News & Insights 24 February 2020

Super-speed, teleportation and laser vision cannot help with exams! How pupils can benefit from a REAL superpower: optimism

When it comes to English and maths, even superpowers can’t save pupils from their dreaded exams! But, what if there were heroes that could educate and inspire them outside of the classroom…? Oh yes, that’s us at Action Tutoring.

It can be hard to motivate and inspire pupils. Thankfully, people study these things for a living and there are plenty of insights in the psychological world to help. Personally, I have come across many articles on learning which have influenced my approach. So, what am I talking about today? Is it a bird? Is it a plane? Oh, right, it’s a book.

About a year ago, I read an interesting book by cognitive psychologist Martin Seligman called “The Power of Optimism.” In it, he proposed that a state of “learned helplessness” could be reversed by changing our thoughts. It really got me thinking. Can the way we choose to think change the automatic thoughts we have towards situations? Can optimistic views be learned? Is there benefit to having an optimistic view towards exams? The answer to all of these, according to some psychologists, is yes.

As tutors, you may have noticed that pupils can be overwhelmed by the prospect of upcoming exams, leaving them liable to put off revision as it can seem like an unsurmountable hurdle.  This is counter-intuitive for their success. However, inspiration and confidence-building could allow the pupils to engage actively with their studies and overcome this hurdle. This is where the superpower of optimism comes in. If pupils are programmed to think positively towards the papers, they are more likely to establish the growth mindset that is the hype in educational psychology today. If you haven’t come across this idea before,  then let me explain growth mindset. This mindset is the thought process by which a student believes that they CAN do better, that they are not where they want to be “yet.” Over time thought processes can shape our neural pathways (especially in our youth) which is a magical phenomenon known as neural plasticity. Our minds can be moulded and changed by our thoughts. By supporting pupils to view themselves, and their performance, positively, we can help change the approach they have towards their exams. They can be calm and confident instead of a nervous wreck, like I was in my exams. This is all interesting but… what good is it? How can it be applied to help pupils?

To promote a child’s interest in a subject, simply make the work engaging.  I know, easier said than done, right? It’s after school at the end of the day, the sun begins to set out of the dreary window and everyone wants to go home. My pupils once told me that their form of revision involved just reading their notes over …and…over…and… over… Yawn, I’m bored just thinking about it. And most importantly don’t forget to tell them that they are doing well and point out their improvements to them. The grades they need are achievable! So go forth my fellow tutors and bestow your pupils with the power of optimism. Just remember, with great power comes great responsibility.