Exams: The Myth of Talent and the Power of Practice

Earlier this week I revisited Mathew Syed's best selling book,  Bounce: The Myth of Talent and the Power of Practice. In it, he argues the two key variables that predict high levels of performance are quantity of practice and the quality of those experiences. He uses a variety of examples to support his claim including his own career as a table tennis professional.  

When it comes to high performance in exams Syed's ideas still hold true. It is not a coincidence that certain students appear to be more capable than the rest. Nor is it surprising how students can drastically improve their grades within the space of a term. It all boils down to the power of practice. 

So how do students make the transformation from zero to hero? Here are three ways of thinking about the  process of change that happens between average and outstanding exam performance. I've invented three 'types' of student I've encountered across the exam performance spectrum:


Type C: 'The Myth Believers'

Some students believe that high performers are naturally predisposed to be better at taking exams than they are. The myth believers convince themselves that exams just aren't their cup of tea. They can't handle the pressure, they can't think quickly, and they can't deliver results. The ignorant belief that exam performance is defined by genetics alone robs them of any incentive to try.

However, they fail to consider the bigger picture... What was the gifted exam performer doing before they first arrived at school?

Let's look at some famous case studies....Tiger Woods was hitting golf balls at the age of two and Mozart was writing compositions aged 5. They were already accumulating hours upon hours of practice. Perhaps the talented exam performer was doing GCSE past papers throughout their formative years? I doubt it. But they were probably doing something that assisted them in having the edge over the competition now.   

Let's get back to golf and music... Tiger and Wolfgang were not only putting in hours and hours of practice, this practice was also of an exceptionally high quality. Earl Woods, Tiger's father and a single figure handicap himself, mentored Tiger throughout his formative years. Mozart's father was a composer, had published a textbook on the violin and often played in or conducted the local orchestra - not a bad role model! In line with this, the talented student was fortunate enough to have high quality information put before them as they were developing: a challenging book, a tricky game or simply something that required the brain to engage on a higher level.  

I always wondered why it took me ten times longer than everyone else to read a page of text. The teacher would hand something out at the beginning of class and ask everyone to read through it before we discussed as a group. After several minutes or so, out of the corner of my eye, I could see everyone with their heads up and twiddling their thumbs. They'd finished and understood the text. I was still on paragraph 2 with another 6 to work through! Looking back, it's obvious why I struggled to read and understand text quickly. It was because I hadn't picked up a book out of my own free will until aged 13 (Harry Potter and The Philosopher's Stone). Even then, I didn't finish it! I got to page 100 and then gave up.  I hadn't practiced. No wonder I was behind.

The myth believers fail to recognise the amount and quality of practice already accumulated by the 'talented' student as the primary reason for their exam success. 

Type B: Effort Is A Great Start

Then there are the students who have made the transition from the fixed mindset of a myth believer to the growth mindset of an achiever. They see the value of effort and the incremental improvement it can deliver. They practice long and hard and they sometimes get within touching distance of the top performers.  These students are the work horses, some grind out decent results, some lose willpower and end up doing only slightly better than the myth believers.

Although they are putting in the required practice it is quality of that practice which they are lacking. They need an Earl Woods or a Leopold Mozart to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of their practice. 

Maximum effort helps but it is unsustainable in the long run. Practicing for hours and hours in return for unreliable improvement is going to grate on anyone after a while - especially when it comes to exams!

Type A: Reflect, Refine, Revisit...

The top performers not only understand the value of effort and importance of regular practice. They also understand it is the quality of their practice that will make them appear to be talented. Everything they do is built upon the bedrock of hard work (much like Type B students), the difference between the two groups is that Type A students constantly reflect, refine and revisit. Their aim is to achieve greater efficiency and effectiveness each time they sit down to practice for an exam or do some work.   They want to produce work to a higher standard in less time and are always trying to get 'a bit more bang for slightly less buck' so to speak.

They actively identify ways of making the whole process of exam revision slicker and simpler. They are constantly refining their ability to identify the essential and skim over the irrelevant.   They don't rely on a single 'secret technique' rather it is a series of small improvements in the way they practice which produces results that make them appear to be 'talented'.  

It's about the journey...

I believe achieving exam results have much wider implications than what they look like on your CV. Exams are one of the earliest opportunities any young person is given to prove to themselves the power of practice trumps the myth of talent. It is a vitally important lesson to learn and one of life's great equalisers.

If you put in X you will get Y.

Many students will go through life preferring to point the finger of blame or believe what gives them a sense of consolation. This consolation is that some people are naturally more capable than they are and there's nothing they can do about it. Whereas others will realise that consistent effort over an extended period of time does produce improved results. Especially when it is reviewed and assessed to find efficiences and best practices in the process. It's all about becoming smarter faster! 

I'm certainly not saying that you can influence everything through practice of the right quantity and quality, it's not quite as simple as the equation I set out above.

Sometimes opinions are put before the objective facts and people are picked in spite of the evidence and there's not much you can do about it. Furthermore, some people may be winners of the genetic lottery and have a slight head start on the rest of us. But to let this deter you from trying and to believe that achieving high levels of exam performance is beyond your influence or capacity is not only unhelpful, it's a mistake.  

When you can put your finger on a time when the quantity and quality of your practice pulled you through you have an advantage because you've realised and experienced one of life's few truths. 

For consistent and high quality performance the key is always practice, practice, practice.