Moving from 70 % to 90% – What we can learn from sport

For many students, moving from average to excellent academic performance can be tough. In sport, trainers and coaches use focused guidance and practice as a way to help their wards improve.  The same principles can be used to help students improve in academics.

The challenge

The teacher has just handed back the test to Rita. She looks at the front page, right at the top, it reads “70% – Could do better”. Rita sighs silently, she knows she could have.  At home that evening, she shares her test scores with her parents, “You need to study harder” they say, in chorus! Rita sighs silently once more.

The picture might seem familiar. Many of us have been urged to study harder during our schooldays, while others might recall a more recent conversation they had with their child. It’s not surprising.  It is important for students to learn and develop a strong work ethic, and they do need to be reminded to study harder, from time to time.  However, on many occasions the advice does not quite have the desired impact.  Why’s that?

One important reason is that the advice to study harder is commonplace and not particularly insightful. Most studies show that for students to act on feedback it needs to be specific, timely and tailored to their needs. When told to study harder to improve their performance, most students silently think – “Tell me something I don’t know”! Well, can we?

How it’s done in sports 

Advice aimed at improving performance is not restricted to academics. In sport, coaches and mentors regularly counsel their wards on how they could do better. While the players are expected to work hard, it doesn’t stop at that. For instance, a cricket coach doesn’t just teach the players how to bat and then ask them to practice batting every day. Instead, he observes how each player puts that learning into practice and then shares specific advice to help a player build skills where he or she may be deficient. The coach might ask one player to practice his back foot play on the off side and another to practice the front foot drive when the ball is overpitched.  The coach’s advice does not do away with the need for a player to put in the hard work, but it does give players a clear idea of what they need to focus on. Most players would readily admit that focused practice, where it is needed most helps them improve a lot faster.

How personalised advice can help in academics? An example

Say we teach students about fractions and then administer a test. Two students, Rita and Mary, both score 65% in the test. While the score does indicate that there is room for improvement, it does not shed much light on what each student’s specific issues are. Consequently, on most occasions, the advice to both students would be to simply study harder or at best to revise Fractions. As the sporting analogy illustrates, this is simply not good enough. Instead, if, we could tell Rita to work on representing fractions visually, while Mary is asked to practice adding fractions, they are more likely to be motivated and see the feedback as a way to overcome a particular performance challenge.  Their focused efforts would lead to better results, more quickly.

Don’t we already do this?

Well not quite, at least most of the time. The best teachers do try to guide every student, but there are some challenges. First, learning at schools covers a really wide canvas. There are a variety of subjects like Math, Science and English, each having many different skills that students need to develop. Add to this, the 20 or more students assigned to each teacher and the task can be quite daunting even for experienced and motivated teachers. Even though formal assessments are conducted periodically, all that they throw up are marks or grades and not personalised guidance for every student.

Does this mean that at school, students can’t hope to get the same kind of personalised and specific advice that most sports-people thrive on? Is the only option for students to work one on one with a capable personal tutor?  That might have been true in the past, but not today.

What we can do

Today there is widespread recognition that carefully designed assessments can generate a wealth of information to improve teaching and learning in schools. Moreover, the use of technology and modern analytical tools make it possible to systematically examine assessment data and identify specific problems facing every student in time to take corrective action. Progressive schools around the world are adopting these techniques to help their students do better.

Be it academics, sports or any other field, timely and personalised guidance has helped learners master the skills needed for success. Our school children deserve no less. I am sure you agree.