April 24, 2020

SYNAPSE Step #2 – Yes!

Activate your growth mindset, engaging in deliberate practice to strengthen knowledge and skills
by Christine Marshall

This is #3 in a series of 8 posts. Visit post #2 here.

Learning is the primary activity of our brain. Our memory systems have been sculpted and fine-tuned for millions of years, helping us avoid tiger attacks and escape other equally tragic ends. The wonderful neuroscientist Alain Berthoz said it succinctly, "The purpose of memory is not to let us recall the past, but to let us anticipate the future. Memory is a tool for prediction.”

How can students hijack predictive memory systems for educational benefit? First, they must understand and believe that they can improve their study behaviors and habits of mind—even while learning remotely. Just as muscular strength improves with exercise, learning ability is sculpted by how students study and think. SYNAPSE offers a toolkit of strategies for students working to learn more effectively and efficiently. Yes!, the Y in SYNAPSE, is critical for success.


A growth-oriented mindset fuels learning, prompting you to engage new challenges with an open heart and mind. The simple act of saying “Yes!” affirms your unlimited capacity for growth and development. Like any new skill or habit, mindset exercises can feel forced or prescribed at the start. But routine practice is critical to shift your perspective and solidify your growth mindset as a mental habit requiring little conscious awareness or effort. Start by saying Yes! Then practice the following strategies, grounded in what we know about mindset, experiential learning, and habit formation.

  • Reflect on a practical skill you have already learned. Remember the process by which you learned how to ride your bike, play your musical instrument or sport. How many attempts did you make before you felt comfortable in this new skill? What did you do during your practice sessions, and what different emotions did you experience while practicing?
  • Relate a current learning challenge to this earlier experience. Note the similarities between your current and past learning processes. How is this new “beginning” similar to your first day of learning back then?
  • Imagine yourself being successful in your learning process. How will you feel when you have successfully acquired this new knowledge or skill? How will this achievement positively enhance your education, personal life, or overall well-being?
  • What habits of mind and other behaviors will help you succeed? Every learning challenge brings with it the chance to form new, more effective thought patterns and behaviors. Be the learner you want to be by learning and actively doing what experts do.
  • Identify exemplars to model new behaviors you wish to learn. Who are the peers, mentors or teachers who can teach you strategies to facilitate your learning? Chances are, you can find someone at your school or in your home or your community who has already learned what you want to know and can share their experience with you.
  • Make a plan of action. Ask your teacher, coach, or mentor to help you design a plan of action to help you succeed in your learning goal.
  • Seek feedback regarding your progress. Ask your teacher, coach, or mentor for regular feedback. Continue the dialogue by letting them know how you used their advice during subsequent attempts or stages of your learning.

Adopting a growth-oriented mindset enables students to see academic ability as a product of deliberate practice, in which they utilize feedback and reflection to continuously strengthen their memories and skills. The simple act of saying “Yes!” will inspire more productive behaviors and habits of mind while our students adjust to remote learning this spring.

Dr. Christine Marshall, a biology instructor at Phillips Academy, began developing SYNAPSE as a Tang Institute Fellow in 2016. She currently teaches a science elective, The Neurobiology of Learning, Memory, and Sleep, for 11th and 12th graders. Learn more about her work by visiting her blog, Laboratory for Learning.

Categories: Fellows, Projects, Featured

Other Posts