Explanations abound as to why America needs education reform: curricula are outdated, teachers are underpaid or under qualified, standardized tests are bureaucratic and inefficient, impoverished students are unable to access adequate financial aid, etc. But how often do we hear students’ attitudes toward learning cited as a reason for concern? Education is the intersection between teacher and learner. This means that it requires effective students just as much as it does effective teachers. As David A. Bednar, former president of Brigham Young University-Idaho, observed, “I suspect we emphasize and know much more about a teacher teaching . . . than we do about a learner learning.”
So what does it mean to be a good learner? And what obstacles do students face in their efforts to become good learners? It has been my experience that most students begin each semester with a determination to get good grades, attend class, and actually complete all the assigned readings for a change. As the semester marches on, the workload increases, as does the temptation to somehow get around it. Speaking as an undergraduate student, I see many of us abandon our commitment to good study habits in search of shortcuts, and we quickly ask ourselves, our classmates, and our TAs how we can put in the minimum amount of work and still come away with that elusive A. We begin term papers just days (or occasionally hours) before they are due, peruse the internet for quick summaries of the massive literary works we neglected to read, or scan textbooks for bolded words and important-looking diagrams without ever reading the actual text. We often consider the semester a success if our superficial approach to learning is rewarded with a high GPA.
One obstacle to effective learning, then, is the common mentality among students that learning is merely a product, a numerical outcome, and not a lifelong process. While there is much to be said for students with a 4.0 GPA and a 36 on the ACT, surely there is more to learning than what can be measured by a multiple-choice test. Bednar explains that effective learning requires action: it “cannot be transferred from an instructor to a student through a lecture, a demonstration, or an experiential exercise; rather, a student must . . . act in order to obtain the knowledge for himself or herself.”
When students begin scraping by on shortcuts, they minimize their involvement, or willingness to act, in the learning process. This kind of attitude is detrimental to educational progress. Students become less able to use their education to make a positive difference in the community because crammed knowledge rarely makes its way into long-term memory. They also become less likely to succeed in future courses that build on the concepts they learned and then forgot. In short, their education becomes a multi-year investment that pays little dividends.
Another danger of treating education as a product only and not a process is students’ development of what Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck calls a fixed mindset. In one of her most influential studies, Dweck administered part of a nonverbal IQ test to hundreds of students and then praised them for their performance. Some students received “person praise,” which attributed their impressive scores to their intelligence. Others received “process praise” and were commended for their hard work. Those praised for intelligence quickly associated success with high test scores, the numerical product of their learning. The students praised for their hard work associated success with effort, or participation in the learning process itself.
Dweck reports that person praise “pushed students right into the fixed mindset.” When given the option to try a harder set of problems, they avoided the challenge because they “didn’t want to do anything that could expose their flaws and call into question their talent.” They viewed their abilities as static and were quick to become discouraged and give up when faced with more difficult tasks. Process praise, however, encouraged a growth mindset. These students performed much better on the harder problems. Even when presented with a task they could not solve, they enjoyed the learning process and did not shy away from new challenges. 
What can we learn from all this? Education reform will be most effective when coupled with a learning culture that encourages a process-focused growth mindset. Students (and teachers) need to be at least as committed to the process of learning as they are to the numerical measurement of it. This is not to say that a high GPA is an unworthy goal or an improper motivation. But we ought to remember that lifelong learning is our ultimate aim, not eight semesters of academic achievement.