Spot The Key Differences Between Top and Average Students

Over my teaching years, I’ve noticed one very important difference between the answers of top students and those from average students:

Top students already know the answers to the most important questions, whilst weaker students are often still working them out in their answers. Let’s look at the difference between the two to understand what this tells us about how top students study and differentiate themselves.

We’ll need a question to help us. To really highlight the differences, I’ve chosen a mid-level economics question which requires quite some explanation.

Q: What is the link between an interest rate cut and economic growth?

‘Average’ Student’s Answer
>The Central Bank cuts the interest rate.
>The interest rate is the rate at which consumers and firms can borrow and save.
>A lower interest rate means that it is now cheaper to borrow (because you have to pay back less) but less beneficial to save to (because you receive a lower return on your savings).
>Therefore, consumers and firms will be more likely to borrow, and less likely to save. This means that consumers and firms will spend more.
>More spending in the economy means more economic activity, which means that the economy will produce more and therefore grow.

Top Student’s Answer
A cut in the interest rate (the price of borrowing and saving) will boost economic growth. Consumers and firms will likely increase their spending because it is now cheaper to borrow and the return on savings is lower.

Both answers are correct and contain the same key information, but can you spot the differences between them?

1) The stronger student begins by answering the question. In the first line, they correctly show the link between the two. In the second line, they explain this link. But the weaker student does not answer the question until the final line – implying that they did not know it without having to think through it first.

Takeaway #1: Top students know the answers before starting to write.

2) The better answer is more succinct. It contains the same information but contains just 38 words, compared with 100 in the other answer. Ever run out of time in a test? Perhaps it’s because you are thinking on the spot whilst the top students and simply rewriting their revision notes.

Takeaway #2: Top students think less and can write more succinctly, saving them time and energy, or allowing them to go deeper into the question to score higher.

But there is a much deeper point here

I believe that these answers show the fundamental difference between learning and revising.

Learning: Taking on new information
Revising: Returning to this information to improve one’s knowledge of a subject.

I think that the first answer demonstrates the learning process. We LEARN FORWARDS, meaning that, like building blocks, we stack each bit of knowledge in a logical order to reach the final answer.

But once we have learnt a subject, we should REVISE BACKWARDS, meaning that we start from the conclusion (the answer to a question) and then briefly explain how we reached the answer.

Top students use their revision time to compile succinct answers to questions whilst weaker students are still trying to build the steps to those answers. Weaker students never move from the learning process to the revision process, meaning that they not to think about how to apply their knowledge to specific questions. They are more often focused on the steps of how to reach an answer, than the actual answers themselves.

So how do you jump from being a weaker student to a top student?

Easy! You must learn to revise backwards. This is the process of applying what you’ve learnt to specific questions to that you are able to quickly and clearly answer them. Read more about just how to do this.