Improving Academic Performance

The Classes That Scare You: Developing growth mindset around challenging subjects

Posted by Stephanie Ingraham on Tue, Oct 17, 2017 @ 08:00 AM

mindset.jpgWe all have those pesky negative beliefs around certain subjects or classes at school: I’m a bad writer! I’ll never understand math! Learning a foreign language is impossible! Though certain classes may be more challenging than others, clinging to negative generalities about anything, especially education, doesn’t serve us.

Caroline Dweck, author of the fantastic bestseller Mindset, discusses the differences between having a fixed mindset (I’m a bad writer) vs. a growth mindset (I can improve my writing through hard work) and how the subtle shift from absolutes to open-mindedness paves a whole new path for learning and development. (You can learn more here.)

Nowhere else is a growth mindset more apropos than education, which is essentially something that requires a growth mindset if one is to move forward. It is common, however, for our mind to think in absolutes, most notably “I’ll never” or “I’ll always” or “I am fundamentally like this _____.” But how else can we learn something new if our mind is already made up? This is why it is essential to challenge these fixed thoughts with growth-oriented ones, which are, by their very nature, optimistic (though not idealistic) thoughts.

I dealt for many years with a common fixed mindset boogeyman related to education - math. It was a scary, steep-sloped struggle for me in middle and high school. I was always a much bigger fan of reading books and writing stories than learning equations. Math stressed me out; I never “got it” as fast as my classmates. When I arrived to middle school, I felt behind in pre-algebra. I hadn’t learned PEMDAS or the distributive property yet. I was placed in the dreaded “lower” math section. I had only one conclusion to draw - I was bad at math.

This set me up for years of falling behind in a subject that I gave up on before I even tried to improve, all because I had a fear-based fixed mindset. I made the decision that I was bad at math, therefore I was bad at math. I was scared of it, so I believed it was inherently scary. I assumed I would fail or at least do an average at best job. And that is exactly what happened. I believed an idea planted in my brain from as young as nine years old, and I let it control the next nine years of my schooling! (Fear and belief are powerful, fascinating features of the mind. And fear of course can clam us up and shut down our ability to retain information.)

But then something strange happened. My senior year of high school, I took a general algebra course that was required to graduate. I was lucky to have a fantastic teacher. I decided to pay close attention and put more effort into taking notes and studying. I ended up acing every single homework assignment and test and got a 98% in the class. Clearly, I wasn’t bad at math.

So what changed? Was it the teacher? Possibly, although I had some pretty awesome math teachers throughout middle and high school who tried to inspire me, but I was just too certain that my brain didn’t get it. So, was I suddenly smarter? I don’t think so. What changed was my mindset. I was more open and willing. I was motivated. I let go of the idea that I would always struggle with math and was therefore incapable of succeeding, and I started fresh. I was focused and inspired. I stopped believing whatever story my mind began telling me as a young kid, sweating through placement tests and pop quizzes.

If you notice that you have a fixed mindset about school, don’t worry - it’s normal. We all favor or succeed in certain classes more than others, and it is easy to feel more open and positive towards the classes where we thrive vs. the ones where we feel discouraged. This is part of what makes us unique, diverse individuals. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t change our approach to the areas that give us pushback.

To begin, the best thing to do is to start observing what it is that makes you draw such a strong conclusion about a subject area or class in the first place. What thoughts do you have about certain subject areas that seem fixed rather than growth-oriented? What labels are you using? Are you a poor test taker? A slow reader? Bored beyond belief in history? Totally lost in physics? Look at how you can reframe these thoughts from fixed to growth-oriented.

Reframing is a fantastic tool, because it charts immediately how you can set some goals to make improvements. So rather than, I am a poor test taker, you might say, test taking is sometimes a struggle because I get overwhelmed by so many questions in a short period of time, and then you can start to break down how to tackle that overwhelm. Tara Brach, renowned mediation teacher, encourages using the RAIN technique to help one look objectively (and kindly) at a problem or issue before moving forward and taking necessary action. (Visit the following link to learn more:

Another great tool is to focus on the positive and what is working. It can be easy to focus on the one or two negatives, even in a sea of positives. Sometimes we think we are so bad at something and miss all the areas where we are successful or where we enjoy the material. History got you down because reading the textbook isn’t all that inspiring? Well, what about a documentary or YouTube film that helps further explain the Revolutionary War? Can you name three things you found interesting? I bet you can.

In fact, I use the look for three things rule all the time. Look for three things you like or three areas where you were successful or ways you can make an improvement. It can make a huge difference in outcome, and it breaks up the instinct to complain and be negative in the process (our brains are wired for that!).

Set one growth-oriented goal each week, whether in a school subject, extracurricular activity, or even with something like getting up five minutes earlier for school. Practice the above principles in order to reach your goal, and see how it goes! I am positive you will find that, even if the outcome doesn’t change drastically, your experience and perception will, and that can make a huge impact in our lives as a whole.

So let’s recap - first, start observing and noticing where you have fixed mindset. See if you can reframe some of your ideas to growth status. Focus on a few positives rather than all the negatives. Look for three examples of positive-oriented growth. Look for an overall growth-oriented goal for each week, as you go into the class and subject area that gives you a little anxiety. You can do this!

If you want to learn more about the power of the mind, follow this link to an excellent article on the subconscious:

Other questions or comments? We would love to hear from you!

About the Author

Stephanie Ingraham is a former English teacher turned writer and tutor with a BA in English from UCLA and a Masters in Education from Pepperdine University in Los Angeles. She is deeply passionate about education, psychology, child and adolescent development, literature, and writing. She believes the education world can benefit greatly from the meditation world - mindfulness and self-compassion are key! In her free time she loves reading and writing, music, baking, yoga, dance, animals, and exploring new cities. She currently lives in Chicago, Illinois.