Improving Academic Performance

How 1% improvement can turn an F into an A

Posted by Mark Skoskiewicz on Wed, Nov 23, 2016 @ 11:00 AM


Working Hard-1.jpgMost students don’t realize how small, incremental improvements can accumulate over time to create significant jumps in skill level or academic performance.

Let’s begin by exploring some theories about performance and success that have a lot to do with becoming comfortable struggling and striving to make small improvements. Later, we’ll show how a seemingly small improvement of just 1% a week can turn an F into an A.


One of the most important things for students to realize is that intelligence is something you build over time. It's not something you are born with.

Just like working out helps your muscles grow, reading, writing, studying, preparing for and being tested, etc., helps your intelligence grow. The theory that your intelligence is like a muscle that can grow over time is called the “growth mindset” and has been studied and espoused by Carol Dweck, a professor of Psychology at Stanford, for over a decade. It is related to the research done by Angela Duckworth at the University of Pennsylvania, which shows that “grit” and the ability to persevere are a better predictor of academic performance over time than a student’s initial IQ score.  

The opposite of the “growth” mindset is the “fixed” mindset, which is where you fundamentally believe that your intelligence is static. It’s driven by your IQ, which you believe can’t be improved, and in any given area of your life, you either have an inborn talent for something, or you don’t. Most people, of course, are more growth mindset-oriented about some things and more fixed mindset-oriented about others.

The more you adopt a “growth mindset” the harder you’ll try to solve problems and keep going at a task until you figure it out, and this process builds intelligence. A character trait called “grit” is what leads to sustained effort in the face of multiple failures or obstacles. So, having a growth mindset and being “gritty” are highly related.

I like to argue that there are three dimensions to the “growth in your intelligence” that occurs over time when you keep trying to learn something in a sustained, deep, and focused way. First, you become “smarter” simply because you remember more facts and concepts. But, second, you also build new learnable skills related to math, reading, and writing that go beyond just remembering facts. And finally, you become “smarter” as your brain builds new neural connections, and in some small but meaningful way, becomes more efficient and effective at solving problems.

Now, let’s take a turn with this article and explore the concepts above in the context of an interesting “performance rule” I was recently exposed to when listening to a presentation by a business consultant named David Nour – the 1% rule.

Imagine that you get just 1% better at something every week. In about a year, you will be almost twice as good at it.

It didn’t seem quite right to me when I initially heard it, so I decided to create a scenario for this article and work out the math behind the 1% rule to test it. Imagine that you or your child is in a math class Calculus 1. On the first quiz of the year, he or she received an F, having earned only 55 of the 100 points on that exam.

What would happen if you adopt a growth mindset, and commit yourself to studying hard and improving slowly over time. You set a goal of improving by just 1% every week.

Grade scale At or above      
A 90      
B 80      
C 70      
D 60      
F 50      
         
Week  Test points % improvement Amount of improvement Grade
1 55.00 1.00% 0.55 F
2 55.55 1.00% 0.56 F
3 56.11 1.00% 0.56 F
4 56.67 1.00% 0.57 F
5 57.23 1.00% 0.57 F
6 57.81 1.00% 0.58 F
7 58.38 1.00% 0.58 F
8 58.97 1.00% 0.59 F
9 59.56 1.00% 0.60 F
10 60.15 1.00% 0.60 D
11 60.75 1.00% 0.61 D
12 61.36 1.00% 0.61 D
13 61.98 1.00% 0.62 D
14 62.60 1.00% 0.63 D
15 63.22 1.00% 0.63 D
16 63.85 1.00% 0.64 D
17 64.49 1.00% 0.64 D
18 65.14 1.00% 0.65 D
19 65.79 1.00% 0.66 D
20 66.45 1.00% 0.66 D
21 67.11 1.00% 0.67 D
22 67.78 1.00% 0.68 D
23 68.46 1.00% 0.68 D
24 69.14 1.00% 0.69 D
25 69.84 1.00% 0.70 D
26 70.53 1.00% 0.71 C
27 71.24 1.00% 0.71 C
28 71.95 1.00% 0.72 C
29 72.67 1.00% 0.73 C
30 73.40 1.00% 0.73 C
31 74.13 1.00% 0.74 C
32 74.87 1.00% 0.75 C
33 75.62 1.00% 0.76 C
34 76.38 1.00% 0.76 C
35 77.14 1.00% 0.77 C
36 77.91 1.00% 0.78 C
37 78.69 1.00% 0.79 C
38 79.48 1.00% 0.79 C
39 80.27 1.00% 0.80 B
40 81.08 1.00% 0.81 B
41 81.89 1.00% 0.82 B
42 82.71 1.00% 0.83 B
43 83.53 1.00% 0.84 B
44 84.37 1.00% 0.84 B
45 85.21 1.00% 0.85 B
46 86.06 1.00% 0.86 B
47 86.93 1.00% 0.87 B
48 87.79 1.00% 0.88 B
49 88.67 1.00% 0.89 B
50 89.56 1.00% 0.90 B
51 90.45 1.00% 0.90 A
52 91.36 1.00% 0.91 A

It turns out that 1 %improvement per week is enough to go from getting 55 out of 100 points (an F) to 92 out of 100 points (an A) by the end of the year. Nour’s 1% rule was right. But let's say your class is semester-based, and you don’t have a whole year. Well, if you can improve by just 2% a week,  you’ll get to an A by the end of the semester.

Grade scale At or above      
A 90      
B 80      
C 70      
D 60      
F 50      
         
Week  Test points % improvement Amount of improvement Grade
1 55.00 2.00% 1.10 F
2 56.10 2.00% 1.12 F
3 57.22 2.00% 1.14 F
4 58.37 2.00% 1.17 F
5 59.53 2.00% 1.19 F
6 60.72 2.00% 1.21 D
7 61.94 2.00% 1.24 D
8 63.18 2.00% 1.26 D
9 64.44 2.00% 1.29 D
10 65.73 2.00% 1.31 D
11 67.04 2.00% 1.34 D
12 68.39 2.00% 1.37 D
13 69.75 2.00% 1.40 D
14 71.15 2.00% 1.42 C
15 72.57 2.00% 1.45 C
16 74.02 2.00% 1.48 C
17 75.50 2.00% 1.51 C
18 77.01 2.00% 1.54 C
19 78.55 2.00% 1.57 C
20 80.12 2.00% 1.60 B
21 81.73 2.00% 1.63 B
22 83.36 2.00% 1.67 B
23 85.03 2.00% 1.70 B
24 86.73 2.00% 1.73 B
25 88.46 2.00% 1.77 B
26 90.23 2.00% 1.80 A
27 92.04 2.00% 1.84 A

Many people struggle with believing that getting an A in a math class, particularly a class as complex as calculus, is fully under their control, as the above tables would suggest. They just tend to have trouble getting out of the fixed mindset, which suggests that there are “math people” with a talent for math for whom math classes are just far easier to comprehend.

But Angela Duckworth, who I referenced earlier, offers up a nice “performance formula” to address this concern, which I initially was exposed to in the Psychology Podcast by Scott Barry Kaufman.

I wrote about it in an earlier blog article, but I’ll recreate it here because I just find it so powerful and important for students to digest, internalize, and believe.

PERFORMANCE = SKILL X EFFORT.

This means that how well you do is a function of how much skill you have AND how much effort you apply. I find this intuitively true.

But now, let’s explore what skill is really all about.

SKILL = TALENT x EFFORT.

Skill is a function of two things. First, it has something to do with talent, which Duckworth describes as the factor that is driven by genetic makeup and natural ability. However, skills are also a function of how much effort you put into building skills. Practice builds skills, and practice requires effort.

By doing a little algebra, we get to –

Performance = [TALENT x EFFORT] x EFFORT, which reduces to –

Performance = TALENT x EFFORT2

What this means is that effort is twice as important as talent when it comes to explaining success. So, if you want to earn that A in a complex math class, rest assured that your commitment to working hard is going to be more important than your “natural” math ability.


I cannot underestimate the importance of believing deeply in the power of making small, incremental improvements.  These improvements can and do accumulate over time. Before too long, you can become and expert at academic subjects you had previously considered extremely confusing and frustrating to understand.