Marks and Mindset

Conditioning learners to pass an exam isn’t my favourite part of my job. Training seals to jump through hoops isn’t teaching. I tell my exam students this: “this is a game, there are rules and you’ll have to dance to this tune to get a certificate. OK?” I try to hide my bitterness. If I wanted to make monkeys dance for a living I’d work at a circus. Meow.

When was the last time you spilt coffee on a newspaper, blocking out ten words which you then had to guess? Recently? Then you performed an act similar to FCE Use of English Part 2. *If my eyes rolled any further back into my head right now they’d come full circle*

But I recognise exams are a necessary evil. When parents insist on a number or letter to brand their child with, or employers demand a certificate, it is what it is, and we prepare exams, because this is part of my profession. So how can we integrate a bit of useful psychology into this exam-taking process? (When we have the exam out the way, we can finally continue with some more useful English and life skills.)


This, like almost everything we do, starts with WHY (see ‘What’s your WHY?’ series and clarify yourself!)

WHY do we do exams? 

The head instructor at my jiu jitsu school Gracie Barra Roma Termini, Master James Roger Lima (quote translated from Italian): “Why do we do exams? It’s not because I want you to perform; it’s because I want you to know something well enough to be able to teach it to someone else.”

WHY do we teach?

1) Is it to judge, Caesar-esque on our throne above the Colosseum as the gladiators smash each other to pieces to win our approval?caesar

2) Is it to help someone motivate themselves to move from where they were to where they are going, intellectually and personally?

learner coach.jpg

I pick 2), in which case an exam is a learning opportunity by telling us both (learner and teacher) what the learner still needs to work on. This means SPECIFICS, and the learner should always know what the next step is to fix what they got wrong before. This brings me on to the next point…

Recognise details. Improve details.

A conversation with my student Edoardo last week:

“I got a 6 in my English test.”

“Why was it a 6?”

“It’s what the teacher gave me.”

“OK. But what can you do better next time?”

“I don’t know. She doesn’t tell us.”

*red light*

*I thump table*

“So how are you supposed to improve if you don’t know what less than perfect?” 

Some people shouldn’t be teaching because not only do they not help; they do even more harm than good to a student when they label them with letters and numbers instead of treating them as a human being. Learners deserve more from a teacher than just a letter or number.

Order or Chaos? Make a decision.

You get a lower mark than you wanted on a test. This is WHAT IS. From this point, there are two roads to choose from:

  • Strive for the ideal future of what should be (a desired order)
  • Giving up i.e. disintegration/descent into chaos

screenshot (133)

This screenshot was taken from the following video, which elaborates beautifully:

Growth Mindset

This is where a GROWTH MINDSET plays a huge role. In Mindset Theory, there are two attitudes to use faced with any single event: fixed mindset and growth mindset.

Situation: A poor mark in an exam.

Fixed Mindset: Disintegration. Chaos.

“As intelligence is innate, this exam shows that I just don’t have what it takes. I should give up because I’m wasting my time, and find something which I was born to do.”

Growth Mindset: The ideal future is still possible. Order.

“Intelligence is (up to a point) a skill I can develop. So this poor mark doesn’t reflect who I am, it just reflects what I wrote on that particular day. Because I can improve and change what I write next time, I need to look at the specific things to work on and put a strategy into place to make this wish into a habit, and this habit into an ability.”

There are thousands of useful links on Google; is particularly good as it was founded by Professor Carol Dweck, who developed Mindset Theory. Here are a few more articles from my blog’s Mindset section:

The basics of Mindset Theory

Lesson plan to raise students’ awareness

Teacher-learner feedback to develop Growth Mindset

Growth Mindset for lesson observations


Learning English should be much more than winning a certificate. BUT if we have to train students for exams, make the lessons learnt along the way infinitely more valuable than the piece of paper.




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