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Personal bests for students' success

Posted February 25, 2011 in category General by Shirley Leitch

In the latest issue of Swinburne Magazine, I hope you read about Swinburne's Academic Personal Best (APB) pilot. This project is inspired by the work of Professor Andrew Martin, an educational psychologist and Future Fellow at the University of Sydney.

If you're involved with sport, you'll know all about personal bests (PBs). They focus the mind on improving your own performance on your own terms. Professor Martin reasoned that if focusing on self - rather than endless comparisons with others - produced elite athletes then it might work with academic performance as well.

One of the reasons we struggle with big goals is precisely because they are big goals. How many times do we start the year with resolutions such as, 'I'm going to get fit', or 'I'm going to learn French', only to end the year flabby, monolingual and beating ourselves up for our failure?

PBs work because they focus on small steps. 'Today I'm going for a walk at lunchtime with the French lesson on my iPod'. Easy. And when we achieve this personal goal we feel good about ourselves. We also feel motivated to continue.

Another reason we don't achieve our goals is that we are encouraged to constantly compare ourselves with others.

Reflecting on my own education, I see the damage done by the traditional view that competition drives performance improvement. I learned early to pick the subjects I was good at and avoid my areas of weakness. This led to academic success because success was about grades rather than about learning.

But I never did learn to speak French - it was my 'worst' subject and what was the point of persevering when better grades were to be had elsewhere? I became an expert at playing the education success game.

When I look at maths avoidance behaviours in students, I see more evidence of the damaging view that relative ability - rather than learning - is what matters. The naturally able student can coast along, while her less able peer turns off and drops out. Neither student is being challenged to achieve their personal best. 

Professor Martin's work turns the traditional view on its head. In his classroom I would have continued to study French - not because I was top of the class but because I enjoyed the subject and was consistently learning and improving.

He would have rocked my complacency in the 'easy' subjects by reinterpreting success as 'better than my last result' rather than 'better than the students who happened to be sitting in the same classroom'.

Martin has found some keys to increasing student learning: setting achievable goals, reducing comparisons with other students, and fully engaging with the learning journey.

The APB pilot is in the design phase and will take in its first cohort of students in semester two. If you'd like to know more, please contact Simone Buzwell.

I'd love to hear your stories and insights about the role of personal best strategies in your teaching or your life. In the meantime, I'm off for a walk with my iPod, à la prochaine fois!

Professor Shirley Leitch
Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Academic)

Related reading: Swinburne Magazine, Issue 11: PBs to raise the achievement bar 

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|Comments [2]


Bonjour Professor!

I really enjoyed reading your thoughts on Personal Best for students.

It can really be intimidating to see someone doing better than you and being forced to compete with them in an acamedic environment.

As a Youth Motivational Speaker, whenever I speak to kids on believing in themselves and how to become more valuable in the workplace, one of the best strategies that I teach them is modelling i.e. If you see someone who is doing something that you want to do, then do exactly what they are doing.

Those people who are very successful in life often use a combination of both PB and modelling to achieve results.

Fantastic article!

Dream, Build, Inspire, Lead!


Posted by AJ Kulatunga on March 03, 2011 at 03:16 PM EST #

Hi AJ,

Thank you very much for your comment. I'm pleased to hear you combine role modelling and personal best measures to inspire young people. Having role models who inspire us to achieve our goals can be very important. I've also found it critical to focus on my own journey and, even if I do not share the same successes as my role model, to value and enjoy my professional development and personal successes.


Posted by Shirley Leitch on March 07, 2011 at 02:55 PM EST #

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