Marginal Learning Gains a brief summary

This is a document I prepared for our school summarising the amazing ideas and work of those looking at Marginal learning gains these ideas are not my own and references are at the bottom of the post

The background

Whilst trailing through teaching and learning blogs and following some excellent people on twitter I came across a novel idea that I believe could use help continue to raise achievement and improve teaching and learning.

One simple, but highly effective, lesson learnt from the Olympics has been taken from the story of the brilliantly successful cycling team, and their visionary coach, Dave Brailsford. Brailsford believes that by breaking down and identifying every tiny aspect of an athlete’s performance and then making just a 1% improvement in each area the athlete’s overall performance can be significantly enhanced. His concept of ‘the aggregation of marginal gains’ has been making transformative ripples in classrooms and schools ever since the cycling team came to prominence a few years ago, but after London 2012 that concept has been taken up with renewed vigour. See Brailsford’s explanation here.

What is so brilliant about Brailsford’s marginal gains concept is that it is very flexible. It provides an accessible, precise and useful language for achieving success in a school context in a myriad of various ways. It can make for a rousing assembly, it can be a tool for sustained improvement: from students improving their learning, to teachers looking to enhance their pedagogy, and, more broadly, school leaders looking to make small, but highly significant improvements.

Zoe Elder (whose website is an unmissable wealth of marginal gains), @huntingEnglish and @macn1 realised “that there was potential for the application of aggregation to marginal gains within school to raise achievement in all areas from right across the whole school, into individual lessons, individual teachers and individual learners, getting down to the nitty gritty of what it takes to be an effective learner. This concept could be a very powerful way for students to reflect upon their progress.”

Over the last few weeks I have been thinking about the impact that marginal gains could have and saw a direct link with this and our PLC’s.  “The whole concept of ‘marginal gains’ is so useful because it is simply about the pursuit of excellence, with precise language and rigour, and there is also a very engaging story of real success underpinning the idea. I think the pursuit of improving ‘marginal gains’ is something we all do, and have done in many areas of our life. It is not new. It is not advanced Astrophysics even! It is a direct and effective language for our best practice – it is a concept that can give clarity to our pursuit of excellence – or ‘outstandingness‘!” @huntingenglish

I felt that it would be a way for us to share clearly the aims of the PLC’s (personalised learning checklists) with the students and for them to identify their own Marginal learning gains and perhaps “own their ambition

Suggestion for use of Marginal learning gains model being used

With the students

  • To assess their marginal learning gains on a subject level basis i.e. their version of the PLC’s much more student speak.
  • To assess their own marginal learning gains as an effective learner (working SMARTer) for example general skills, revision skills, work ethic.
  • To be used on a micro level as an AFL tool for self and peer assessment.
  • Used as part of the assertive mentoring process, students could have several wheels that they could discuss with their mentors and identify strategies to improve.


Using it in this way would cover some of the teaching and learning methods that have the best effect sizes as identified by John Hattie (0.5 = 1 grade increase 1 = a two grade increase)

  • Advanced organisers 0.48
  • Graphic organisers 1.24
  • Feedback (peer, self, and acting on feedback) – 1.13
  • Specifying goals 0.59

With staff and whole school

  • Whole staff training to be used to identify those crucial “hinge point marginal gains” that make for outstanding teaching and learning and are at the tipping point between “good and outstanding”
  • Individual staff identify their own “hinge point marginal gains”.
  • Used in conjunction with the coaching team to work with their mentees
  • Staff could carry out some micro-action research report back on the effect of their particular MLG (Michael Gove and the EEF recently enlisted Ben Goldacre to report on building research into education

Used to consider and plan whole school marginal gains.

Through the collaborative power of Twitter, the concept has been taken on in many schools in different ways: from being a self-assessment tool for students to providing the rationale for departmental self-evaluation of examination results .I have included examples of how some teachers and schools have used marginal gains specifically the marginal gains learning wheel. Students can relate to the success of our outstanding Olympians, but sometimes they lack the application, or confidence, to envision their own success. By eliminating a fixed idea of ‘talent’, the marginal gains approach can provide a liberating narrative for the transformative power of effort and deliberate practice. Students with a C grade often find it impossible to grasp how to move that one grade higher – an A appears far beyond them. By breaking down success into realisable ‘marginal gains’ students can more confidently make that big difference through sustained effort. 



Zoe Elder – author of Full on Learning; Involve me and I’ll understand

Huntingenglish – A Subject Leader of English in a large, successful state school in York

John hattie – Visible Learning for Teachers: Maximizing Impact on Learning

Geoffy Petty – Evidenced based teaching a practical approach

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