Create a positive mindset for nursing exams

Article outline:

Are you approaching your nursing exams with trepidation? Do you find yourself doubting your own ability? This article will help you create a positive mindset for your nursing exams.

The way in which we approach challenges in life has enormous consequences for how we perform and importantly, how we respond when we don’t succeed.

When we talk about “how we approach” something, we mean our internal attitudes, beliefs and self-talk around that task.

For example, which of these two best characterises your inner world before studying for an exam:

1) “There is so much to study. It’s impossible to learn all of this. If I don’t learn it all I’ll feel like such a failure. Passing this test means everything to me. I’m not good at this. I feel like I’ll never get it.”

2) “There’s a lot of material here. I didn’t do so well last time so I need a new strategy to help me cover everything. Studying is important to me because whilst it’s hard, deep down I enjoy learning about X. Passing is important to me but I’ll cope if I fail. This isn’t my strength yet, but with more effort, I will reap the rewards.”

Fixed vs Growth mindset

The difference between 1 and 2 above is what psychologists call a fixed vs a growth mindset.

The fixed mindset is characterised by the belief that abilities are born innate and cannot be changed. If you’re good at something, you’re good. If you “fail”, it’s because YOU are a failure at that thing.

The growth mindset is characterised by a belief that although there is variation in our circumstances and abilities, ultimately the brain is malleable and with focused effort and improvement in your strategy you can improve your ability.

With the growth mindset, if you don’t succeed at something it’s because your strategy or approach to learning may have been ineffective and with further guidance and support, you will get there.

As children we develop these implicit theories of intelligence and other aspects of ourselves such as our character, creativity, musical ability and so on.

Beliefs are seeded in our minds through observing the behaviour and responses of our parents, teachers and other adults.

All or nothing?

Research shows us that mindset lies on a continuum – there are gradations of fixed-growth mindset and this can differ for each person for a variety of life areas and domains.

The mindset continuum - How to create a positive mindset for nursing exams.

For example, I might have a growth mindset in my ability to learn new languages and a fixed mindset in my sporting ability.

Consequently, I would likely be motivated and engaged with studying, say, French.

In contrast, I might simply resign myself to the fact I’m not good at any sports, and consequently barely even pursue exercise.

With a fixed mindset, my internal theory is “I cannot change”. When people suggest that I try a sport or type of exercise, I’m likely to shoot this down and find reasons not to participate (I actually love sports and exercise, this is just a hypothetical example!)

I invite you to reflect on the mindsets you have moving forward, and ask, “how is this mindset serving me?” It might just help you be the nurse you want to be.


Where your mindset came from

Children (and adults) who have had childhoods where parents praised or highlighted innate ability as the reason for an outcome tend to develop mindsets lying on the fixed end of the continuum.

In practice,  this would mean receiving comments such as,

“Well done Peter, you’re so smart

“You’re such a natural!”

“You got 90%! See, you were born smart just like your dad!”

“You only got 70% on the test, that’s not good enough

“Your brother is the intelligent one, you were born better at sports

In contrast, growth mindset oriented comments or responses may include,

“Well done Peter, looks like those new learning strategies really paid off”

“You got 90%! That’s amazing, you deserve that as I saw how much effort you put into your revision”.

“Okay, you got 70% on the test. What worked well this time and what can you improve on next time?”

“If you work hard at school you can get scores like your brother”

Notice how in this second set of parental responses, the focus is on things like the effort that was put in, reference to the strategies that were used (i.e. it’s not the person who is “dumb”, perhaps the strategies need to change instead) and a focus on how the person can improve. This takes the emphasis away from intelligence (or any other attribute, such as sporting ability, social skills etc) being fixed and simply frozen within the individual when they were born.

Why change my mindset?

Shifting to a growth mindset about your studying can help:

  • Motivate you, which helps reduce procrastination and actually lead to you enjoying study.
  • Connect with the bigger purpose, providing satisfaction with your role and vision.
  • Doubt yourself less, hence improving confidence and self-worth.
  • Prevent unnecessary self-criticism and hence negative emotion.

Ultimately, you had no control over the way in which your parents, teachers and educators responded to your behaviour. The great thing about mindset is that it can be shifted with practice.

Study tips: Creating a growth mindset for studying

Follow these 5 tips to help with your next episode of studying:

1) Notice if your mind is being negative, pessimistic and focused on perfection. This is mindfulness – simply observing your thinking. Take a few deep breaths and tell yourself “this is my fixed mindset talking, I don’t have to listen in to this”.

2) Ask yourself, “What is the bigger picture in studying for this exam?” What, other than the outcome of the grade can I remind myself of? Can you take pleasure in the process of learning itself?

3) Remind yourself that the brain is plastic (meaning it can change with effort). Think about another area of life where you found something difficult and then through hard work and effort (not just “natural talent”) you improved. If you hear your mind saying “but that was a fluke!” or “but you were a natural at that!”, ignore these thoughts and really tap into how much effort was put into developing this skill.

4) Harness the power of the word “yet”. Tell yourself, “I may not be good at this yet, but with more study I can improve.”

5) Commit to seeing failures as learning opportunities. Be clear about the strategies you are using to learn for this exam and tell yourself that if these don’t work, then next time you’ll be able to learn and improve upon the process of learning. Because, it’s not you that’s a failure, it’s likely the approach that you used.

Beyond studying: Growth mindsets for your nursing career

Whilst we have focused on mindsets for studying here, we actually hold mindsets for all aspects of our ability. For example, depending on your nursing specialty or area of study, there will be different skill sets needed to perform different tasks and processes. See if you can identify which areas of your nursing practice you might hold a fixed mindset (e.g. “I’m just not good at this, I can’t change!”) and areas where you are more flexible or have a growth mindset (e.g. “If I work hard, I can get better”).

It’s possible to change your mindset in all areas, but the first step is developing that awareness. Therefore I invite you to reflect on the mindsets you have moving forward, and ask, “how is this mindset serving me?” It might just help you be the nurse you want to be.

Article written by Nathan Illman. 

Nathan is a Clinical Psychologist. His mission is to give nurses access to high-quality psychological education and training to help them prepare for and heal from emotionally challenging work.

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