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

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.

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.

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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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