How to Apply the Principal of Marginal Gains in Education Technology

How to Apply the Principal of Marginal Gains in Education Technology

You may not have heard of Dave Brailsford, but he’s worth knowing about. A British cycling coach, Brailsford came up with what has been called the ‘philosophy of marginal gains’. This basically states that:

“If you broke down everything you could think of that goes into riding a bike, and then improved it by 1%, you will get a significant increase when you put them all together.”

(Cited in Wikipedia)

That makes a lot of sense, and it sounds doable. After all, it’s much easier to think in terms of improving lots of little bits than the whole thing (whatever the ‘thing’ is), all at once. As the old saying goes: How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.

So how might you encourage your students to improve their work in education technology using the ‘1%’ or ‘marginal gains’ principle? here are a few suggestions.

1. Look for a way to cut out some code, to make your program run faster.

2. Add comments to your program, or spreadsheet, to make them easier for others to understand — or even yourself in a few months’ time!

3. Add some interactivity: is there a way to improve the user’s interest in the program by asking for, and then using, some input from them?

4. Is there a way to improve the process or program by reducing user input? For instance, if you wish contributions to a book of short stories or poems to all have the same appearance, in my experience you’d be better off getting them to enter their text in a form, and then collating all the entries and formatting the whole thing at once, than giving them a template to use. People always seem to want to ‘improve’ on templates by tweaking them!

5. Can you reduce the possibility of erroneous data entry? For example, if your students are devising a spreadsheet for someone else’s use as part of an assignment, they can improve it by incorporating data validation. In Excel it is very easy to have the spreadsheet automatically check that a number entered really is a number, rather than text, or to ensure that the number is within a sensible range, or to present a list of values for the user to choose from.

6. Can you improve the appearance of your document, spreadsheet, or program?

7. Can you get your program to do one more thing?

8. Or perhaps one less thing: Many programs could be improved if they did fewer things better.

Now, the way the principle of marginal gains really shows its strengths is when you put two or three of these together. Imagine how much better a student’s program would be if:

— it ran slightly faster

— it was more user-friendly

— it didn’t have so many bells and whistles that people found it confusing, or that the program ran slower because of them.

What’s more, if students are working in teams, then different members of the team could be asked to look at different aspects of the program to find where a small improvement could be made.

This approach doesn’t just apply to coding or spreadsheets and so on. How could a video be improved, or an audio recording? How could that PowerPoint presentation be made better?

It also ties in with the ‘growth mindset’ theory. This holds that kids are more likely to improve if they’re told they’ve made a good effort than if they are told that they’re brilliant. In the latter case, they end up taking fewer risks and stagnate, because they don’t want to be seen to fail. Apparently this is especially true for girls. But being praised for effort rather than (only) attainment opens up the possibility that they could do even better. (See, for example, this report on a speech made by the journalist Matthew Syed.)

A growth mindset plus the principle of marginal gains is a winning combination!

Terry Freedman publishes the ICT & Computing in Education website and the Digital Education newsletter. His latest book is Education Conferences: Teachers’ Guide to Getting the Most out of Education Conferences, available at