Monty Python’s “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” may have been written as joke, but training our mind to focus on the positive has been proven to have both physical and physiological benefits.
Among other things, studies have shown that a positive attitude can help us cope with stress, improve our overall wellbeing, and even boost our immune system. Recently, researchers have also uncovered evidence that a positive attitude can impact our ability to learn and solve problems.
This isn’t necessarily surprising considering that positive thinking generally helps us feel happier and more relaxed, which in turn makes it easier to concentrate on tasks at hand and absorb new information. For years, teachers have known that fostering a positive learning environment is crucial to their students’ success, and most go to great lengths to ensure that their classrooms are places where students will feel supported and engaged.
Even so, it’s fascinating to know that something as simple as a student’s outlook on learning can influence their academic achievement. Here’s what the research says about how a positive outlook can help us learn more effectively.
What research says about how a positive attitude can help us learn:
A recent study from the Stanford School of Medicine found that a positive attitude towards learning has the potential to boost the functions of the brain’s memory centre and predict performance independent of confounding factors such as a student’s IQ.
The researchers studied 240 students between the ages of seven to ten to see how their attitude towards a difficult subject like math would affect their ability to solve problems and remember what they’d learned. They also used MRI brain scans to examine the neurological impact of positivity.
It soon became clear that students who had a positive attitude toward math performed better in the subject compared to students with a negative outlook. The brain-imaging results also showed that while students were busy solving math problems, their positive-attitude scores correlated with activation in the hippocampus, which is an important memory and learning centre in the brain.
“Attitude is really important,” said lead researcher Lang Chen. “Based on our data, the unique contribution of positive attitude to math achievement is as large as the contribution from IQ.”
The researchers explain that positivity towards learning manifests itself in a number of ways. For example, students who were positive about math tended to be more interested in it and were also more likely to practice it, and this positive perception towards math and their abilities resulted in enhanced memory and more efficient problem-solving.
Of course, a positive attitude is no guarantee for success, but it could improve academic performance for students who struggle with certain subjects.
“We think the relationship between positive attitude and math achievement is mutual, bi-directional,” explained Chen. “A good attitude opens the door to high achievement, which means you then have a better attitude, getting you into a good circle of learning. And it can probably go the other way and be a vicious circle, too.”
Teachers can also use these findings to help students meet their full potential. Previous research has shown that in order to learn effectively, students must feel safe, engaged, and connected, so these are all factors that can contribute towards a positive learning environment.
Tips for maintaining a positive attitude towards learning
Despite its potential benefits, maintaining a positive attitude toward learning is often easier said than done, because learning is by its very nature difficult and even frustrating at times.
When learning seems particularly difficult, it’s easy to lose sight of the bigger picture and feel like you’re not making progress. With this in mind, here are a few tips for maintaining a positive attitude towards learning even when the going gets tough.
1. Set and track your own learning goals
Setting clear learning goals or objectives and then tracking your progress towards them is one of the best ways to boost motivation and increase achievement. Research shows that goal setting is empowering, and it’s been shown to enhance self-regulation and improve persistence and performance in numerous settings, from the classroom to the workplace.
Once you’ve set some specific and realistic goals, you can break them up into smaller steps. This not only helps you stay organised, but also allows you to see your progress more clearly, which can help you maintain a positive outlook as you work towards your bigger goals.
2. Manage your stress
It can be difficult to maintain a positive attitude towards your learning when you’re feeling stressed or anxious, because research shows that anxiety causes us to focus disproportionally on negative stimuli. Stress can also have an impact on the brain’s ability to process and retain new information.
So with this in mind, it’s important to find effective ways to manage and cope with stress. Getting organised is one very effective way of managing anxiety, because it gives you a feeling of empowerment and helps you view new situations as exciting rather than stressful. But if stress is getting in the way of your learning, check out these ten tips for managing your learning anxiety.
3. Stay open to new ideas and approaches
Most of us are naturally resistant to change, because with change comes uncertainty. Research has found that people have a reliable and tangible preference for things that have been around longer, and a 2010 study showed that students preferred a course requirement described as the status quo over a newer version, even if the newer version meant less coursework.
Of course, it’s natural to feel somewhat resistant to change, because it requires us to step out of our usual routine and can initially make us feel like we’re losing control. But making an effort to stay open minded can help you maintain a positive outlook towards your learning. Research even shows that open-mindedness can increase learning through examination of prior beliefs, decisions, and mistakes.
So what can you do to become more open-minded? Start by making an effort to get out of your comfort zone by putting yourself in new situations or exposing yourself to a variety of new ideas and approaches. This could involve anything from listening to new types of music to making sure you expose yourself to points of view that differ from your own.
4. Visualise a positive outcome
Visualising your success from the get-go can help you stay positive, as research shows that visualisation exercises can improve optimism. So if you’re struggling to feel positive about your learning, try to set the stage for success by visualising your desired outcome.
Think about how it will feel to reach the goals you’ve set for yourself and remind yourself why it matters; maybe completing your course will enable you to ask for a raise or work in your preferred area. Whatever the case may be, reminding yourself of the rewards to come will help you stay positive and even get excited about your learning.
5. Learn from your mistakes
Mistakes are not only inevitable, but are actually necessary in order to learn. Once you recognise the value of making mistakes, you’ll be able to use those mistakes to progress and develop rather than worrying that you’re failing every time something goes wrong.
So it’s important to reframe your mistakes as opportunities to learn. If you’ve answered a question incorrectly or come to the wrong conclusion, simply acknowledge that a mistake was made and then look at what went wrong and how you can prevent it from happening again in the future.
Once you’re able to view mistakes in this way, you won’t feel as frustrated when things don’t initially turn out the way you expected. If you want to know more about how to learn from your mistakes and stay positive as you do, check out this piece on how to fail intelligently.