Much if my work at the moment is about considering performance. That could be institutional performance in league tables, the performance of individual awards in Portfolio Performance Review, the performances of students in individual modules and that if the staff teaching them.
We know we have some big changes that we want to make- any analysis of a league table or internal monitoring and benchmarking document will show where we seem to be outperformed by our comparator universities.
To think about how we make the changes necessary, I’ve looked for ideas from elsewhere. We already have a range of plans, of interventions which might seem to be overtly managerial, but which need to happen to gain some quick wins. After discussion with a PVC at another university, I have reflected on the need to make sure that managerialism doesn’t become punitive, or become the barrier to moving to where you want to be in the future.
I want to try out some other ideas, and the idea of Marginal Gains might be one.
The idea of marginal gains comes from the world of sport, firstly with Clive Woodward leading England to winning the 2003 World Cup, and more recently with Dave Brailsford leading TeamGB cycling to Olympic success and Team Sky to consecutive Tour de France wins.
There is an argument that you only do this once everything else is nearly right, but for me this philosophy could also be used alongside other major change, as long as we realise that we mustn’t forget to deal with the big problem!
The idea, as Brailsford expresses it, is that he 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.
Plenty of others have looked to see how this could be applied to education , for instance in The Guardian in 2012 “An unexpected Olympic legacy: how to make marginal gains with your students” and on the Marginal Learning Gains website.
So if we want to see an overall performance improvement in the university, we couldbreak down all our activities and make each one of them better by just 1%. And the idea is that adding together all of those small improvements will make a big difference overall.
For the university then, where could we each work to make those 1% improvements?
At a personal level, we could all make changes of our teaching to try to make it more accessible. We could be 1% more approachable to students. We could be 1% better in providing proper feedback on assessments. We could be 1% better in being professional – turning up on time, not treating students as confidantes.
As an institution and from a strategic level we need to think about what our key indicators are, and where we can make marginal gains to improve in each of them. League tables again are an obvious starting point – although they are no more than an external reflection of how we perform, they do, to large extent, measure things that matter to us such as student satisfaction and student attainment. So some 1% increases in each of these might start to show some overall performance differences (so long as we don’t forget to deal with the big issues).
This article has been quoted by the VC in his weekly blog, and has generated comments already from one of our faculties. It’s good to see that this is provoking debate, but despite promoting this as a way of thinking, I still emphasise- don’t forget to sort out the big fundamental issues.