Improving Academic Performance

A New Perspective on Academic Success

Posted by mark sko on Wed, Dec 23, 2015 @ 04:23 PM


The average person probably believes that a critical key to success in life, particularly one’s academic life, is intrinsic intelligence as measured by IQ.

Yes, most of would say, hard work matters a lot too, but at least in many academic situations, no amount of hard work can really make up for a lower level of raw intelligence or aptitude for certain types of academic or cognitive skills.

Some of us are “math people” and some of us just aren’t, right? Not really.

A large body of academic research has been developed over the past two decades which suggests that the above sentiment is fundamentally misguided; it’s much closer to wrong than right. And as Mark Twain once said, it’s not what we don’t know that gets us into trouble, “it’s what we know for sure that just ain’t so.”

In this “Ted Talk,” the popular author Malcom Gladwell explains how the story of David and Goliath, where David, a small, unarmed underdog carrying a few rocks, slays Goliah, a giant-like, fully armed warrior, is one gargantuan misconception and mischaracterization of the facts. For literally thousands of years, people have used the David vs. Goliath analogy to describe situations where a smaller, weaker, opponent with very low odds of success somehow miraculously pulls off a victory. If you watch the video, it turns out David may have been a sharp shooting, battle trained member of the artillery, firing rocks out of a sling with the force of a modern day revolver. Goliath, on the other hand, may have been a giant with a medical disorder that made him move slowly and suffer from double vision. In other words, David was the favorite. He was more likely to win.

But consider this. When people misuse the “David vs. Goliath” analogy, it doesn’t actually matter that the original story might not be true. There certainly are many cases of “underdogs” who are underestimated and thus able to pull off a victory, so the analogy is still useful in helping people understand and frame situations the encounter in their lives.

But, when parents and students believe that success in general, or even in certain classes or areas, is in large part pre-determined by IQ or natural aptitude, that can be a huge, debilitating problem that prevents students from realizing their potential. It leads to lower levels of effort, higher stress, and poor academic outcomes that the student believes were pre-determined, but which actually were not.

Academic success is actually a very complicated process to understand, and much more in every student’s control than many parents and student seem to believe.

In fact, your raw intelligence is somewhat “malleable” – it can improve over time. Most cognitive or “pure” academic skills (i.e., mathematic, reading comprehension, etc.), like those tested on the ACT, SAT, GRE, GMAT, and LSAT, which seem to correlate with IQ, can clearly be developed with practice. Even performance on IQ tests themselves can change over time (i.e., there is evidence that simply having more education seems to lead to improved IQ scores). And in any case, non-cognitive skills unrelated to IQ, like the ability to pay attention, be curious, plan ahead, and persevere through initial failure and adversity, may be what really lead to success in high school, college, and beyond, anyway.

The academic research that supports the above points is generally very strong. But, our society’s general understanding of why some people succeed in school while others don’t has not kept up. The emphasis is still on IQ and aptitude, when it should be on practice and perseverance.

There have been a variety of entertaining, insightful, and award winning books based on this research with titles like “The Talent Code” and “Brain Rules” and “Mindset: The New Psychology of Success.” We feature some of these books on our virtual bookshelf.

Each of these books, in its own way, tells part of the “story of academic success.” A parent or student, after reading one of these books, walks away with a few new insights and more tools to increase the odds of success in school, at work, and in life in general. There is a problem, however.

The problem is that success is not easy to understand. The true story of academic success is a complex one. Even though it may not be true, it’s easy to understand the idea that your IQ in large part determines how well you perform in your math class. In fact, it’s even an excuse, or at least an explanation, for any given student’s average or worse performance. In that sense, it’s a belief that some may want to hold on to on some level.

Particularly when you are starting from the above point of view, the idea that how well you perform is actually a function of your mindset about intelligence in general, your ability to pay attention, how you approach homework, how well you plan ahead, and how you deal with obstacles, etc. just seems hard to digest.

Based on my understanding of the current research, I’d like to introduce a framework for understanding what leads to academic success. In future blog articles, we’ll explore each element of this framework.

From my perspective, academic success is a function of:

  1. Recognizing that cognitive (math, reading comprehension) and non-cognitive (grit, work ethic, etc.) skills are equally important and complementary PLUS
  2. Developing the right mindset about intelligence and cognitive skills PLUS
  3. Practicing deliberately to build your cognitive skills PLUS
  4. Building non-cognitive character skills, like curiosity, determination, and perseverance PLUS
  5. Developing non-cognitive executive functioning skills, like the ability to focus, plan ahead, and self-monitor PLUS
  6. Bringing it all together through longer term, strategic educational planning

To learn more about these topics, you can continue to read future articles on this blog, check out our virtual bookshelf, or sign up for our book summary distribution list, where we’ll systematically and concisely summarize some of the most important recent research on what really explains academic success.

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