British cycling, the aggregation of marginal gains and improving our learning

DSCF1705I do a bit of cycling, I mainly do it because I enjoy it, (most of the time), and because I also think it helps me to work. In this I’m in agreement with the sociologist, Kristin Luker, who, rather mischeviously observed that, ‘any enterprise that makes you hot and sweaty and takes your mind off your work, is absolutely essential to successful research in the social sciences these days.’ For Luker its salsa dancing that does it. What did you think she meant? For me its cycling.

I don’t cycle competitively but I do like to watch competitive cycling, and as a keen follower of professional cycling I’ve also come to the conclusion that it might help my work in other ways. Like many British cycling fans I have watched, with growing admiration, the achievements of British Cycling, and of Team Sky. In many respects the mastermind behind these achievements has been the coach Dave Brailsford. Brailsford is the performance director of British Cycling and also the team principal of Team Sky. In 2010, Brailsford took on the role of manager of Team Sky, a new British professional cycling team, with the expressed aim of winning the Tour de France, with a British rider, in five years. Team Sky achieved this in two years, with Bradley Wiggins in 2012, and then did it again in 2013, with Chris Froome.

Under Brailsford’s leadership Sky’s approach was highly professional with extensive use of sports scientists, psychologists, and hi-tech developments in bike design. The whole enterprise was underpinned by careful, somewhat obsessive, attention to detail. A much-discussed element of this approach was the principle of marginal gains. This was the notion that in order to improve, the team would look at every individual element which contributed to a successful ride and try to make small improvements, perhaps only 1%, in all of them. This might involve small changes in the design of particular bike components to make them more aerodynamic or lighter, or to clothing such as gloves, skinsuits and overshoes to generate less wind resistance. It also meant looking at factors such as what riders ate, and how to ensure they got a good night’s sleep. In stage races such as the Tour de France this involves carrying individual mattresses and pillows for each rider so that while they sleep in different hotels each night, they effectively sleep in the same bed. While none of these developments in isolation were likely to make a significant difference, Brailsford asserted that the cumulative effect of improvements in a large number of areas might add up to real gains in a sport where the margins of victory can be very narrow. As Brailsford is quick to point out, focusing on the potential improvements in peripheral areas is not a substitute for the central concerns with fitness, training and conditioning, where there would continue to be a need for considerable effort and some significant gains. If you put me on Bradley Wiggins’ bike and let me sleep in his bed I still wouldn’t win the Tour de France, but when coupled with excellence in key areas, the cumulative effect of marginal gains may be enough to give riders a competitive edge, or as Brailsford puts it, ‘enable them to be the best they can be’.

The question is whether the principle of marginal gains can be applied to learning. It is important to remember that scholarship is not a competitive activity and and the object is not to gain an advantage over our colleagues. In contrast to the Tour de France, it is notionally possible for everybody to stand on top of the podium, there are no limits on the number of first class degrees on offer. However, like cycling, the margins of victory can be very narrow. I have sat on enough exam boards to know that a fraction of one per cent can be the difference between one degree classification and another.

As with cycling there is no way to avoid the central principles, seeking marginal gains in your learning is unlikely to make much difference if you have not focused on the quality of your research and writing. There is no way around the need for rigorous research, detailed analysis and effective communication. However, there are perhaps marginal gains to be made by focusing on improvements in a range of other areas as well:

  • The obvious place to start is with accurate referencing. Students are given detailed instructions regarding when and how to reference but many get it wrong, and this is a constant source of frustration to those marking their work. It is relatively easy to avoid mistakes by taking some time to check references and by looking back at style guides and referencing handbooks in order to ensure that references are in the correct format and correspond precisely with what is expected.
  • There are a range of other presentational issues which are often overlooked but when followed to the letter can set one’s work apart. Close attention should be paid to requirements such as line-spacing, font-size, page-numbering, and the inclusion or not of: abstracts, title pages, word counts, and identifying details such as names, course codes, etc. These things may not be specified but when they are, then guidance should be followed.
  • Related to this, while students who have come up through the British education system are often so accustomed to testing that simple mantras such as read the question carefully are second nature, they may be less familiar with reading the much lengthier but perhaps less prominent marking criteria which accompany most assessments at University level. These often contain much more detailed explanations of what is expected, and useful clues as to how to pick up extra marks. Re-reading a draft alongside the marking criteria can be a useful exercise.
  • Careful proof-reading is another source of potential gains. This can help to iron out many minor mistakes in areas such as spelling and punctuation. Nobody ever failed an assessment because of the incorrect use of apostrophes but repeated spelling and grammatical errors can distract attention from the substance of even the most considered argument. Proof reading can also help to make sure that sentences make sense. If you don’t understand what you mean then it is unlikely that your lecturer will understand, no matter how many letters they have after their name.
  • As with Team Sky it is not sufficient simply to focus on the vehicle of our success, the bike, or in your case, the essay, report or presentation. There are perhaps gains to be made by focusing on our overall well-being. Cyclists often obsess about their fluid intake, as do many students, although I’m not sure the effect is quite the same. I am sure that many students would work more effectively with more and better sleep. Many of us find ourselves working late at night, or through the night, in order to meet deadlines, and we may even convince ourselves that we work better that way, but this is probably not the case.
  • Finally, we may all benefit from time away from our studies. As Luker reminds us rest and relaxation, or at least an alternative focus for our energies, may be as important as long hours of study. As in many things, not least riding a bike, some sense of balance is key.
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