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Take on a Positive Mindset to Prepare Your Brain for Learning

Do you believe math ability is something that you’re born with? Are you someone who has claimed you just aren’t a science person? If so, you could be holding yourself back from learning and doing well in these subjects. You don’t have a positive mindset.

Researchers interested in our capacity to learn have started to look at the effects of certain “mindsets” in the classroom. As it turns out, what you believe about learning ability can affect your actual learning.

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photo credit: study. via photopin (license)

What do we mean by mindset?

A “positive mindset,” also called a “growth mindset,” means that you believe intelligence can be developed. Such a mindset sees effort as being a driving force for learning. The alternative is called a “fixed mindset,” referring to the belief that certain abilities, such as doing well in math, are innate.  Many people feel this way about math.

Importantly, whether or not math is an innate ability is beside the point.

When it comes to learning, things like motivation, confidence, and bouncing back from mistakes are essential; and according to previous studies, these attributes are more often seen in students with positive mindsets. With the view that a poor performance on test reflects a lack of preparedness, the student knows to work harder and study more. If a student believes that their poor grade reflects a lack of ability, there is little to gain from more work.

A positive mindset improves performance

Ongoing studies at Stanford have been evaluating the brain activity of students with more positive mindsets. What they’ve found is that a positive mindset can better prepare a mind for learning.

The newest study, presented in October, looked at a group of 7-9 year olds and math ability. Math was the subject used because it is so commonly associated with a fixed mindset compared to other subjects. The researchers tested the students’ intelligence, numerical problem-solving and math reasoning, reading ability, working memory, and math-anxiety levels, followed by a survey to determine their mindset. The students’ mindset would be along a range of more positive or more fixed.

A positive mindset primes students’ brains for math

Using fMRI to monitor brain activity, students were asked to identify correct math problems. The first thing the researchers noticed was that positive mindset students tended to identify correct problems more accurately, even after controlling for differences in IQ, age, working memory, or math anxiety.

From mapping the brain activity, the second thing the experiment showed was that students with a more positive mindset seemed to have greater activity in the regions in the brain associated with math problem-solving. This finding suggests students with a positive mindset might have a brain more primed for learning. The area of their brain that deals with math – the hippocampus – was active and showed faster, smoother connections.

This is one of the first studies to look at mindset and cognitive processing generally. Lang Chen, the Stanford University postdoctoral fellow in charge of the study, says “Our findings provide strong evidence that a positive mindset contributes to children’s math competence. Beyond the emotional or even motivational story of ‘positive mindset,’ there may be cognitive functions supporting the story.”

Change your mindset; change your ability to learn

To have a positive mindset, believe that intelligence is not innate. Realize that effort makes a huge difference in learning, and learn from mistakes and setbacks instead of worrying about what it means.

Carol Dweck is the Stanford psychologist who first coined the terms “growth” and “fixed” mindsets and has published a self-help book on the subject. Dweck says “My hunch is that often in the fixed mindset, your mind is preoccupied with ‘Is this hard?’ ‘Will I look smart?’ ‘What will happen if I don’t do this?’ ‘I’m not good at math,’ instead of getting that brain ready to do it.”


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