Douglas Barton: What Do Top Students Do Differently? at TEDxYouth@Tallinn (Transcript)

Here is the full transcript of Douglas Barton’s TEDx Talk: What Do Top Students Do Differently? at TEDxYouth@Tallinn 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.

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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.

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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.

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.