Positive Psychology: Changing Your Mindset Before Exam Season

Preparing for the SAT? Sweating over your upcoming Economics exam? Imagine if you could flip the script and think about these tests with a new mindset. Positive psychology and educational psychology have developed some extraordinary tools for getting us to exert effort and make breakthroughs. One of these tools, “Mindset”, creates a basis of emotional safety for facing challenges by changing our beliefs about learning and performance. But before I get into the specifics of mindset, some background on testing.

Schools have two overt goals: to prepare students for more complex studies, and to measure their preparedness for more complex studies. The second goal gets messy. Tests are treated as measurements of our value, rather than as challenges by which we grow. Compare the motivational power of, “This test will tell me if I’m good enough” versus, “This test will make me smarter.”

The main difference is in the time frame. Measurements emphasize the past leading up to the present; growth challenges emphasize the present leading into the future. When students over-emphasize the past, they can get stuck there and give up. Which is not to say that students and parents should ignore the results of last week’s math test. The question is what we do with the results. Either we use the results as a reason to reflect on our current study habits and put in more effort, or we use the results as a reason to give up. Which option we choose doesn’t depend on the actual score. It depends on our state of mind while we’re reviewing them.

Educational psychology researcher Carol Dweck coined the term “Fixed Mindset” to describe the mindset, or belief, that our intelligence (or skill level) is fixed. The opposite belief characterizes the “Growth Mindset”, that not only are we always changing, but effort is the mechanism by which we get smarter. Luckily, neuroscience shows that the Growth Mindset is a more accurate reflection of our physiology. Our brains are always changing, and they change most when we put effort into a new challenge. The problem is that students can’t feel their brains changing, so we need to keep reminding them that it’s happening. We each need our own personal way of getting ourselves into the Growth Mindset when we need it most, e.g. when we’re looking at last week’s test scores and thinking about how to prepare for the next big exam.

Here is a list of some phrases that can show the differences between the mindsets, to help recognize our own mindset in real time, and to empower us to change it when we want to:

Fixed                                 Growth

- Every test I take shows how smart I am           - Every test I take makes me smarter
- I trust today’s results                                       - I trust my effort; more effort, more growth
- If it’s a struggle, it’s not worth doing               - If it’s a struggle, I’ll grow more from it
- I’ll never understand this stuff                        - What new strategies can I try?
- This is a waste of time                                    - What can I do to learn the most from this?
- Why am I so stupid?                                      - What can I do differently?
- What if I keep failing?                                   - How can I keep growing?
- Why is he/she so smart? They're                    - What strategies do they use? What can I learn
           just a genius                                                    from them?
- I am so behind, I’ll never catch up                 - What’s the tiniest thing I can do to improve?


Do you hear your child, student, or even yourself using phrases in the left column? Take a moment to reflect on how changing your mindset and repositioning tests as an opportunity for growth might help you succeed. If you're interested in learning more about how to use educational and positive psychology to help your student contact David Wolovsky, SAT math prep guru based in NYC.

David Wolovsky is a teacher, SAT tutor, and certified Positive Psychology Practitioner. He has taught brain-body exercises to people of all ages, from kids to senior citizens. Aside from teaching, he is an educational innovator. He is currently designing a mind-body math curriculum.


David Wolovsky is a teacher, SAT tutor, and certified Positive Psychology Practitioner. He has taught brain-body exercises to people of all ages, from kids to senior citizens. Aside from teaching, he is an educational innovator. He is currently designing a mind-body math curriculum.