Douglas Barton: What Do Top Students Do Differently? at [email protected] (Transcript)

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Here is the full transcript of Douglas Barton’s TEDx Talk: What Do Top Students Do Differently? at [email protected] Conference. Douglas Barton ‎is the Managing Director of Elevate Education. Read the full bio on here.


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Douglas Barton ‎- Managing Director of Elevate Education

Question number one: Put up your hands if you would like to see your marks or your grades at school improve at the moment? Who would like to see their marks or grades go up? Most of the students. Brilliant!

Now my next question is: What do you think is going to be most important in getting these marks to go up? So can I get a show of hands, who would say IQ is going to be the most important thing to get your marks to go up? Not many people, I guess. It’s good. I suppose the students for an hour yesterday we covered this side, you’re all fast lane, that’s good.

Who would say hard work is going to be most important in getting those marks to go up? We got about a third of the room, 40% maybe. Fantastic!

Now these are the types of questions that my team and I at Elevate Education have spent the last 13 years researching. We started our journey to find out what the top students do to get the top results, because I think people have always had a range of explanations for why this happens.

Lesson 1: Don’t worry about IQ

Some people say that the top students get the top results because they’ve got higher IQs, that is they’re just smarter than anyone else. Some people say the top students get the top results because they work harder and the explanations go on and on. And so what we wanted to do was basically work out fact from fiction, what was true and what wasn’t. To do this we’ve spent the last 13 years benchmarking the habits, techniques and practices of literally tens of thousands of students across Australia, South Africa and the United Kingdom, and the US. And what we’ve learned in this time is basically three key things.

First of all, the top students don’t necessarily get the top results because they’ve got higher IQs, or because they’re smarter than anyone else.

Finding number two, we found that there’s a small set of skills that is statistically significant in explaining why the top students get the top marks. In other words, there’s a small set of things that the top students do that no one else does that explains why they get their results. And what’s interesting is that these are common across countries. So that is relevant for a student in Sydney, Australia where I’m from as they are for students in London, Cape Town, New York or talent for that matter.

The third thing, and this is probably the most important finding in the context of today’s presentation, is that these skills can be both taught to and used by students to improve their results. And that’s what we do as a company. Today Elevate works with quarter of a million students across 12 hundred countries — 1200 schools, sorry, in four different countries in order to move up students’ results. And what I found across this time is these basically three things that any student needs to know if they’re looking to move up their marks right now.

The first one of these things is that you don’t need to worry about IQ. It’s been my experience far too many students worry about am I smart enough or do I have a high enough IQ to do well. As you said not many hands went up to that question today. However normally it’s about 50% to 90% of students will say IQ is being the biggest driver of their results. A great example of this: three years ago in Australia we interviewed 3000 students before their final high school exams and we asked these guys: What is going to be most important in impacting your results in your final exams? An overwhelming majority — and when I say overwhelming, I mean 90% of students came back and said IQ would be the number one factor.

Now the good news is, is that these students and the vast majority of students drastically overestimate how important IQ is going to be. Indeed in our research we’ve found that IQ is not the number one predictor of how well a student will perform. In fact, we found 13 variables that were more effective in terms of predicting academic performance than simply IQ. One of these factors in particular we found to be multiple times more effective to predict academic performance and that was practice exams. We found the top students do more practice exams than anyone else. We found you can almost perfectly estimate a student’s results by looking at the number of practice exams they’ve done. And we also found that we could almost perfectly rank a class from first all the way down to last just given the amount of practice exams they would do across a year.

Now the great thing about practice exams is that you don’t have to be a genius to do a practice exam. It is completely within your control, as are the other 12 variables.

Now let’s take a step further though. Let’s think about if a student is going to work successfully across a year and do well, what do they need to do? Well, the first thing is they’re going to need to be able to self motivate, because they’re going to have to sit down, they’re going to need to work consistently across the year. They’re also going to need to be self-disciplined, because they’re going to have to cut out distractions like Facebook or watching six and a half hours of cat videos on YouTube. They’re going to have to sit down and cut out all these distractions.

The third thing is they’re also going to need to be resilient, because the reality is that every student is going to lose marks across the year and when this happens, you’ve got to be able to pick yourself up and dust yourself off. Now it doesn’t matter how high a student’s IQ is, if you can’t do these three things you’re always going to be at a disadvantage. Indeed, research by two professors at the University of Pennsylvania: Martin Seligman and Angela Duckworth who many people know from their TED talks, they found in a range of areas, self-discipline trumps IQ. They found in terms of the classroom they found self-discipline was two times more effective in predicting academic results than IQ by itself.

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Lesson 2: Don’t aim to just work hard

The second lesson is: don’t aim to just work hard. And I’m going to emphasize the word ‘just’ there because normally when I say this, I look around there’s students whose eyes just opened up and because what they hear is don’t work hard and missing — I’m glad I came today. So that’s not the message. The message is don’t aim to just work hard, and the reason for that is in our research we found that hard work was a necessary condition but it wasn’t a sufficient condition for doing well. And I’ll explain what I mean by that.

In our research we found very few students who did well that didn’t work hard. The reality is if you want to do well, you’ve got to work hard. The problem is, though, we found students who worked equally as hard as the top students and got worse results. We found students who even worked harder than the top students and end up getting poor results. And if we think about it, it’s actually one of the number reasons for a student’s under-performance at school is because they simply aim to work hard. So all the time we find students who turn up for the new school year and they say something along these lines. They say ‘this year is going to be different’. They say, ‘This year I’m going to do better, I’m going to do some work. I’m going to hand my homework in on time, I am going to get my assignments in on time. I am even going to do more study for my exams.’ The problem is, though, is that then they go back out, they keep doing the same thing they were doing before, they just do more of it. And it was Michael Jordan who said it best that if you shoot ten thousand balls and you’ve got bad technique, all you’re going to do is you’re going to get really good at shooting really badly. And that’s the problem for these students. They go out, they take inadequate study skills and they simply use them more often and then they expect a different result at the end of it. The problem is all of a sudden they then go do an exam, they get their results back, it’s the same result as last time and at this point the cycle of disengagement begins, because these students say, ‘Look, I’ve done everything now. I’ve even worked hard. I’ve done every single thing there is. I simply can’t do it and I give up.’ So the thing is we don’t want to just aim to work hard, we want to work hard doing the right things.

Lesson 3: Model the top students

Now the obvious question then is: Well, what are the right things? In our research, we found 13 factors or skills or habits or techniques that differentiated the top students from middle and low performing students. I want to touch upon two of these. The two I want to touch upon are: a) They’re probably two of the most important skills and then secondly they’re also great case studies in terms of illustrating what the top students do differently than the vast majority of students.

Now the first skill I want to talk about is one I’ve already touched upon today, which is practice exams. Now as I said before, we found that practice exams were the number one predictor of how well a student would do at school. Now to understand why, let’s take a step back and let’s think about what students are doing before exams. Now on the screen at the moment, I’ve got a group of year 11 students in the United Kingdom and let’s actually work through and let’s have a look at what the majority of these students are doing.

Now at the top, we’ve got 15% of these students who are making their notes. In other words, these are the guys who have left the right to the last minute, they’re sitting down just trying to get the notes finished before the exams. We’ve got 5% of students who are rewriting their notes. So these are the guys who are now trying to basically learn them simply by writing them out over and over and over again. We’ve got the overwhelming majority here, it’s about 56% of students are reading over their notes. So in other words, they’re sitting there just reading the notes over and over and over again until it’s in their memory.

So in other words, we’ve got 76% of students who are spending the majority of their time simply memorizing their notes, either writing them out, rewriting them or reading them over and over again.

Now why do students do this? The reason the vast majority of students will do, this is very intuitive because if everyone in this room thinks back to what their number one fear was last exam, generally the number one fear is what if I forget something, what if I forget a date, a quote or facts, what’s going to happen? And as a result, these students go and they spend all of their time on memory based activities.

Now our top students on the other hand — our top students are in the minority, they are in this small group of 11% of students who are doing practice exams at the moment.

Now why do the top students do practice exams? They do it because they realize something that the vast majority of students don’t realize. They realize that an exam is not a test of memory, an exam does not test you how much you can remember, it tests you how you use what you remember. So the top students can basically go one step further than the vast majority of students, whereas the majority of students can simply remember information, the top students can analyze, they can evaluate, they can develop arguments but they can give the examiner what the examiner wants when they get into the exam room, which is one of the large reasons they get the results they do.

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Now the second skill or before we get to the second skill, I might just to — in order to show you how similar these are across countries, I put up a group of year 11 students in Australia and what you’ve got to notice is it is almost identical to our UK students. In fact, the percentage of students, again that gold bar there, the percentage of students who are doing practice exams is actually exactly the same as our case study in Australia. We’ve got 11% of students in Australia who are doing practice exams but again it’s within this minority where we find our top students.

Now let’s look at the second skill — and this skill — also this relates back to something I’ve also touched upon today, which is the concept of self-discipline and the research by Seligman and Duckworth. Now a student’s number one tool when it comes to self-discipline is the study timetable. The big problem is the vast majority of students will create a study timetable and then the vast majority of them will throw it out within the next week or so. And can I get a show of hands, in the life of students who has done that before, who has created a timetable only to throw it out very quickly? OK. Get a lot of students.

And the good news is that you’re not in the minority. If we look at this is a group of year 11 students in the United Kingdom over 50% of these students have thrown out their timetable within a week. A quarter of them have thrown it out within a couple of days and then the other quarter have thrown it out or more than a quarter have thrown it out within the week.

Now again to understand why this is the case, let’s have a look, because we do have a small group of students who stick to work for longer than a month, who stick to it for months on end all the way up to a year and again these are where our top students are. But to understand why let’s look at what the majority of students do differently than the top students.

Now on this slide, I’ve got a group of year 11 students and we’re having a look at what students put into their timetable first. So what we find the vast majority of students will do is they’ll go out, they’ll get a piece of paper and they’ll roll this thing out: Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, all the way through to Sunday .And then the very first thing they put into their study timetable is when they’re going to study, which again is fairly intuitive, right? It’s called a study timetable, so you think you put the study in first.

So we’ve got — it’s about 22% of students who will put in their homework or when they’re going to do ‘study’. In other words, they’re putting in their workload for that week. But we’ve got again now overwhelming majority, 63% of students in this case who are putting in specific subjects. So the very first thing they might do is on a Monday afternoon they’ll put in an hour of French homework and presumably that’s because I had French that day and they’re going to do homework and study for it.

So again we’ve got about 85% of students who put study in as the very first thing into their timetable. Now the problem with that is that these guys have the highest likelihood of throwing out the timetable as we’ve already seen within a matter of days or within a week. And the reason for it is, is because they go absolutely gung ho. They just put in study all over the place and they forget about the things they love doing. So 3 days into it or three weeks into it, or however long these guys are sitting down going, I’m not doing anything I love doing, I am bored, I hate this and as a result they throw the timetable out.

Now again our top students are in the minority on this graph as well. These are the guys who when they sit down to create a timetable, they do what every other student does in terms of they get their piece of paper and they roll it up Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday all the way through to Sunday. But instead of putting in study first, these guys do something very different: they put it as you can see there, they put in when they’re not going to study. So the first thing to go into these timetables are things like socializing, hobbies, sports, if someone’s got a job they might put in the job as well, and it’s only once they’ve got these activities in, they then come back and they begin to feel the study around it.

The big thing for the top students though is all of a sudden because they’ve got all of these activities in their timetables, it means every day they’re doing something that they love to do. As a result, they’re happy and because they’re happy they’re balanced. And it’s that sense of being balanced, that then lays the foundation to be productive for the rest of the year.

So for any student in the room right now who is looking to move up their marks, there’s three things you all need to consider.

Number one, as we’ve already said, don’t overestimate the importance of IQ or just don’t worry about it, it’s out of your control.

Number two: don’t aim to just work hard but instead work hard doing the right things.

Aim to model what the top students are doing because the thing is if you get the process right, then the marks or the grades or the results in school are going to take care of themselves.

Thanks a lot.