Excerpts from our first chat; her supps; and her final results


While the discussions focus on the practical ‘surface-level’ habit changes in her studying, they represent underlying strategy and mindset skills we worked on.

I talk about it as ‘sneaking the mindset stuff in the backdoor’, because students don’t understand that their mindset directly impacts their study approaches and thus their exam performance. 

If I start with the mindset discussion, I lose them. If I start with practical habit changes, they pay attention, and I base the habit changes on, and incorporate the discussions of the mindset and strategy shifts.

I use the ‘iceberg’ analogy that James Clear refers to in Atomic Habits. Making habit changes is not sustainable unless you make strategic changes to your life and approaches, and this in turn is not sustainable unless you make changes to your beliefs about yourself and how the world works. (Thus: Habits; Strategy; Mindset)


When discussing what she feels led to her success, the student refers almost exclusively to my practical advice relating to her study sessions and what she did in these sessions. 

On the surface, this seems to indicate that simply by ‘doing’ these things, she’d pass. However, if we scratch at these, there were some things that needed to change before and during these habits for her to consistently practice these new approaches.

Students refer to this as ‘exam technique’, which I avoid, because it creates the impression that you can add these skills on top of your knowledge and make some small adjustments to how you write the exams, as opposed to what I feel are underlying skills that need to be developed in conjunction with and practiced alongside the knowledge. 

The Exam is a Game – Learn to play it

I dislike giving students this advice, because I do want them to learn their content. However, until the structure and gamification of the current assessments change (as the APC has changed), we cannot avoid the fact that these assessment are games, and that being a subject-matter expert will not provide them with the marks they need in order to pass. 

Her comment in the video was that she felt that this advice decreased the anxiety levels she felt going into questions and tests, and I think this may be because it wasn’t a representation of whether she’s ‘smart’ or not, but a ‘game’ that she’s playing. 

While this has an element of ‘study hack’ advice about it, I feel the most valuable outcome of this advice is simply this: The student starts doing questions earlier than they normally would. 

Starting questions earlier: Students learn more from doing questions than from flat theory. If we can encourage them to start the question process earlier in their academic period, they’ll learn more, (Almost regardless of what study approaches they adopt!). Questions provide the context, visualisation of the topic and by default provide guidance of what studying to focus on, since the learning outcomes have now become etched in their head, as opposed to a few lines at the beginning of a topic. 

Strategic thinking: Paying attention to the gamification of the exams forces a more strategic approach to their studying and exam process. This is a valuable skill as every task we perform in life has some resource limitation that requires us to balance the outcome with the resources and consider the best way to go forward. Exams are no different, however, students still feel that they need to know ALL their work before they even look at questions. Thus, they avoid the outcomes, until they feel they’re ready to achieve those outcomes. 



Students seldom ‘choose’ their study strategy. They’ve always studied a certain way, and will continue to do so until it no longer serves them. 

This creates challenges when assessments fundamentally shift, because their process will no longer align with their objective, and they’re largely unaware of this. 

In her feedback, the student starts off acknowledging that she believes knowledge and memory is the answer. Although she’s attempted PGDA before, she still had the same strategy in her studies – “Know more, understand and remember more, and I’ll pass”.

By shifting her understanding of the purpose of exams, it enabled her to make changes she previously felt impossible. In her post-results feedback, she indicates that part of her exam approach was to keep reminding herself of the examiners intention of assessing whether she can apply principles, even if the calculations aren’t perfect. This is a major shift from our first discussion where she felt she needed to ‘know everything’, because her belief was that she’s being examined on perfect technical knowledge.

Students aren’t aware of their study strategy, or that they have one. I seldom go into detail on this, as it’s never been a topic they’ve engaged with. However, highlighting the ‘game’ nature of the exam allows the discussion of interrogating the purpose of the exam and shifting it from pure technical knowledge assessments, to ‘something else’. If we can agree that there’s ‘something else’ going on, we can agree that we might need to rethink some of the things we’re doing that will lead us there. 

This move is most successful after getting them to attempt one or two questions ‘blindly’ (Using a Skill I call the BMCR), which inevitably indicates that knowledge is not the reason they’ve failed the question. This enables a more engaged discussion of what the ‘other stuff’ is that’s getting in the way, if it’s not knowledge. 

From there, we can have a more open discussion of their approaches, beliefs and understanding about skills required etc. But this conversation very seldom ‘lands’ if they haven’t been forced to do a question while they’re not ready to do so. 


We did have discussions around learning beliefs and mindset during our coaching sessions, however, from her feedback, you can see that she’s not directly connecting her shifts in beliefs to her success.

When we first spoke, she was so terrified of failing anything, that she wouldn’t attempt practice questions. Fear of failure; a belief that she should ‘know’ all the work by now; if she was smart enough she’d be able to do it and a belief that the exam was going to examine her depth and memory of technical knowledge that she realised she’d never have the time to work through completely… all of these culminated in a focus on theory and avoidance of questions. “What’s the point of doing questions if I know I’m going to fail them?”

This is why I started by asking what her study experience up to PGDA had been. Like most students I work with, her learning journey was ‘smooth’ up until PGDA. I find this a great (and speedy) indicator of the mindset inclination of students when I work with them. It helps guide the session very quickly. Smooth learning journey up to this point? Yes? Then you probably believe you should be getting this right faster, feel like you shouldn’t be getting stuff wrong (even in practice questions), shouldn’t be failing, have a higher fear of failure, avoid doing questions, carry high levels of anxiety, seldom ask for help, and focus on memory-based learning as opposed to understanding, tool-based learning or any other skill development. (While these may not be ‘academically’ sound conclusions in formal academics, it is absolutely effective in my study coaching sessions to identify what they’re struggling with and start giving them practical advice to get going).

In our first session, she relates to the ‘symptoms’ of a fixed mindset (and our discussion went deeper into this), and makes the connection of how this may affect her studying on a daily basis. 

The practical changes she made to her study sessions, along with the support from me, are the practical mindset growth steps.

Being able to do questions ‘blind’, without looking at the solution; failing practice questions but sending them to me anyway, and continually hearing that this is normal, and even though I’ve SEEN her work (and thus can assess her ‘intelligence’) I’m still saying that she’s smart and capable, being consciously reminded to look at and feel small bits of progress – These provided the small daily steps of moving from a belief that learning is about getting stuff right, to working with a process where learning is about a slow journey of developing skills and competence.