Test, Learn, Adapt- What Might Formula One be able to teach Higher Education?

Higher Education has a lot it can learn from other sectors. After a difficult year for everyone, Vanessa Todman explores what Formula One may be able to teach widening participation evaluation professionals, and what expertise we may be able to share in return.

In 2012, the government published it’s ‘Test Learn Adapt’ paper[i], setting out the argument for embedding randomised controlled trials into public policy. Its argument was a simple one: This way of working is achieving results in areas such as medicine and international development, so other areas should learn from this success. That Higher Education should be learning from other sectors is a big part of our team ethos. A key element of innovation, and the What Works movement, is seeing what is working elsewhere and testing whether it can work for us too.

While I’ve watched in awe as my front-line colleagues have delivered an incredibly difficult first term under Covid-19 restrictions, I’ve also been watching a surprisingly successful Formula One season (given the events of 2020) and I couldn’t help but draw comparisons to the logistical challenges across both experiences. I’ve also been considering what the world of motorsport has to teach us in widening higher education participation. If anyone tests, learns and adapts- it’s Formula One.

We need real-time, detailed data to understand what’s going on

A Formula One driver is not alone on the track. They rely on the voice in their ear telling them how their competitors are doing, how the weather is looking, where they’re fast or slow, and when they need to come in to make a change. In such a difficult year as 2020, managers and teams at King’s have needed the same. They have not been able to do what they did before because there was no year like 2020- and the conditions are still constantly changing amidst uncertainties.

This year we launched the ‘Checking- in’ Survey, four short pulse surveys we’re sending out to students at key points of the academic year to collect real-time information for faculties and senior management in a targeted and collaborative way that minimises the burden on the student. These surveys aim to provide insight into how students are experiencing the year that can be acted on quickly, disseminated to a wide variety of internal stakeholders easily, and allow progress to be tracked. Once the surveys are over we’ll continue to explore the data and what students have told us for useful information for future years – for example if our findings can tell us anything about how students from different backgrounds (including underrepresented groups and those targeted in Widening Participation activity) experienced the 2020-21 academic year in comparison to other students.

Look to the season, as well as the race

Some projects don’t go as planned, that’s okay, it’s just a misstep towards our wider goal. After all, each student isn’t just a participant in a single project, they’re with us for at least three terms, if not three years or more, and their overall experience, and the experience of the students who will come after them, is important too.

One way we’ve been thinking longer term is how we measure students’ sense of belonging. Each year we ask all enrolling students our ‘Settling into King’s’. These questions aim to measure their reported ‘sense of belonging’ to the institution, and again each year that they re-enrol. We share the results of this data with multiple teams to allow them to use consistent measures to evaluate their projects in a joined-up way. You can see an example of how we’ve used this data in the past in our blog on the sense of belonging of Asian students[ii]. We have been collecting it patiently for three years and now we can see the journey of a cohort from start to finish, and evaluate new programmes with the same data. We’re excited about this analysis and aim to share whatever we find more widely later in the year.

What doesn’t work is just as important as what works

As with racing, there’s only so much statistics can do to predict your outcomes and realities. You’re always dealing with probabilities, not certainties, partly because human emotions, perceptions and behaviours play their part too. Probabilities are still useful, especially on a large scale, even a 30 per cent success rate can be a lot of students, and will be better than no success at all, but it does mean we have to accept that no intervention will work for everyone and some things will just go wrong. However, the great sage of Formula One, Niki Lauda, teaches us that we learn just as much, if not more, from our failures than our successes[iii]. If something doesn’t work it’s rarely down to an individual, but something that the team can reflect on, draw lessons from, and improve upon for next time.

Just as sometimes the car just spins off the track, evaluations don’t always go to plan, sometimes your data doesn’t tell you what you needed to know, or (simply) students don’t open the email. Randomised controlled trials in particular can go wrong in an astonishing number of ways. We then change our processes, or try something different[iv], next time.

That said, we’re not in a race, or shouldn’t be

As much as we can learn from Formula One, we’re not in the world of competitive motorsport. When we discover something important, we need to share that information. As professionals striving to address inequalities and make things better for students we have a common goal. It’s no good one university holding all the answers; that’s no use to the groups of students we’re trying to help. That means sharing learning, maybe not the sensitive internal stuff, but certainly ‘this is how you can do this well’. We’ve found more universities have reached out to us during 2020 than ever before and we absolutely welcome it. We are always happy to be a sounding board for an idea, share our experiences or work on joint projects. That’s why we published  our Two Year report.

Maybe there’s something we can teach Formula One about diversity and inclusion

We can’t talk about Formula One without mentioning the diversity issues it’s experiencing. Lewis Hamilton has spoken at length about the lack of working-class[v] and ethnic minority [vi]representation in the sport, as well as other issues. The historic problems they’re grappling with will be recognisable to Widening Participation practitioners, especially in the more historically elite universities. It’s great to see Mercedes announce their partnership with Stemettes at the close of 2020[vii], as well as initiatives such as F1 in schools. As we work to encourage the next generation of engineers and scientists from underrepresented backgrounds to enter Higher Education with our own K+ programme  we’ll keep a watchful eye on the progress on and off the track with keen interest.

*views expressed in this blog are the views of the author


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[i] Haynes, L. Service, O. Goldacre, B. Togerson, D. (2012) Test, Learn, Adapt: Developing Public Policy with Randomised Controlled Trials –  Available at:  https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/test-learn-adapt-developing-public-policy-with-randomised-controlled-trials)

[ii] Completely coincidentally, written by an ex-engineer.

[iii] Paraphrased from Niki Lauda (see ‘Lauda, N. (1986) To Hell and Back: Ebury Digital)

[iv] And by ‘try something different’, I do not mean keep running the analysis until you get statistical significance.

[v] Lewis, N (2018) ‘Lewis Hamilton’s fear for the future of young working class drivers’ : BBC Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/formula1/44682870

[vi] BBC (2018) ‘Lewis Hamilton; Formula 1 ‘barely has any diversity’ says British world champion. Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/formula1/43501543

[vii] Mercedes (2020) ‘Mercedes Launches ‘Accelerate 25’ Diversity & Inclusion campaign’ Press Release. Available at: https://www.mercedesamgf1.com/en/news/2020/12/mercedes-launches-accelerate-25-diversity-inclusion-programme/

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