Counseling and Neurofeedback
Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist
Board-Certifed in Neurofeedback

What it Really Takes to Get Good Grades (and it’s Not about Being Smart)

If you’ve ever wondered how to get good grades, maybe something like this has gone through your mind…

  • I’m not good at languages.
  • History isn’t my thing.
  • I’m not a math person.

How to get good gradesI often hear comments like this from my clients when they’re explaining a low test score or struggling with a tricky assignment.

These comments seem logical in the moment.

But they’re not. In fact, statements like these are part of one of the biggest ever myths about learning.

The Myth: Students who do well at language or history or math have some kind of natural talent. They’re smart.They don’t need to wonder how to get good grades, because good grades come naturally to them.

What’s the evidence for that point of view?

When you don’t understand something right away, you feel confused. For some students, this seems like “evidence” that the problem, or the essay, is too hard.

Then you look around at other students, and they seem to know how to get good grades with very little effort. That seems to “prove” they have some kind of natural ability.

But what’s really going on?

Natural talent?

My son bought his first car recently. It ran well for the first dozen or so hours of driving. Then problems started to appear. The person he bought it from admitted that the car needed “a little work”.

Turns out it needed a lot of work.

My son could have thrown up his hands and given up. Instead, he replaced the oxygen sensor. Then he replaced another oxygen sensor, the radiator, the clutch, and five or ten other things that he didn’t tell me about.

He was probably confused when he started. Why wouldn’t he be? He’d never worked on a car before. But he didn’t stop to figure out if he had the right genes for car-fixing. He didn’t assume that just because some of his friends were good at fixing cars, that they had some kind of natural-car-talent.

He just decided to figure it out.

Confusion Helps You Learn

The idea that you should understand something new right away is a fundamental misconception. Confusion is a natural and essential part of learning.

This seems obvious when we’re talking about cars. But for some reason, when the confusion is about French prepositions or how to get good grades, many students throw up their hands.

If you’re a French student (or a biology or history student), you should be confused! To learn something new you need to:

1) Take apart what you know (confusion).
2) Add in new things (a lecture or book).
3) Reassemble it in a new way (action).

Learning isn’t about being smart. It’s about taking action.

Growth vs. Fixed

Students with what Carol Dweck calls a fixed mindset have beliefs that get in the way of this natural learning process. For example, they believe that:

  • Intelligence is something you can’t change.
  • Good athletes, musicians, or mathematicians are people who are born with talent.
  • Smart students don’t need to study.

Students with a growth mindset believe:

  • Intelligence is something you can grow and develop.
  • Hard work and effective strategies make it possible to learn anything.
  • Students get smart by studying strategically.

The effect of your mindset is powerful. Dweck found that students with a growth mindset do three times better than students with a fixed mindset. Students who learn to master challenging assignments show increased verbal and nonverbal IQ, as well as increased density of neurons in the associated parts of the brain.

Students with a “growth mindset” are comfortable with confusion, so they learn more and faster.

Talent vs. Possibility

So what about natural talent? What if you can’t write a symphony like Mozart or hit a baseball like Joe DiMaggio?

Fortunately, semester finals rarely include problems like “write a symphony” or “strike out a pro baseball team.”

And if you do have a passion for music or baseball or math, and you’re willing to put in the 10,000 hours it takes to master a skill, who knows how far you’ll go?

If you’d like to learn more about how mindset affects learning or how to develop a growth mindset, check out Carol Dweck’s TED Talk, “The Power of Yet” or her book: Mindset: The New Psychology of Success.

How to Get Good Grades

When you feel frustrated, it you might have thoughts like “ I guess chemistry isn’t my thing,” or, “I’m not good at writing essays.” There are different ways of thinking that the key to getting good grades is natural ability.

If you want to know how to get good grades, you might have to change your mind. The good news is that changing your mind is possible. Approach it like fixing a car: first imagine that it’s possible. Imagine that you’ll be able to figure it out. Imagine that you don’t know…yet.

Doing well in school – and in life – isn’t about being smart. It’s about believing that you can learn, and taking action.

As Dweck says, “You’re in charge of your mind. You can help it grow by using it in the right way.”