Sunday, 16 September 2012

Marginal Gains

INSANITY DEFINED: Doing the Same Old Things & Expecting Different Results

Totally inspired by @fullonlearning on Monday night, I decided to ditch introducing King Lear to Y13 on Tuesday and do a lesson on bicycles instead. Well... not literally.

If you haven't read her posts about 'marginal gains', you should probably stop reading this and read those first. They are much better.

I wasn't entirely sure what I was going to do, but turned up armed with outlines of wheels and two online articles to hopefully inspire the students to think about how to apply the idea of marginal gains and improve their grades. The first was one of many on the success of the British cycling team at the Olympics: the second on marginal gains in everyday life: . I gave them to the students to read and then asked them to apply this idea to themselves. It was an ideal time for the group to be thinking about this approach. They had got respectable results at AS, but on the whole are not producing the work I know they are capable of due to an inability to do homework and meet deadlines!

Working with the idea that 'if you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got', I gave them an example of how I had used marginal gains myself. Thoroughly jealous of a friend of mine who always has an impeccably tidy house, I asked her how she found the time to keep everything so neat. She told me her secret: advert breaks. Whenever the advert breaks come on the telly, do a job. Put something away, clean the shower, bleach the loo -it all adds up. She was right. Our house soon turned into a veritable palace... for about 3 weeks until we reverted to our old, advert-watching ways again...

Anyway, the students each came up with ways to improve their approach to their studies. They were far better than anything I could have prepared to tell them, as each was tailored to their own personality, interests and needs.

Danni's suggestion: Write your essay on Day 1. Day 2 look at structure. Day 3 look at spelling. Day 4 punctuation. Day 5 vocabulary, etc. She felt it would be easier to make marginal gains breaking down the focus for redrafting.

Jordan's suggestion: Cut X-box habit of 1 hour 30 mins a day (I suspect it is much more) by 10 mins to release 70 mins extra a week to spend reading.

Brandon's suggestion: Walk to the station instead of getting the bus. He felt this would help him get some exercise to improve sleep and concentration, and also enable him to listen to King Lear on his headphones at the same time.

Lisa's suggestion: Download a newspaper app to her phone to expand her general knowledge.

I added arriving at lessons on time...

They were also really interested in other things the articles mentioned: eating sensibly, sleeping properly, and having the right equipment. They admitted these things weren't easy to do, but understood that the point of a marginal gain was that it didn't have to be something huge. A small decrease in the negative things that they did, which created barriers to achievement, could be mirrored by small increases in the positive things. Like drinking less alcohol and more water! They even pulled out from the article the idea of washing your hands properly so you get ill less often. As Libby said, "Every day you miss off school, is 6 hours of learning".

Perhaps the most interesting thing they started thinking about was what we termed 'dead time'. Where could you find 10, 20, or 30 mins where you could do something productive and not miss out on other things. They had all sorts of ideas from reading in the bath to recording lessons and listening back to them on the bus. Most couldn't really account for the period after they got home and before tea, and so left determined to use it more productively.

Once they had some suggestions, we collected the ideas in pairs on the wheels. One for general study skills:

And one for English specific gains:

This second one was less successful than I'd hoped, so we went back to the exam we are preparing for (bearing in mind we haven't started the play yet!). I got out copies of the question and mark scheme and together we produced a wheel that showed all the different areas marginal gains could be made as they prepare for the exam:

So, that's as far as we've got. I'm thinking about adding something which shows progression up each spoke so students can track their progress when they get essay feedback, maybe A-E grade skills. That way we have a starting point for looking at each aspect and how to improve.


  1. Liking this idea and thinking how much 'dead time' I spend blogging and social networking! Eek!

  2. This has really inspired me as it ties in so well with so many of the ideas we are looking at this year. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Thank you. Always great to hear when a blog post has been useful!

  4. Hello liplash_mason

    Good post. I got here via the fullonlearning route and that's good too. You have tried to apply the ideas to a specific topic and lessons and that's always helpful when you are (one is!) trying to learn something so new. It's a pity that the images are not so clear on the webpage.
    In terms of your idea about showing progress, I know from my old days in the world of industry about a thing called a radar chart. It does exactly what you want and can be created in Excel. If you do some searching, you will no doubt discover the principles but if you want to chat about it here's an email address:


  5. Thanks for the comment.I looked up radar charts and they do seem to fit really well. Might have a go at using something similar with my class. Thanks for the idea.

  6. Trying to make my own for Geography - how did you manage to word process criteria on your wheel?


    1. I used Photoshop. You can then add/delete the number of spokes too.