Marginal Gains and the ‘Super Student’.

What are marginal gains and how can they help you to become a ‘Super Student’?  In this blog we ask whether the art of making small changes (marginal gains) in our lives can lead to significant impacts? We look at whether we can learn to take control even when we feel powerless and how we can relate to failure in a way that is helpful.

Making improvements in our lives and managing failure are pivotal to our success in education. We all need to be able to develop ourselves and we all need to manage set-backs. Within education we are systematically subjected to ongoing pressure and increasing challenges as we go through our career. Our mind-set and our attitude becomes absolutely crucial under these conditions and so does our approach to success and failure. If we develop a positive attitude to failure and what it represents in our lives overall it can have a tremendous effect on our motivation and our resilience. Marginal gains is nothing but helpful in enabling us to view failure in a much more positive light.

Marginal gains and British cycling:

The topic of marginal gains is very popular these days because it has proved to be so successful in British cycling. It isn’t possible to talk about marginal gains without referencing David Brailsford, former performance director for the British cycling team and manager of Team Sky. He is renowned for his approach using marginal gains – focusing on making small changes in every area where it is possible to improve on a weakness enabling accumulated improvements that result in large changes. To read more about this fascinating subject read Mathew Syed’s book “Black Box Thinking” in which he explores ‘surprising truth about success’.

For students and those in academia this is the perfect approach. Not only does it make change accessible, but it is based on the scientific approach of experimentation and testing and responding to the results. So often, because students feel under huge amounts of pressure and their sense of overwhelm can be so high, they can fall prey to thinking that in order to make any successful changes tin their lives, they must be large and require lots of effort.

This isn’t always the case and it can lead us to overlook some of the most effective strategies and adaptations that we are making.

Example of marginal gains in business:

Let me give you an example. Recently I worked with someone who was working full time and also studying in her spare time. She was struggling to really engage in her studies because of  the demands already being placed on her by her working life and her personal life. Seems entirely reasonable, especially when you know that she had a senior role within her professional life and carried significant responsibilities for herself and others.

One of the first things we established was just how much studying she was in fact achieving and it turned out to be far more than she’d realised. Why? Because she naturally studied in short bursts of just 15 minutes. Now this worked well for her but, without consciously recognising this and making a note of her hours of study, she was unaware of the real efforts that she was putting in and the way that these efforts were accumulating. And being unaware of it, she didn’t value it and couldn’t fully experiment and develop her technique.

So we looked at how to optimise working for 15 minute blocks and set up some experiments. For instance, could she study on the bus in and out of work as this was the longest period of uninterrupted time she had in her day. She found that creating audio files or one word/formula flash cards worked well in this space, it didn’t trigger her travel sickness and she could embed work that she had carried out the previous day. We looked at how to keep her notes and folders open, so that her 15 minute blocks were optimised by very little time required to get into the work. She noticed that, now that she knew she was accumulating about 5 hours study time a week, her motivation had become much higher and this encouraged her to work more and make more accurate notes of all the work she was doing. A positive cycle of benefits!

This is I think, a good example of marginal gains. It required conscious awareness of the activities that were happening and identifying what was working and experimenting consciously with these areas seeing where improvements could be made.

Habit forming choices over time: 

This process is all about setting up habits. It’s about small, helpful habits becoming embedded into our lives and benefitting from the accumulative effect of these changes from numerous sources. BUT  we must also recognise the accumulative effect of small, positive changes over time.

For instance, recently a student I worked with decided to stop taking the free paper at college. Instead they chose to watch a TED talk whenever they wanted some down time. Each talk is 15 minutes long which is just what the student needed and as they are inspiring and informative it was easier to read than the newspaper. Over time the gains of making this one small change have been great. The students’ knowledge-base has increased and so did their mood and motivation. On any given day you could say that the improvement was marginal, however, over time the benefits accumulate into something very powerful and tangible. So positive habits made with small adjustments have profound effects.

Another example is a student who recently realised that talking to other students before exams wasn’t helping him. So he decided to try not talking to anyone before an exam. It worked so well for his focus and concentration that he decided to extend the experiment. Now the night before an exam or if it is in the daytime, a few hours before the exam he goes off and spends time quietly on his own. He has found that this one small change and then adjusting and extending it has helped his concentration and his confidence in exams tremendously.

Failure is part of success:

Embedded into the concept of marginal gains is the idea of failure. This is such a simple concept at it’s heart, which is that we don’t learn, adapt or progress without experiencing some degree of failure. Marginal gains and the small experiments we try in our lives are only useful to the extent that we discover what works and what doesn’t. And more to the point, what works well and what works even better. These are crucial differences in our lives.

The topic of failure seems to be very difficult for many students. It has become a problem in and of itself. This may be because of the competitive culture that they find themselves in. Surrounded by other students, also under pressure, also working hard also achieving success. Students learn young to compare themselves continuously to other students and not only to their grades, but to their lives and their successes. This is compounded when we consider social media and the way we now edit and frame our lives around success and putting forward a successful, happy image of our lives. All of this can teach students and young people to think that success comes quickly and easily and to feel that any failures in their lives should not have happened and are in fact because they are a failure. This is so far from the truth.

If we are to learn, grow and develop then we must learn to experience and tolerate failure. Not only tolerate it but learn from it. Pivotal to learning from our failures is making the necessary changes towards future success. These are the hallmarks of a robust and resilient person.

Students who have never experienced failure can be much more fragile when they do eventually experience what they consider to be a failure in their lives. Students who face these difficulties early on and learn from them can benefit immensely and can even use these issues to their advantage when they are applying to schools and universities as an example of their personal learning and resilience.

How parents can help:

Share your own experiences of failure and success with your children. Also talk about examples of successful people who have overcome failure to go onto great success. If you don’t know any don’t worry – go online there are so many examples, most famously of course is Edison and is lightbulb. But open up the topic of failure and the benefits that accrue. Too often students tell me that their parents view their failure as an absolute reflection of their child and their child’s possible future, rather than a step on a long ladder of learning. A step that requires support and encouragement to move on from with confidence.