What to do if you fail the exam? – growth mindset


Back in 2011 I wrote about what to do if you fail an exam, it’s one of my most read blogs. Last week I delivered an online presentation for the ACCA, (Association of Chartered Certified Accountants) on how having a growth mindset can help improve your chances of passing an exam, the very opposite of failing. But that is partly the point, very few successful people have never failed, in fact coping with failure is one of the reasons they ultimately succeed.   Having the “right mindset” can not only help you pass, it can give direction and motivation if you fail.


The term “growth mindset” was coined by Carol Dweck, Professor of Psychology at Stanford University. She became fascinated as to why some children shrink in the face of problems and give up, while others avidly seek challenges, almost as a form of inspiration. What she discovered was that the type of mindset students held was at the heart of these two differing views. This search for resilience in the face of challenge and adversity has become her life’s work and something that has guided her research for over 40 years.

Fixed – When students have a fixed mindset, they tend to believe abilities are carved in stone, that you have a certain amount of let’s say talent or intelligence and that’s that. They perceive challenges as risky, that they could fail, and their basic abilities called into question. And the fact that they hit obstacles, setbacks, or criticism is just proof their views were correct in the first place.

Growth – In contrast, when students have more of a growth mindset, they believe that talents and abilities can be developed and that challenges were one way of doing this. Learning something new and difficult was in fact the way you get smarter. Setbacks and feedback are not seen as confirmation of frailty but as information that could be used to improve.

This does not mean that people with a growth mindset think talent doesn’t exist or that everyone is the same. To them it’s more a belief that everyone can get better at whatever they do, and improve through hard work and learning from mistakes.

How can you develop a growth mindset?

The good news is that you can develop a growth mindset, but just to be clear, the world is not divided into those with a growth mindset and those with a fixed one, a mindset is not a character trait. Everyone is a mixture of fixed and growth mindsets. You could have a predominant growth mindset in one area but there can still be a thought or event that acts as a trigger and moves you into a fixed one. The secret is to work on understanding your triggers so that you’re able to stay in a growth mindset more often.

Beliefs – ask, what you believe about yourself and the subject you are studying. Do you believe you are below average, not very clever or that the subject or topic you are studying too hard? If this is the case you have wandered into a fixed mindset. What you believe is neither true nor false. What we can say is that it’s certainly not “helpful” to believe you are not clever, and is not what someone with a growth mindset would do.

Talent and effort – thinking that people are either naturally talented or not, is a classic example of being in a fixed mindset. You may never be top of your class but you can improve, and this is achieved by making more effort and working harder.

Positive self-talk – we all have voice inside our head, it’s called your inner speech. It has a significant impact on what you believe and how you behave. If you find your inner speech is telling you to give up or that you will never understand a particular topic or subject, change your voice, tell it off, and then say something more positive. Dweck says that just by adding NOT YET to the end of your statement can help. For example, I don’t understand portfolio theory – at least NOT YET.

The importance of mindset and failure

If you have failed an exam or just sat one and believe you have failed, I have two pieces of advice.

Firstly, on the whole students are not the best judge of their own performance. They tend to reflect on what they didn’t understand or thought they got wrong rather than what they might have got right. As a result, you may have done better than you think and are worrying about nothing.

Secondly, if you do fail, you have a choice as to what this might mean. On the one hand, it might simply be confirmation of what you already know, that you are not very good at this subject or clever enough to pass. Alternatively, you could move to a growth mindset, recognising that you have slipped into a fixed one.  Find out what areas you need to work harder on, and start again.

Everyone has to deal with failure, it’s what you do when you fail that matters most.

Intelligence and IQ – does it matter?

Yesterday Boris Johnson delivered the annual Margaret Thatcher lecture at the Centre for Policy Studies in London, in it he said:

Whatever you may think of the value of IQ tests, it is surely relevant to a conversation about equality that as many as 16 per cent of our species have an IQ below 85, while about 2 per cent have an IQ above 130.”

Mr Johnson (Boris) uses the measure of IQ to make the point that if we don’t have equality in intelligence then economic equality is not possible. Effectively he is saying we should accept that some animals are more equal than others, apologies for the Animal Farm digression…..

What is Intelligence?

Yet a large part of Boris’s argument hinges on the term intelligence and that it has some meaning or value, but what is intelligence? The word itself is derived from the Latin verb intelligere, to comprehend or perceive. A good start, but that’s all it is a start, here are a few more definitions:

  • Judgment, otherwise called “good sense,” “practical sense,” “initiative,” the faculty of adapting one’s self to circumstances  (Alfred Binet the creator of the IQ)
  • The ability to learn or understand or to deal with new or trying situations (Merriam-Webster dictionary)
  • To my mind, a human intellectual competence must entail a set of skills of problem solving, enabling the individual to resolve genuine problems or difficulties that he or she encounters. (Howard Gardner, Multiple Intelligence Theory)

The last of these is my personal favourite as it gives purpose to having intelligence, to solve problems. The bottom line, there is no one single definition and experts disagree on how it should be tested/measured. Interestingly the IQ (intelligent quotient) developed by Alfred Binet was only ever intended to be used to identify intellectual disability not to form the basis of an elitist club or for Boris to hijack for his Margaret Thatcher lecture.

Does it matter?

People often have a personal view of their own intelligence, this can sometimes be empowering when you find out “You’re a god Dammed Genius” or limiting if “you discover your IQ is only 75.” Just for the record, 91-110 is average, 80-90 is dull normal, 66-79 borderline and 65 and below, defective.

The very fact that you believe you are intelligent can be motivational, resulting in you putting in more effort. The self belief that you can solve any problem will often result in you solving most of them, and of course proving you are not only intelligent but a genius!

I know that I am intelligent, because I know that I know nothing.


Contrast that with the behaviour of someone who believes they are not intelligent or maybe not as intelligent as others. Faced with a problem they will give up, believing the solution is beyond them, and of course proving that they were also right and not a genius.

But Does Boris have a point?

Boris uses IQ (The measure of intelligence) to illustrate the point that we are all different, something that most people would readily accept. What I find uncomfortable is the deterministic nature of his proposition, it implies having a high IQ predicts success and by the exclusion of the many other factors that contribute to success, suggests is the only thing that matters. The Telegraph headline made this point very strongly.

Boris Johnson: some people are too stupid to get on in life

Natural differences between human beings will always mean that some will succeed and others will fail, the Mayor of London says in a speech

Yet on the basis that there is little agreement as to what Intelligence is, the testing and what should be tested subjective, it would appear a poor basis on which to hang his argument.

Lessons for learning

What I do agree with is that we are all different and that some of this is the function of genetics. (Research indicates that 60% of intelligence is genetic) yet on the basis that you can do very little about this, does it matter?

It is always better to work on what you can change rather than what you can’t. I am sure many of us know people who seem to grasp principles, concepts’ etc and solve problems pretty quick. If you compare yourself to them it’s easy to conclude that they are better and you will always be second rate, so stop trying. The simple answer is don’t compare yourself with them, compare only with yourself, are you getting better and if you are then your improving, and that’s a result.

So forget about measuring intelligence and whether your better than someone else and get on with trying hard and being the best you can.

More on intelligence

Human intelligence, BBC Horizon. An interesting programme that evaluates the intelligence of different high performers.

And the smartest man in the world is…...click here