The Curse of the “Smart” Student

By Ms Baker

This is a repost.  The original article was published on March 6, 2008.

Photo by dcJohn

Photo by dcJohn

Take this short quiz*. Answer yes or no to each question. There is no right or wrong answer so don’t think too hard about each question. Just answer it honestly.

1.My intelligence is something very basic about me that I can’t really change.
2.When I don’t understand something I like to slow down and try to figure it out.
3.I am intimidated by academic challenges.
4.I have been told by others that I am smart.
5.Learning is fun.
6.I often feel unmotivated to learn.
7.When I don’t do well in a subject I think that I must not be very good at that particular subject.
8.When I perform poorly academically I do not get discouraged.
9.When I don’t understand something, I get very frustrated and want to give up.
10.I shouldn’t have to work as hard in subjects that I am naturally good at.


Give yourself four points for each of the following questions you answered YES to: 1, 3, 4, 6, 7, 9, and 10.

Give yourself minus 2 points for each of the following questions you answered YES to: 2, 5, 8.

If you scored +15 you believe that intelligence is fixed.
If you scored 10-15 you believe that intelligence is mostly fixed.
If you scored 5-10 you believe that intelligence is somewhat fixed.
If you scored less than 5 you believe that intelligence is not fixed.

So, what does this mean? By the time students have reached the 9th grade they already have well-established beliefs about how they learn. When a student in the classroom does really well on an exam, other students will say he or she is “smart”. Those students who didn’t do so well may say their poor performance is due to not being as “smart”.

There are two ways of thinking about learning. On one hand, a student believes that some people are just naturally smart. Those people don’t have to work that hard at learning. Things just come easy to them. School comes easy to them. Their teachers have probably said things to them like, “you’re so smart” or “you’re really intelligent”. The student who believes that the ability to learn is innate or fixed is said to have a fixed mind-set. A student who believes they are not naturally smart and that there is little they can do to improve their learning ability also has a fixed mind-set. In my experience, it appears that most students have this mind-set.

On the other hand is the student who believes that they can do well in school, but only when they work hard at it. The student knows they must work hard to do well and they give their school work a great deal of care. This student is said to have a growth mind-set.

Which of these two ways of thinking is best? Which students will end up succeeding in the long run, those with the fixed mind-set or the growth mind-set? Most people would say naturally “smart” students will fair better. They have a “gift” and are “gifted”, therefore, they will have greater success in school.

However, according to the data, they would be very wrong. Students with a fixed mind-set not only do worse in school in the long run, they also suffer more in their professional and personal life.

The fixed mind-set starts to backfire for the “smart” students as they get into high school and classes become more challenging. The December ‘07 issue of Scientific American Mind included an article summarizing over 30 years of research on the connection between student performance and the way students think about how they learn.

Research shows that an overemphasis on intellect or talent – and the implication that such traits are innate or fixed – leaves people vulnerable to failure, fearful of challenges and unmotivated to learn.

Having a fixed mind-set can lead to experiencing great disappointment when a student performs poorly because they begin to lose confidence in their ability. Since they have been repeatedly told that they are “smart”, when they do poorly, they automatically begin to doubt themselves and start to believe that they are “stupid”. Or they may begin to blame their teachers or peers for their failures. Instead of bouncing back from their failure, they continue to struggle.

A person with a fixed mind-set often feels the pressure to “look smart” and so they begin to avoid challenges, they give up easily, see effort as being wasted time, and they are easily intimidated by the success of others.

A person with a growth mind-set desires to learn and thus, they enjoy challenges, bounce back from setbacks, see effort as being necessary to progress, and they learn from other people’s success.

I bring up this research now because we’re going to be talking about animal intelligence in class tomorrow. One of the things we’ll examine is the very nature of the nervous system. As it turns out, the brain is a flexible and malleable organ. It improves with mental exercise (aka learning). Understanding this will help those with a fixed mind-set make the transition to a growth mind-set.

“Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration.”

-Albert Einstein 

Getty Images Public Domain Photo

Getty Images Public Domain Photo

Read one of these research articles below and answer the following questions:

1) What evidence in the research supports the advantage of a growth mind-set over a fixed mind-set? 

2) Explain one of the quantitative findings provided by this study.

3) Will this study have any impact on the way you approach your learning in school?

Self-Discipline Outdoes IQ in Predicting Academic Performance of Adolescents

Why Do Beliefs about Intelligence Influence Learning Success? A Social Cognitive Neuroscience Model

Implicit Theories of Intelligence Predict Achievement across an Adolescent Transition: A Longitudinal Study and an Intervention

The Secret to Raising Smart Kids

*Please note that the quiz was created by Miss Baker and is not meant to substitute as an accurate method of determining learning patterns.

  • http://Self-DisciplineOutdoesIQinPredictingAcademicPerformanceofAdolescents Charlot

    Explain one of the quantitative findings provided by this study:
    I chose to read Self Discipline Outdoes IQ in Predicting Academic Performance of Adolescents

    You can be born “smart” but it doesn’t mean that you have good study habits or the ability to work hard for what you want. This study showed that the GPA of naturally smart students (the IQ group) who didn’t try as hard ranged from 89-91%. However, students who weren’t as naturally smart but were self disciplined ranged from 91-94% in their GPA. They also started lower but their scores increased quickly.

    This article used real life students from a junior high school in the Northeast. The students were a mix of caucasion. Black, Latino, Asian, and American Indian. The study included 56% female.

    It was an accurate scientific study because they used a big population to follow grades for a whole school year. The population in one study was 164 and the other group was 198 students. They also gave teachers, parents, and students a survey to rate how self disciplined the student was. This is important because you get more than one person’s outlook.

    The people who did the study measured the students’ report card grades, standardized test scores, competitive high school admissions, and attendance. They found that students with more self discipline got higher scores and their attendance was better than students who are naturally smart but don’t try as hard.

    People in our society tend to try to take the easy way out as in blaming teachers, reading bad textbooks, and overpopulated classes. But the reason is lack of self discipline.

  • charlot

    I think this was an accurate scientific study because they used a big population to follow grades for a whole school year. The population in one study was 164 and the other group was 198 students. They also gave teachers, parents, and students a survey to rate how self disciplined the student was. This is important because you get more than one person’s outlook.
    Yes this study will have an impact on how students approach their work in school. Students who were born smart will start to realize they have to put effort in their school work to develop good study habits for the future even if they do well. Not take advantage of their smart abilities and not study because they will do well anyway. They will notice it will help them when they get to college and classes get harder. This will also help kids who aren’t born gifted but have to work hard. They will notice that there study habits and their hard work do pay off and you don’t have to be born smart to do well and get good grades, you just have to put 100% effort in your studies.
    There were also other studies on this topic. This article is saying that one person can be successful while the other struggles, this has nothing to do with being smart. It largely depends on personality traits such as caring about your work no matter how well you do, or taking advantage of your successful abilities and not trying as hard as a person who doesn’t do as well.

  • Bob

    The quote “Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration.” is by Edison not Einstein

  • Matt C.

    Bob, I believe this quote is said by Edison and Einstein because when I did research after seeing your comment I found evidence that they both said the quote. Here is my evidence that Einstein said it also

  • Jack

    I chose to read the article, “Implicit Theories of Intelligence Predict Achievement Across an Adolescent Transition: A Longitudinal Study and an Intervention” Although the article was incomplete (it only displayed the abstract), I was still able to answer the questions. This article shows that those with a fixed mind set seem to become discouraged when they fail to succeed, and therefore continue to do worse, while those with a growth mind set see a failure as an opportunity to do better in the future and do succeed over time because of it. As for the second question, those in a class who had a growth mind set were predicted (and tested) to show an overall increase in grades over two years, while those who showed a fixed mind set were predicted (and tested) to show no positive difference in grades. As for the third question, this post shows me that whether or not one has a fixed or growth mind set depends on how they are influenced. The article has shown me that it is more important to the person if they have the ability to change their mind set. I later looked up other articles on this subject and found this blog post that sums up the difference between the two very nicely
    One who has a fixed mind set is just that. Fixed. They can’t see positive changes and therefore don’t achieve to their fullest potential. Those who have growth mind sets are the opposite. They are open to the outside world and see every opportunity through.

  • Jong

    I chose to read the article of “The Secret of Rasising Smart Kids.” The article said that fixed minds tended to be succesful during their school life, yet unsucessful during their jobs because they lacked the encouragement. Yet, when I read this it seemed very general, so I decided to research about geniuses because they’re perfect examples of people who achieve their academic grades outstandingly compared to average students. According to the article in -How Stuff Works- the brains of geniuses tended to be very different than average brains. For instance, Albert Enstein’s brain had a much larger Partietal Lobe which is used for mathematics and sciences. Why does this matter though? This proves that probably the intelligence that geniuses receive is inherited depending on the size of the brain and skull. A genius or not, it doesn’t mean you will be sucessful in life, but instead it all depends on whether you apply that intelligence or not. There have been many incidents where kids of young age, known as geniuses have been kept on being called “smart, astute, etc.” yet were still discouraged, just like an average person would, of their lives due to the discouragement when they met difficulties in their social lives. Just like Jack said, these geniuses had a fixed-mind set and weren’t able to see the positive circumstances they were gifted with.

  • Vasiliki

    This article:
    Says that praising students will make them choose the easy way out. 400 students were tested. They were given a series of puzzles. They had a choice between an easy set and a hard set of puzzles. 200 of the students were given encouragement that they can do it and that they work very hard. 90% of them chose the harder set of puzzles. Even if they couldn’t figure them out they still kept on trying different solutions. The other 200 were told that they were extremely smart and the majority of them chose the easier set. If they couldn’t figure the puzzle out with their first few guesses they gave up. They chose the easier set because they just wanted to look smart and not make any mistakes. They were afraid of failure and chose the easy road.

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