improve your cognitive function. Others are more “indirect” and involve, for example, getting more exercise, eating better, or learning a musical instrument.
Hurley discusses and reviews the following strategies, which, to one degree or another, scientific evidence suggests can improve your IQ (the book discuss the science in detail of each strategy below):
In the book, Hurley shows how, by reviewing the above strategies and choosing to adopt those that appeared most promising, he improved his IQ by an impressive 16%.
There is strong evidence that performance in most academic subjects is within your control. A growth mindset, hard work, deliberate practice, specific learning strategies, and substantial grit can, certainly when combined, overcome an average or below average IQ. But interestingly, your IQ can actually be improved directly through targeted training. To learn more about how and why that’s true, you can check out Hurley’s book.