(Nearly) 150 Classroom Marginal Gains

Dave Brailsford, the mastermind behind the GB cycling and Bradley Wiggin’s Tour de France success this summer, has long been an exponent of what he has called marginal gains.

In Brailsford’s own words, taken from the interview above with the BBC, he explains the marginal gains concept:

“The whole principle came from the idea that if you broke down everything you could think of what goes into riding a bike, and then improved it by 1%, you will get a significant increase when you put them all together.” 

“There’s fitness and conditioning, of course, but there are other things that might seem on the periphery, like sleeping in the right position, having the same pillow when you are away and training in different places.”

“Do you really know how to clean your hands? Without leaving the bits between your fingers?”

“If you do things like that properly, you will get ill a little bit less (and therefore be able to train more)”

“They’re tiny things but if you clump them together it makes a big difference.”

With marginal gains on the brain, and with further inspiration from thought provoking posts from David Didau and Zoe Elder’s Learning Cycle: The Aggregation of Marginal Gains (full document below), we decided to ask our teachers at Wilmslow High School the following question:

What small strategies do you use in the classroom, that when combined together, have a significant effect on the students’ learning performance and your teaching performance?

This question was posed to our teachers as a starter activity at the WHS Learning Conference 2012 in the main hall.  Our teachers had five minutes to scribble any personal classroom marginal gains that were then collected, collated and finally, circulated.

Please feel free to add your own classroom marginal gains in the comment thread below.  Any little tips, no matter how small, could be a marginal gain that when combined with a few others, could transform your class into a learning tour de force!

So, here are Wilmslow High School’s crowd sourced marginal gains in full.  You will find some common themes throughout:

  1. Meet and greet at the start of a lesson
  2. Use of achievement points for extended answers or good questions
  3. Clean, safe furniture and enough of it
  4. C3B4ME – before asking the teacher for help, check your brain, ask a buddy, look in a book / research on the internet
  5. Being enthusiastic – if you love what you do, they are more likely to as well
  6. Extensive use of pair / group work
  7. Always revisit the plan – what are we doing now / next / in the weeks to come?
  8. Project the enthusiastic attitude you hope to receive
  9. Tell the students how much you believe in them and their abilities on a daily basis
  10. Use of music to set the learning ‘mood’ for the lesson format.  Club / dance music for timed workshop activities and classical music for more focused work concentrating on the finer details
  11. Play Bob Dylan at certain points during the lesson
  12. ‘Culture Corner’ – presentations to the class
  13. Plenary games
  14. Short burst activities – aim for 7-8 minutes before transition (which may be a brief teacher input or 3 minute motivator)
  15. Share WIIFM (What’s in it for me?) – make sure students can see there is a point and purpose to each activity
  16. Register question – test all of the class
  17. Mini reviews at the half way point in the lesson
  18. Build learning confidence – praise, praise, praise
  19. Peer learning and assessment
  20. Create an atmosphere where no student is afraid to get something wrong
  21. Random name selector
  22. Anecdotes – teacher or students.  Breaks up the pattern of a lesson and is personal
  23. Don’t settle for first answer.  Ask ‘why’ and ‘how do you know?’
  24. Don’t talk for very long.  Get the students to do the work
  25. Opportunity for questioning throughout the lesson
  26. Starter activities – sometimes related to the topic, sometimes not
  27. Relaxed atmosphere – students feel they can ask anything
  28. Use post it notes for new ideas to share
  29. Use post it notes for non-intrusive feedback on learning behaviours (stolen from Zoe Elder)
  30. Brain teaser – I use the same one with all lessons on one day
  31. Moviemaker – movie introductions to lessons
  32. Apply learning to the real world
  33. Chunk their learning
  34. Excellent exemplar work – Ron Berger, Ethic of Excellence
  35. Talk about the sport from the weekend
  36. Have practical / physical elements to lessons (not just PE / DT!)
  37. Any late students – get them learning promptly and discuss reasons for lateness at the end to prevent disruptions
  38. Incorporate a random interesting fact that is somehow related to the topic you are teaching
  39. Tell jokes! Always try to make my class laugh = great rapport!
  40. Brain Gym to freshen up
  41. Fresh air in the classroom
  42. Get ‘em learning outside
  43. Use PLTS explicitly
  44. Review objectives at appropriate times during the lesson
  45. Model good manners
  46. Student coaching – giving them the tools to lead and to take responsibility
  47. Ask students in pairs to explain to each other how they are meeting their most recent subject targets and ask them to annotate their work to show this
  48. ‘Thinking Music’ – played during individual work along with Countdown Timers
  49. Enter the classroom in role play
  50. Mix up seating plan regularly to encourage working with other students to create a team atmosphere
  51. Individual target setting
  52. Traffic light learning
  53. Don’t take yourself too seriously – make them laugh every lesson
  54. Friendly, happy atmosphere
  55. Create displays of outstanding work to use during lessons
  56. Teaching resources on walls = key words etc…
  57. All answers are praised even if they are wrong…praise the idea
  58. Sense of humour
  59. Share the success criteria
  60. Review – what have we learnt? Why have we learnt it?
  61. In pairs, students agree on the most important 2/3 points from the last lesson and share with the group
  62. Video clips to generate discussion
  63. Use simple writing framework to help with analysis
  64. Bring up a recent article on science from the news part way through the lesson.  Acts as a positive break and generates awareness and starts discussion
  65. Start lessons with reading – calming and individual encouragement to read.  Hugely important skill and develops a love of reading
  66. Lots of praise for good ideas but also using questioning to draw out and improve responses
  67. Develop rapport via a multitude of classroom banter, exchanges and witticisms
  68. Praise the basics – book out, work started
  69. Clear expectations – quality learning behaviours
  70. Take the time to know something about your students and make that connection
  71. Thinking Points / Question Time – whole class or post it notes at the end of the lesson
  72. Mutual respect – listening to students’ needs, knowledge and feelings
  73. Ask often – how can we make this harder? What would be the next step or level?
  74. Students create own learning material on the topic we have studied
  75. Lollipop stick name selector
  76. Quizdom
  77. Use a bell / whistle to get the students attention quickly!
  78. Hand out the starter activity (or have it in the board) as students walk in to the classroom
  79. Get the students to turn their PC monitor off when you are talking / giving instructions – students more focused
  80. Treat every student as an individual
  81. Lots of small, manageable tasks, for bottom sets.  Don’t introduce too much new information
  82. Singing instructions rather than saying them
  83. Act out the concept
  84. Humour for behaviour
  85. Know their names!
  86. Aim to demonstrate interest in them as individuals – build a sense of them
  87. Personalise the content – make it relevant to their world / student friendly examples
  88. Incorporate competition
  89. Choices / democracy in their learning
  90. Regular verbal Q & A, interactive, conversational
  91. Posters – keeps minds active / stimulating
  92. Use names – lots
  93. Extra facts / interesting info / make it relevant
  94. Set standards
  95. Welcome all students to come in after lessons to use equipment and gain 1 to 1 help.
  96. Where possible and appropriate, turn the classroom into a “real life” environment eg:  when completing “Sports Writing” transform the room into BBC offices or a newsroom.  If looking at assessment criteria, turn it into AQA Headquarters
  97. Seating arrangements
  98. Silly games
  99. Different ways of calling the register
  100. Mixture of learning styles planned for
  101. Personal touch / personal side
  102. Register theme:  linked to lesson objective / activity – immediate engagement / stimulation rather than “yes miss”
  103. Routine:  students know what to expect when they walk in
  104. Use clips of random interest to keep pupils on their toes
  105. Develop good transition between activities to maintain pace
  106. Use pressurised situations to add challenge to learning
  107. “Super-evil” extension questions for top sets.  Ask them to write their own questions
  108. Choice of resources so students can take responsibility for their own learning
  109. Ensure room is litter free
  110. Have book “giver-outers” and “collectors” to speed up the process
  111. Half way through the lesson, ask everyone to stop what they are doing, and ask a “sideball” question  relating to the task, but they may not see the connection straight away
  112. Try to start a lesson a different way each time, try not to allow predictability into lessons
  113. I will tell each class they are my favourite group and expect great work from them
  114. Personalise the content eg: make it represent their world / student friendly examples
  115. Share any new developments that have occurred in my subject with Monday’s class (similar to having a thinking question on the board at the start). Will work even they aren’t relevant to the lesson
  116. Room at right temperature.  Light but no sun in eyes
  117. Swapping work and sharing ideas on how to improve
  118. Challenge the teacher
  119. Asking students questions to let them determine / lead the aims and objectives of the lesson
  120. “Bonus Questions” throughout the lesson to win prizes / achievement points
  121. Sense of a team ethic
  122. Optical illusion on the board as students enter –grabs attention
  123. Countdown clock (from board game) play for last 30 seconds of a task
  124. Prizes for asking questions on topic that I can’t answer – encourages higher order thinking and helps review
  125. Incorporate competition
  126. Chairs and tables in 4s not rows – enables discussion and easier to move
  127. Develop good routines
  128. Relate concepts to our own lives / field of reference
  129. Walk away from the person answering a question or making a point – this opens the question or answer up to the whole class
  130. Praise to reprimand ratio of at least 5:1
  131. Start with a couple of images on the board that they will see during the lesson. Do they know what they mean now?  Do they know later on?
  132. Time checks
  133. Smiling
  134. Know individual student’s targets and prior achievement
  135. The “big question” runs throughout the lesson and a series of lessons
  136. Thinking time and discussion time.  eg:  shout “10 Seconds” to think then discussion follows
  137. Clear expectations
  138. Variety of practical activities to demonstrate theoretical perspectives
  139. If this is the answer, what is the question?
  140. Opportunity to negotiate when things don’t go to plan – homework not handed in, change of working method
  141. Team work – Kagan Co-operative and Jigsaw learning
  142. Every lesson is different
  143. Consistent application of rewards and sanctions

7 thoughts on “(Nearly) 150 Classroom Marginal Gains

  1. having followed the cyclists throughout the summer, the applying the principle of marginal gains to the classroom offers great promise I feel.

    The scope of this list generated by your colleagues is far-reaching and list offers plenty of simple, easily manageable strategies ready for instant implementation. Excellent bit of crowd-sourcing 😉

    Though the opportunity is now gone, I wonder what might be the result of applying a ‘Hattie-like’ analysis to the items in the list? What if staff chose their top ten(?) and ranked them in terms of what they perceive to have the biggest impact … then everyone’s data was amalgamated to identify the top 25?
    Or would those whose ideas didn’t make the cut feel their opinions had been devalued? Needs sensitive handling.

  2. Loving what you’ve done here. Creativity in CPD. Just what Gove has missed out of the EBac! Follow this link. It may be interesting.
    Recognise so many of the 150. Good to know we’re not lone voices. I’ve a few more to add if this is still live.
    Good luck with next steps.

  3. Thanks – some great ideas. As a cyclist myself and teacher interested in pedagogy, I’m going to try to use the concept of marginal gains with my yr 11 students in the run up to exams an in delivery of CPD.
    Onwards and upwards!


    We put our students in a seating plan to learn the names but then every term we would shift everyone round e.g everyone sitting on the left side of the table would move to the next column.

    Also mutiple choice with poses e.g if they think A than they are athletes, B badminton player… Or raise arms/sit down… ~ great for recap starters on lessons or test their knowledge and get students engaged!

    Practical in any lessons work to change atmosphere and keep attention. A great one to teach how sub-sections make a whole is representation of juggling – creates laughs!

    Lastly great a revision time is games which to them are fun but do generate their thinking to what they can identify they know and don’t know are; Taboo, Cludo, Word Assosoation, Quiz (shows), Cross-Word, In the spot light (Sit in a circle, one person answers as many questions by the class in 60seconds before swapping over) ~ Great for any subject!

    If I think of anymore ill inform as we have a ‘creative’ meeting this week for sharing ideas!

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