In this series about Effective Strategies and Tools for learning we have been looking at helping students with the psychology and practicalities of taking greater responsibility for their own learning, so that they have both the motivation and the ability to study independently. This time, we will be looking at small shifts in mindset that can make a big difference.
The self-belief that is required to work more independently, comes from a person’s concept of themselves as a learner. That concept was set for all of us a long time ago, by the environment in which we spent the first few years of our lives. It is interactions with our main care givers and other adults, plus childhood experiences that provides the view we have of ourselves and our abilities. Some of us are lucky enough for our early years to be positive ones, but many are not so lucky!
So many students are stuck in a fixed mindset where they feel destined not to succeed in certain areas because of previous experience. To overcome this and help learners to see the potential for growth within themselves, there are several subtle mind-shifts that we can support them with.
The first one I always introduce is to stop using the word can’t, either out loud or even as part of an internal dialogue! I explain the impact that this word has on the sub-conscious brain which will always do as we tell it, and so will actually make sure we don’t succeed in that instance! The obvious solution is to say ‘I can’ instead, which sends the sub-conscious a more positive message to respond to, but there is still a serious flaw in that approach. If we are struggling, that feels like a lie, so the sub-conscious will still respond negatively! The solution? To always say (and think), ‘I can do this, I just need some help’! This acknowledges the struggle, but has sent the brain the strong message that we will be able to do it once we have received the help we need!
The next step is to work out the most appropriate way to get that help, firstly by deciding who is in the best position to provide it, and secondly what format would be most helpful. We discussed in previous blogs the need to teach students how to plan for improvement, which includes choosing who best to approach for support. We have also discussed that everyone picks up information in different ways, so support needs to be tailored to the needs of the student. It therefore helps if they can learn to ask for it themselves, in line with the way that they learn best. ‘Can you repeat that please’ will only help some students, others may need to say, ‘can you show me again’ please, or even ‘what do I need to do to get this right’?
Obviously, this approach requires that the student learns to embrace challenge, because even with help, greater effort is required for them to achieve. My students and I re-visit the idea at this point of the Challenging Zone as opposed to the Comfort Zone. Facing the fact that we only learn if we come out of our comfort zone and show a willingness to feel challenged, is really important. Some learners battle to stay in their comfort zone where everything is easy and safe, without realising that this is what is preventing them from learning. Learning is all about the brain registering something that has not been fully explored before and trying to make sense of it. That can be a challenge, but is a natural process, not something to run away from. For some reason, many students feel that sense of challenge is a bad thing that needs to be avoided. We need to help them to feel differently!
I find it helps to reinforce this idea with a discussion around the word FAIL, using it as an acronym for First Attempt in Learning. So, getting it wrong the first time, is not a failure, it is just a first attempt, which can be followed by a second, third or fourth attempt. This is also the starting point for the idea behind practise. The saying goes that ‘practise makes perfect’ but we are not after perfection, so I help students to replace that with ‘practise makes permanent’.
We go back to their previous work on the brain and look at how each time we learn something new, some new connections are made in the brain within which to hold that memory. The memory will fade if not re-visited, but the more it is re-visited, the stronger the memory becomes. Students often feel that they should ‘know’ something even before they have learned it and then once they ‘know’ it that they should remember it straight off! Very few memories are that vivid unless accompanied at the time by very strong emotions.
For a memory to become permanent, the subject has to be re-visited many times before the brain recognises it as something you ‘need’ for future reference. When that happens, the brain lays down a substance called myelin as a sheath around the connections holding that memory, literally making it permanent! That doesn’t happen without revision and practise. Now you know why you can still recite your times tables after many years, that myelin sheath has kept them safely stored for you to use throughout life!
Our learners will be much more likely to make progress if they recognise what is going in their own minds and acknowledge the barriers. The changes to mindset that we have discussed here are all quite subtle, but they are all do-able! We want to equip learners to feel comfortable with challenge, to be more resilient when it comes to the amount of effort required to succeed sometimes, and to recognise the value of practise. Building up these skills ensures that a student is in a stronger position for independent learning.