Tips for exam day

To say that exams are stressful is an understatement – the horror can stay with us for the rest of our lives. I calculate that there are over 6.5m GCSE and A level exams taken every year, this adds up to a whole lot of pain.

So you’ve done as much revision as you meaningfully can. What tips can an examiner give you? Well, these are from George Turnbull, the Exam Doctor.

Before the exam:

  • Know when and where your exams are being held.
  • Check your equipment, make sure that it is in good working order, and know what is to be provided by your school.
  • Check you don’t have two exams at the same time. Special arrangements need to be made.
  • Don’t cheat or break any rules. You could be disqualified or even arrested. Mobile phones are a menace and barred from the exam hall. Don’t take one in.
  • Have a leisurely breakfast or lunch and walk to school, if possible. Be there in good time.
  • Avoid friends outside the exam hall. They could confuse you. Keep your thoughts to yourself and concentrate on the exam. That’s why you are there.

 

In the exam room:

  • Take six deep breaths, ignore everyone else and concentrate solely on what you have to do.
  • Have a glucose sweet, to boost energy to your brain – but don’t crunch.
  • Read the instructions on the exam papers carefully – do the appropriate number of questions from the right sections, and answer compulsory questions.
  • Know how many marks each question carries – don’t spend too long on any one. Use the number of marks on the paper as a guide.
  • Read questions carefully before you write anything. Time is allowed for this. Use that time to choose your questions, and write notes on the question paper to help you remember later.
  • Make sure you answer the question asked.  No marks if you don’t.
  • If you run out of time, more marks can be gained by completing your remaining answers in outline only.  State what you would do and how to do it, by outlining your main arguments in an essay – without writing the essay – and by jotting down formulae in science – stating how you would complete the question – without doing the calculations.

 

Good advice, I am sure you will agree. After the exam – no post-mortems. Don’t worry about the exam you have just taken – you can’t do anything about it now.  Put the papers in a drawer and look at them again only when your own grandchildren ask to see them. Concentrate instead on the next exam, where you can influence the result.”

Finally, all that is left is to wish you all good luck in your exams.

 

The secret of exam success

I don’t know about you, learning doesn’t always come easy to me. I recall taking my mock GCSE exams and staring at my revision, wondering why some kids do really well seemingly without trying, whereas for me it was a battle.

There is a great debate about nature versus nurture. Is academic success due to some special chromosome or is to just down to the way you are taught to learn, and the effort you put in.

An article from Matthew Syed has shed some light on the conundrum. He has found that many studies have found that top performers learn no faster than those who reach lower levels of attainment – hour after hour, they improve at almost identical rates. The difference is simply that high achievers practise for more hours. This was a Eureka moment for me, so it’s about the hard yards – structured and regular studying is the secret.

Syed has found further research which has shown that when students seem to possess a particular gift, it is often because they have been given extra tuition at home, by tutors or parents.

This is not to deny that some kids start out better than others – it is merely to suggest that the starting point we have in life is not particularly relevant.

So many kids, develop a mindset that rationalise poor exam results with a feeling that they are somehow not bright enough. This mindset has a way of becoming self-fulfilling, as it leads to a lowering of expectations.

So with so many kids revising for their summer exams, what words of wisdom can we impart? Well, it is as simple as giving plenty of time for revision, covering the subjects as many times as you feel necessary until you feel that you know the answer. If you don’t understand something, then you can visit Tutorhub for some one to one help online, of course.

Good words of advice, I think. Best of luck kids.

 

Vetting & Barring: The end is nigh

Okay, so maybe not a surprise given the scale and scope of the public sector cuts being planned, that something costing £80m would receive particular attention. But it was with some sadness that read that the Vetting & Barring scheme and the ISA (Independent Safeguarding Authority) would be ‘scaled back’.

Formal confirmation is due in the Freedom Bill, but it seems probable that the ISA is to be merged with the Criminal Records Bureau (CRB). So where does this leave parents, as consumers and tutors?

Parents will be disappointed that there will not be a independent website where they can check tutors online, and that noone will be required to be forever vigilant, constantly updating people’s suitability to work with children, when circumstances change. As I see it the problem with CRB checks is that they only reflect the CRB’s information on an individual at a point in time, whereas an ISA check was a much better control as it was similar to a driving license.

As tutors, maybe you are not concerned either way, as the industry is unregulated and there is no requirement per se for private tutors to be CRB checked in any case. The cost of a CRB check is normally met by employers, and you would expect this not to change with the ISA.

What do I think? Well on one hand I was concerned about the whole subjective review process and power seemingly in the hands of a team of bureaucrats. On the other hand, I think that we may have ‘thrown the baby out with the bathwater’ – does child safety come with a price? Would the ISA have stopped Ian Huntley, if you think like me that it would, then surely we will have got the balance between personal freedom and child safety wrong.

The devil will be in the detail, and maybe the Freedom Bill will keep some of the features of ISA registration, in which case I may feel much more comfortable about it.
Only time will tell.

Online tutoring: what next for Tutorvista?

Pearson’s acquisition of Tutorvista made the news last week. I the light of this, what next for this business and for online tutoring in general.

Online tutoring as received a fair amount of funding in recent years. This is a relatively new market-space, with Tutorvista only 5 years old. Until recently there were six VC funded online tutoring businesses: Tutorvista (who raised $80.8m), Globalscholar ($42m), Grockit ($17.7m), Cramster ($9m), Tutor.com ($13.5m) and Edufire ($1.7m).

In the period Oct ‘10 to Jan ‘11 four of these businesses were subject to trade sales:

  • Tutorvista was acquired by Pearson (business valuation $215m)
  • Global Scholar by the Scantron Corporation ($140m)
  • Cramster by Chegg (value undisclosed)
  • Edufire was also sold to Camelback Education Group (price undisclosed)

Only Grockit and Tutor.com remains unsold.

Assuming that the acquiring businesses wish to grow these businesses, we should expansion particularly in the US. Interestingly, Pearson says that it is more interested in the growing markets. John Makinson, chairman of Pearson India said that the “acquisition underlines Pearson’s commitment to education and skills development in India. The investment in TutorVista gives us control of the world’s largest online tutoring business and, crucially, a solid platform on which to build a leading presence in the Indian private schools sector.”

Integrating small technology based businesses in large corporates puts stresses on the acquired companies. These businesses require further investment and they will be judged shoulder to shoulder with existing and known business units. So whilst there is great scope for expansion, we’ll have to wait and see what actually happens.

In the meantime, Venture Capitalists will be interested in this segment, particularly in traditional markets like the UK. Have I told you about Tutorhub?

Top Online Tutoring Websites

I thought that it would be useful to provide a list of the top online tutoring websites.

This list has been produced after hours of internet research, and is produced for information on a best endeavours basis. I have included both online tutoring websites and online homework / assignment help websites.

In alphabetical order the list of 29 websites is as follows:

  • Transtutors.com

I think it likely that I may have missed off a few websites, if so apologies. Please feel free to add them via blog comments below. Inclusion on the list has been subjective, and dependent on Google rankings and how active the websites appear.

The most popular online tutoring websites are: Tutorvista, Tutor.com, Smarthinking, Growingstars and e-Tutor. It would be interesting to hear if there were any market statistics that backed this up though.

It’s interesting that these websites are based in India and the US. I should declare that I am a co-founder of Tutorhub.com (a UK based website) which is also included in the above list.

UK Online Tutoring websites

Okay, so there are Indian and US based online tutoring websites that have achieved some level of scale and popularity. In the US, Tutor.com leads the field and in India Tutorvista is probably the best known of a clutch of businesses. Neither have taken off in the UK, possibly due I think to a reluctance to use overseas based tutoring services.

In what is a slightly different market we have homework help businesses. At one end of the market we see Cramster, based in the US, who address specific learning needs rather than long-term tutoring needs. This type of service addresses what I regard as micro-tutoring. At the other end of the homework help market, we see just about every educational publisher’s revision and study guides.

I have been looking at the world of online tutoring in the UK, and found surprisingly few businesses in this market.

A simple ‘UK online tutoring’ website search shows the top 3 as:

  • Whizz.com (MathsWhizz) delivering animated lessons via an ‘intelligent tutoring system designed to simulate the behaviour of a human tutor’ for 5 to 13 year olds for £19.99 per month. So not person to person tutoring in the traditional sense.
  • Hometutoringonline which offers ‘world class 1-to-1 private online tutoring’ via a ‘virtual classroom consisting of an award winning interactive whiteboard, chat and VoIP’.
  • Hometutors which delivers pre-arranged online tutoring by an interactive whiteboard.

So what’s happening – are there any online tutoring start-ups worth looking at?

With a legal entity based in the UK, Brightsparkeducation has recently re-launched an offshored online tutoring model using tutors residing in India (a la Tutorvista) and seems to be making progress in selling services direct to Schools. The costs of selling anything into the public sector are significant and the effects of the UK budget cuts are yet to be understood, but there is a market there, I believe.

Whilst I am talking about new businesses Dizeo.com is worth a mention, as it offers unlimited online homework assistance as part of social networking for kids. It’s not free of course, although cheap enough with questions costing 50p each. I can only assume that the monthly subscriptions enable them to cover the tutor costs. The UK national minimum wage is £5.93 per hour, so a 50p credit is worth 5 minutes, not that long for hands-on help.

Other businesses offering online tutoring are: Examfox (which also provides a limited set of online resources and videos), Livetutor and Meteoronlinelearning.

There are a number of traditional tutoring businesses offering online tutoring as an add-on service. The Mathsdoctor has a formal technology platform, whereas many other agencies connect tutors to students, leaving them to make their own arrangements – most commonly via Skype.

Our Tutorhub.com is a different offering, we are focusing on the kid and parent mass market. Unlike these other websites, we are a homework help Q&A website, where kids can ask questions for free to other kids or pay from tuition from online tutors. Customers get to choose from tutors who offer to help with their question. The choice is theirs.

Tutorhub is using instant messaging technology , for one reason only – because kids told us that they preferred it to whiteboards and skype. Another key differentiator is that Tutorhub uses only UK based and CRB checked tutors – and its our experience that there is a large supply of teachers and under / post graduates willing to work from home and tutor kids.

I would love to hear from anyone who knows of other online tutoring start-ups. Feel free to comment here.

Micro-tutoring: Chewing the fat

“Micro-tutoring? Whassat then?”

Good question.

Some debate in the office today over how to pigeonhole a brand new concept. Born out of our frustration with the shortcomings of private tuition, micro-tutoring takes a deliberate step to the side and a huge stride forward, leaving traditional forms of tutoring lagging in its wake. Why? because there’s so much wrong with the system as it stands.

Up until now, parents have had scant few choices when it comes to getting their children the extra help they need; they can employ a private tutor, they could try an online tutoring service or they could ship their kids out to the library and spend hours trawling through websites looking for the answers they need.

These things don’t come cheap; private tutoring and online sessions are usually planned out in hour-long blocks over several months to make it worthwhile for both tutor and pupil. That’s the monetary cost, but consider the amount of time and energy invested into making those sessions possible. Parents have to find the tutor, work out if they’re up to the job and be prepared to welcome them into the family home each week. The whole process can prove a real drain.

Micro-tutoring cuts out all the hassle. It delivers tasty morsels of expert advice to hungry brains at the teachable moment in real time, online. It’s a please-all solution; students just get the help they need without the unwanted extras, tutors are opened up to a vast new market and parents save time and money.

Add to this the convenience of the whole thing being played out over the internet and everyone goes home happy. Or is it stays home happy?

Consider this – we’re all familiar with the philosophy behind micro-breweries and farmers markets, right? No? Well, micro-breweries sprang up in the 1970′s in good old Blighty as a backlash to mass-marketed large-scale commercial brewing, offering quality and diversity over mass-production and standardisation. Hurrah!

Likeswise, farmers markets were set up to cut out out the middleman, supplying fresh local produce at its most flavoursome – juicy titbits delivered direct to the people that needed them, as they needed them.

It’s the progressive attitude and flexible approach of micro-industries that we have taken and applied to tutoring. Thus, when you choose micro-tutoring, you’re not making a long-term commitment to a private tutor, you’re not paying a monthly fee for regimented learning. You’re choosing convenience. You’re choosing instancy. You’re choosing digestible, targeted help.

Since the tutoring is delivered in fun-size portions, there’s no reason it shouldn’t be paid for as such. Micro-tutoring works on a pay-as-you-go basis, not in hour long blocks or monthly subscriptions: it works by the minute.

Micro-tutoring takes a huge bite out of the billion hour problem.

Micro-tutoring, yum.

Introducing micro-tutoring

Cast your mind back to that time when you’re sat there, struggling with a concept you just don’t get. It could have been percentages, or it could have been reflection/refraction. You’ve reached the point where your brain has started to fog and frustration is creeping in. Just at that moment, a teacher, a parent or a friend says, ‘are you ok?’.

You mumble a few words. It’s obvious what’s going on, so they sit down and quietly take you through it. One-to-one. Step by step. It doesn’t take long, but the fog clears and the magic words appear on your lips, ‘Ah-ha!’. You get it, the eureka moment, it ‘clicks’.

But how many times did the teacher, the parent or the friend not step in, leaving you with a legacy of frustration and reduced confidence? How many times did you refuse help so you didn’t look stupid in front of the class?

And think of the converse for a moment. Have you ever sat there whilst a teacher or a tutor continues to explain something when you’ve already ‘got it’, simply because the class isn’t finished yet or because the tutoring session lasts an hour and it’s only 20 minutes in? Not quite as frustrating, but almost.

In an ideal world, you’d get help only when you needed it. A cupboard at home, full of tutors who can step out, explain things and then disappear the moment it ‘clicks’.

OK, so tutors won’t live in a cupboard, and it would have to be a pretty large one to accommodate a tutor for every subject, but many parents naturally understand how quickly frustration can turn into low confidence and low achievement, so back in the real world, they find tutors to re-teach what’s already been covered in class and hope that it ‘clicks’.

It would take too long and cost too much to cover every subject, so the focus is on trickier subjects, like maths and science. The tutoring is generally delivered in multiple one-hour sessions, because otherwise it’s not worth it for either parent or tutor. No mention here of the person who gets the tutoring.

Why? In financial terms, it’s fairly obvious why the tutor might want longer, more frequent sessions but what about the parent? The answer lies in the effort associated with getting a new tutor; the time taken to find one, the time taken to evaluate whether they’re any good or not, the emotional cost of inviting someone new into your home. Think in these terms and it’s equally obvious why parents don’t want to repeatedly find tutors, just when their children need help. In economic terms, parents are satisficing.

But take away the effort of searching for a tutor, add in a simple way to evaluate them*, make it economic for tutors to deliver tuition in small bursts and you have a solution that works for everyone: students (who only get taught when they need it), parents (because it’s more cost effective and less time consuming) and tutors (because it creates a big new market).

We do this using a combination of real time web technology and a fundamentally different process. Call it micro-tutoring. Grameen Bank changed the way credit was evaluated to make it economic to lend in small amounts and thereby created micro-finance. Twitter created micro-blogging using real time web technology to make it effective to deliver a stream of relevant, personal, real-time information.

Tutorhub changes the way we search for tutors, evaluate tutors and deliver tutoring – making it efficient to deliver tutoring in small bursts, just when it’s needed.

Thus the micro-tutoring market is born.

* parents have no way of evaluating whether a tutor is any good or not. They rely on clues: is he/she in demand, are they recommended etc. In other words, they rely on a phenomenon known as social proof. Our recommendation algorithm delivers a superior form of evaluation.

Tutorhub featured by the BBC

Tutorhub, our new website designed to make finding homework help a darn sight easier, has just been featured on BBC Radio Bristol’s drive-time show, hosted by Ben Prator.

Spreading the word is always a challenge for new businesses, so I was very pleased when I received the call on Friday from the BBC in Bristol. They had heard about the website and asked me to come in and tell their radio listeners all about it.

The BBC were very interested in the issues of finding homework help and getting support from tutors. They were curious about the technology we were using and how quickly homework questions would be answered.

What was strange was entering the BBC West newsroom and seeing all of the journo’s and weathermen at work. Rather surreal, like something from a dream.

The interview went well though I think. If you want to listen to the interview, click Tutorhub Radio Bristol 13 Nov 2010.

Tutorhub – What’s the problem we are trying to solve?

It happens to the best of us.

We all get stuck once in a while and need that little extra help to see us over the high hurdles. For kids, struggling with homework can be a real source of worry and frustration, leading to feelings of inadequacy which can be highly damaging to their confidence and self esteem.

Many parents already look outside the education system and make use of home tuition to top-up learning, but this alone is not without its obstacles. It’s easy to see why so many of us take the decision to get help – perennial concerns over expanding class sizes, failing schools and general education standards are all factors.

Private tuition is a growing trend amongst parents wanting to help their kids keep up at school, compete for places at the best schools or revise for exams. Identifying the need for extra help is one thing but there are still hurdles to jump – not least finding a private tutor.

Though seemingly convenient, home tutoring requires a good deal of organisation and deep pockets; parents must first find the time to both locate good tutors and fit sessions into already busy family schedules – not to mention find a way to fund the whole operation.

Problems even finding home tutors mean that some kids simply never get the support they need. Those already benefiting from face to face tutoring agree there is no ‘one size fits all’ solution to supporting kids outside of school.