“You better study more, if not you will fail your exams!”
We’ve all heard this before – from our parents and teachers before, or maybe, even coming from our own mouths.
Or how about this. “You better study harder so you can get better grades.”
If you move beyond the rhetoric, what exactly does “studying harder” entail? For many of us, such as myself as a child growing up in the 80s, it meant “studying more.” Which meant spending more hours a day trying to memorise facts, work on assessment books, and go for tuition. Come PSLE time, my mom would take days off to sit down with me so I could read through every chapter of the textbook aloud to her. We read through it many times.
So, does studying more produce better results?
Before I continue on, I would just like to say that this article is not meant to advocate laziness or discount the need for hard work. What this article is trying to do is suggest some insight to the question, “Does spending more time on the subject result in better grades?”
In short, the research suggests that the answer is yes and no. “Yes” because the quantitative increment of time spent has more limited effectiveness, compared to qualitative increments.
In the 80s, Daniel Chambliss, a professor from Hamilton College, set about trying to find out the nature of excellence in swimmers. He spent over some half a dozen years with swimmers and coaches of all levels in the US, from amateurs to national swimmers that went to the Olympics. His goal was to find out what separated swimmers across these levels, and he defined excellence as “consistent superiority of performance.”
He published his findings in a report entitled “The Mundanity of Excellence.” What he found was that, in the world of competitive swimming, there are not only clear distinctions between swimmers (since you can measure their swim times), but also clear distinctions between each level of the sport. For example, a country club team would have a clear distinction in how they operate, compared to a swimming club team, which would be different from the national team.
All this is pretty obvious, given that you would more likely see someone from the national team in a race that’s televised than the 50m race organised by Potong Pasir Country Club.
Chambliss broke down the swimmers efforts into two categories – (1) quantitative and (2) qualitative. He defined “quantitative” as the number or amount of something. So, quantitative improvement would mean swimming more hours or for longer distances. Similarly, it would mean studying more hours or doing more assessment books.
By “qualitative”, he defined it as the “character or nature of the thing itself.” A qualitative change, thus, would be changing what is actually being done, as opposed to just doing more of it. In academic terms, it might be mastering a certain learning technique, developing a certain study cycle, or working on specific answering styles.
What Chambliss discovered at the end of his years of research was that while quantitative changes help you to have slight improvements within your level, they do not bring about consistent superiority of performance (i.e excellence). Rather, it is the qualitative changes made that help to move your performance to the next level.
This would have big implications for us, because instead of “How much time is my child spending on this subject?”, we would have to change it to, “How is my child spending his/her time on this subject?”
To do things differently (instead of just more), Chambliss proposes three areas of difference for us to consider:
1. Technique: There are different ways to receive, digest and communicate knowledge. One example would be the difference between a child that memorises stock composition passages and regurgitates it during the exams, compared to one that has worked on refining his understanding and sharpened his reasoning skills to give a well-thought answer. This has to do with the techniques that a student has learnt on how to approach and answer the exam paper.
The first question would be, “How is my child learning?” Or if you want to take it back another step, “Is my child learning?” If the answer to that is “No” or “Not much”, then more of the same thing would not be effective (in fact, it might be counterproductive). That’s one reason why parents have found enrichment or tuition centres effective, as they are able to help a child’s learning through techniques suited outside the school setting.
Another way would be to find out what your child’s learning style is and to use that style during revision time. No point forcing a square peg into a round hole if you force your solitary learning style child to big classes all the time.
2. Discipline: One of the more underrated traits in high performers is discipline. After all, we glorify the talented but lazy performer that somehow manages to pull the rabbit out of the hat by studying the night before. However, the best performers are most likely to be strict on their studying schedule, homework, sleep schedule, and even leisure. Taking breaks are important too, and they know how to strike a balance between work and play.
One question we can ask to get perspective would be, “How does my child spend his/her time in a month?” Write out their schedule for the week, and then the month. Is it constantly haphazard or is there a regularity to the schedule?
Discipline, like all habits, needs to be nurtured with consistency and predictability.
3. Attitude: Chambliss found that at the highest level, there was an “inversion of attitude” that took place. Meaning that the things that the amateur level swimmer found unpleasant, the national swimmer enjoy doing. He gave the example that many national swimmers would come into 5.30am training sessions lively, laughing and talking. I think that the minimal attitude may not necessarily be “enjoy doing”, but at least “is at peace with doing.”
In school, certain activities like going through the mistakes from past papers is sometimes laborious – “why go through the past when you can do more test papers?” – but the attitude of learning from your mistakes often are the low hanging fruit to improve one’s grades, which we have written about in How To Stop Making The Same Exam Mistakes (Again).
In his findings, and in numerous other books, psychologists and researchers have found one common fact: excellence is mundane. “Superlative performance is really a confluence of dozens of small skills or activities, each one learned or stumbled upon, which have been carefully drilled into habit and then are fitted together in a synthesized whole,” Chambliss writes.
While that may disappoint some that there aren’t fireworks or a memorable soundtrack attached to it, I think we can take heart that it means that excellence is not limited to only a small portion of “super talented” or “super smart” kids, but attainable by being conscious of not just how much we do something, but how we do it as well.
Let’s take it to the next level!