How To Think About Bad Grades

One of the biggest reasons students and families call us is that they have been struggling with bad grades and are unsure how to turn it around. Often bad grades then create an academic mindset that ends up contributing to the problem, or, frankly, causing it – so we have given a lot of thought to how to think about grades and, more abstractly, to deal with challenges in school and in life.

In that vein, some of the most interesting research we have come across is from a researcher at Stanford University named Carol Dweck. Dweck is now rather famous (in small circles) for having written a fantastic book called “Mindsets.” Her theory was to divide students into two groups – those who consider intelligence a natural or native aspect of who they are, and those who consider intelligence something that is worked at, that can grown and change. Her research unequivocally shows that those who consider intelligence a trait which is earned and worked at fare far better in school and when meeting challenges than those who consider it something they are simply born with or without.

“I asked, ‘What makes a really capable child give up in the face of failure, where other children may be motivated by the failure?”

The answer, says Dweck, was in how they viewed their ability. Here is how The Stanford Alumni Magazine explains it:

“Dweck posited that the difference between the helpless response and its opposite—the determination to master new things and surmount challenges—lay in people’s beliefs about why they had failed. People who attributed their failures to lack of ability, Dweck thought, would become discouraged even in areas where they were capable. Those who thought they simply hadn’t tried hard enough, on the other hand, would be fueled by setbacks. This became the topic of her PhD dissertation.

Dweck and her assistants ran an experiment on elementary school children whom school personnel had identified as helpless. These kids fit the definition perfectly: if they came across a few math problems they couldn’t solve, for example, they no longer could do problems they had solved before—and some didn’t recover that ability for days.

Through a series of exercises, the experimenters trained half the students to chalk up their errors to insufficient effort, and encouraged them to keep going. Those children learned to persist in the face of failure—and to succeed. The control group showed no improvement at all, continuing to fall apart quickly and to recover slowly. These findings, says Dweck, “really supported the idea that the attributions were a key ingredient driving the helpless and mastery-oriented patterns.” Her 1975 article on the topic has become one of the most widely cited in contemporary psychology.”

A really interesting point here is that this goes in the face of decades of self-congratulatory so-called self-esteem guidance that has encouraged parents and educators to constantly praise students for their intelligence no matter what. The other disruptive idea in her research is that students who consider themselves naturally “smart” are often simply one tough challenge away from losing that sense of identity, since it is not built on a true foundation – and such a challenge can often become a traumatic event.

Instead, Dweck cautions parents and educators from praising “smartness” without linking it to effort.

I am reminded of the great book by William James “The Varieties of Religious Experience” – one of my favorite books from my early twenties. In it he speaks of those whose religion is essentially “healthy-mindedness” and the dangers of what he sees as that most American of traits – general positivity. The problem explained James, was thus:

“healthy-mindedness is inadequate as a philosophical doctrine, because the evil facts which it refuses positively to account for are a genuine portion of reality; and they may after all be the best key to life’s significance, and possibly the only openers of our eyes to the deepest levels of truth.”

We are going to come back to these ideas in future journal posts, but for now, it’s worth it to remember the ideas of these past and present thoughtful commentators. Sometimes life is going to be hard, but those who meet that challenge through hard work and a renewed determination are far more likely to overcome challenges in general than those who feel that the difficulties of life are a reflection on their own faults.  In the long run, the only fault that truly keeps us from succeeding is believing that effort isn’t important or effectual.

We try to keep that lesson in the back of our mind when we teach. Yes, bad grades will happen here and there at some point in life. Yet, with every difficulty comes an opportunity to grow. In the end, those who have faced the most difficult challenges and carried on are the ones who will grow the most. So while we don’t recommend aiming for bad grades, they are, in fact, wonderful reminders that we have a chance and an area in which we can become even more determined, even more skilled people than we are today.

Have you or your kids struggled with this? If so, we'd love to hear about it and strategies you took to overcome it in the comments below!

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