What Do Top Students Do Differently?

When asked why the top performing students do so well at school, there are a couple common answers—high IQ and hard work. Douglas Barton and his team at Elevate Education wanted to find out if that was actually the case by spending 13 years studying the most effective practices used by the top students in Australia, the United Kingdom, South Africa, and the United States.

The team’s research had three key findings:

  1. The top students don’t necessarily do better because they have a higher IQ or because they are smarter than everyone else.
  2. There are a small set of skills that are statistically significant in explaining why the top students do better than their peers, and these skills are relevant across countries.
  3. These skills can be taught to and used by any student to improve their academic performance.

One of the key skills that was incredibly predictive was taking practice tests. The research found that the number of practice tests a student did could be used to accurately predict not only how a student would perform but also could accurately rank an entire class based on that measure alone. Top performing students take far more practice tests than their peers, and that doing so helps the student move beyond just memorizing material.

Another key skill was not just working hard. Top student do work hard, but the research showed that many students who worked just as hard or harder didn’t perform as well. The reason for the difference is that it is important to work hard at the right things. Poor study skills applied more diligently won’t lead to better performance, but leads to disengagement as the student notes that they worked harder but still got poor results.

So what are the right things to work hard at? Barton’s team identified 13 key skills that top students used to differentiate themselves from their peers. In his TEDxYouth@Tallinn talk, Barton highlighted two of those: doing practice exams and creating a study schedule.

While the majority of students review their notes out of a fear of forgetting something during an exam, the top students do practice tests that require them to apply what they remember, which better prepares them for their exams. Similarly, many students create study schedules, but the vast majority of them stick to that schedule for less than a week. The top students, on the other hand, typically stick to their schedule for over month. These top students stick to their schedule by creating it in a different way—they put in the things that they like to do first (e.g., hobbies, sports, socializing, etc.) before they put in their study times. This ensures that they have time scheduled to enjoy things, which makes studying not seem like a chore that is taking them away from the things they want to do. You can view Douglas Barton’s TEDxYouth@Tallinn talk below.