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

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.

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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.