Can tech trump tuition in the catch-up learning race?

Technology can help students tackle learning gaps and build subject knowledge in ways that traditional tuition can’t

At first glance the worlds of sport and music look to be worlds apart.

In fact, they share one very important common characteristic: the central role sustained practice plays in achieving mastery.

As a (sometimes) competitive fencer and then a 2012 Olympic fencing referee, I had a close understanding of how continuous practice led to excellent performance.

It was the same in the world of music, which I experienced first as a postgraduate at a London conservatoire and then as a semi-professional musician.

I took this philosophy with me when I began my career in education as a peripatetic teacher of maths and science.

And I became convinced that the way I could best help all of my students was to teach them how best to practice towards mastery.

The confidence factor

I worked with many hundreds of students during this time and the common thing holding them back was confidence. Pep talks or pats on the back were not, I believed, an effective way to tackle this lack of confidence in the long-term. It became clear to me that it was far better to equip them with a methodology for practice that would prove to them that they could learn.

This is crucial to learning, exams or no exams. When students build a foundational knowledge and become confident in their ability to recall that information, they gain the capacity to apply knowledge intelligently and make huge strides. These base concepts need to be practised in different combinations to be thoroughly embedded.

The most common way to tackle shortfalls in knowledge or a lack of confidence is tuition. But tuition is a concept I struggle with – even though I once tutored myself. I believe that it’s an inefficient and expensive process, inaccessible to the vast majority of people.

Give students the tools

Rather than the tutor leading the student, I think it’s better to give the student a methodology and tools so they fill their knowledge gaps and build their confidence themselves.

This desire to empower students drove me to use the money I charged my tuition clients – the ones I did charge – to fund the creation of the Tassomai program.

“When students build a foundational knowledge and become confident in their ability to recall that information, they gain the capacity to apply knowledge intelligently and make huge strides”

For me, a technology approach was the best way to tackle the inequality and inefficiency in the private tuition model and help hundreds of thousands of students – rather like developing a great public transport system that moves many as a better alternative to supercars that only a few can afford.

Our learning program takes what is at first glance a quizzing approach, but it’s actually much more than that. The algorithms inside the program diagnose where the student’s misconceptions are, and then serve up questions that focus on filling that student’s knowledge gaps.

At the same time, in areas where students are stronger or showing improvement, they get more challenging material to help embed that knowledge into their long-term memory. People too often see the multiple choice format as reductive, but the power of this content form – breaking down the course material into interactive and bitesize chunks – allows us to really pull apart a student’s knowledge, tailor to their needs, and helps reinforce that learning in multiple ways.

Incremental gains

Technology can also help to incentivise the learner. An important aspect of elite sports is the concept of incremental gains; those tiny improvements which, on their own, look almost insignificant, but when put together can amount to a significant leap in performance. This ability to see changes and improvement is an important part in maintaining student engagement – particularly if they are wrestling with a subject that doesn’t particularly excite them.

In our approach, we have tried to make it easy for students to see how the sum of those incremental gains – in the shape of questions correctly answered – amount to significant improvement through what we call a learning tree. This is a visual representation of a tree which reflects the student’s learning progress.

A student with some way to go towards securing subject knowledge will see a slight sapling. With practice, that sapling will gradually grow into a sturdy and impressive tree. The aim is that the tree provides a true reflection of the student’s knowledge and helps them instantly identify and learn from their more persistent mistakes.

While this is a vivid visual representation of progress that will help to drive a student’s motivation, it’s also a powerful reminder that we are now at the stage where technology can give all students a way of practising towards mastery that is much more effective, intelligent and accessible than traditional approaches to tuition.

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