Unpacking Sandbox’s secret sauce.

Part 1 — overview

Every tutoring or education provider has their own special sauce. Something they do that makes them different. At Sandbox Learning Australia we use effective tutors, proven approaches, and technology to help our students excel.

Our mission is to create better learners and better teachers. We believe it is important for us to share our learnings so that others can improve what they are doing.

At Sandbox Learning Australia we have 4 key principles in our methodology

  1. Work until you succeed — a mastery based approach
  2. Test yourself — using retrieval practice
  3. Space it out — the benefits of spaced repetition
  4. Mix it up — interleaving concepts for deeper learning
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Over the next 4 blogs, we will dive deeper into each of these principles by answering the following questions

  • What is it?
  • How is it different?
  • Why use this approach?
  • How can I make it useful?

Today let’s cover them at a high level

Work until you succeed — a mastery based approach

The conventional approach to learning is to use a time-based approach. The school syllabus might dedicate 2 weeks to learn fractions. At the end of the 2 weeks students are given a test to see how much they have learned. However, regardless of whether students understand 20% or 100%, the class needs to move on to new things.

In a time-based system, you set the amount of time and hope students learn as much as they can in that time.

Perhaps you can already see the issue with this. As you move from topic to topic knowledge gaps grow and compound. This is a particular challenge for subjects like numeracy and literacy which are cumulative. Not being able to multiply will affect learning about fractions which will affect solving equations and so on.

In a mastery-based system, you set a minimum level of achievement and vary the amount of time needed to reach that level.

At Sandbox students only move on to new material when they have mastered the current material. As each student is different, these hurdles are set with each child based on their goals. On the flip side, if a student can demonstrate they know the content we move on and can re-prioritise the time.

It is about demonstrating competency, not ticking boxes.

Why do we do it?

Research conducted in 1984 showed the students taught using a mastery-based approach performed 1 standard deviation better than students taught in a traditional time-based approach. Looked at differently, an average mastery taught student would beat 84% of traditionally taught students.

More on this in part 2

Test yourself — using retrieval practice

 Image credit: Cult of Pedagogy

Image credit: Cult of Pedagogy

A helpful analogy is to think of the brain as a muscle. If you want to get fitter and stronger you are going to have to put in some effort. You can watch all the videos you want and attend all the fitness lectures your heart desires but it isn’t going to do much on its own. To get stronger you need to stress your muscles by actually lifting things. In response, the muscles will grow.

The same goes for learning. Your brain consists of approx 100 trillion neural connections. As you learn something whether knowledge or a skill, you strengthen these neural connections. In order to strengthen them, they also need to be put under stress, in this case mental stress.

Traditional study techniques such as writing notes, highlighting and underlining are largely ineffective. This is because they don’t impart enough mental stress for your brain. These are all very passive techniques for your brain.

Instead, you should be stressing your brain by recalling information from long-term memory. The form of this can change. Maybe it is writing an essay, performing an experiment, solving maths questions or explaining a concept to another person. The point is that the activity needs to come from your brain and not be referring to notes or study aides.

At Sandbox we expect students to be active in their learning. During lessons, students need to take the lead by answering questions and explaining concepts to us. If tutors are going through worked examples students need to fill in the blanks. After the lesson students are then given homework to reinforce and extend what they have learned in class.

Why do we do it?

In 2011 researchers compared the effectiveness of different study approaches and found that students studying using retrieval practice remembered twice what their peers did on a test a week later.

More on this in part 3

Space it out — the benefits of spaced repetition

Here is education’s worst kept secret. It is something that most educators would prefer not to admit. Cramming works!

If you have a test coming up soon and want to do well (temporarily) then cramming in hours of study before the test will help you improve. If you never have to use that knowledge again and are happy to forget it then go ahead, keep cramming.

However, if you think you might need to remember that information because it will be tested later on such as a half-yearly exam, or just because it is generally helpful to know (like working out which option is a better financial deal) then cramming sucks!

That’s because of the memory loss.

 Image credit: Atlas

Image credit: Atlas

Let’s come back to the exercise example. You could go for an 8 hour run in a ‘cram session’. If you did that however you would overload your muscles. After a certain point your muscles stop getting a benefit from the training. You might find that you are fitter for the next week. However, if you then did nothing for 2 months you will find that all of your gains have melted away.

What if instead of overloading you had broken it up into 30 minute sessions, twice a week. You would find that each week you will get a little bit fitter and faster and so can increase both the pace and distance that you are running. At the end of 2 months you will be in a much better position.

The same is true for learning. When you study you can get your skill or knowledge to 100% of your current level. Spending lots of extra time in one go can’t push you beyond that 100%. And as for your body, when you stop mentally working out you start to forget that knowledge or skill. How quickly you forget is determined by your mental strength of that concept. Each time you mentally work out, hopefully by using retrieval practice, you strengthen the neural connections associated with that knowledge and so will remember it for longer.

And so that’s why it is much better to break study into multiple smaller learning sessions. As an added benefit because each time you practice it takes longer to forget, you can then space out your practice sessions. For example let’s say on day 1 you learn a new set of Chinese characters. One study plan would be to review in one day 2, day 5, day 10, etc…

Keeping track of where each student is along their forgetting curve is an organisational nightmare. At Sandbox we use technology to help track where each student is along their forgetting curve for each of the hundreds of maths concepts they study. This allows our tutors to set automatic reminders for when it is time for a student to revisit a concept.

Why do we do it?

Over 100 years ago a researcher conducting experiments on learning found that our brains forget very quickly without practice — 50% within 30 minutes and 70% within a day. More recent studies comparing a variety of educational techniques have found that spaced-repetition is highly effective and works under many different conditions.

More on this in post 4

Mix it up — interleaving concepts for deeper learning

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Another challenge with traditional schooling is that it is taught in a blocked manner. For example, on Monday you might learn about adding fractions and then have 20 adding fraction questions. Then on Tuesday you learn about multiplying fractions and then have 20 multiplying fractions questions.

With this approach once students figure out how to answer the first few, they can rocket through the rest of them. This causes two issues.

The first is that once questions become easy then answering them doesn’t providing enough mental stress to promote learning. And that’s because your brain doesn’t need to use retrieval to reach back into long-term memory. Instead the information you need is sitting in short-term memory where it can be easily accessed.

The second reason is more subtle. Think about the format of exams. Are they laid out nicely according to each concept? Rarely. In most cases questions are all mixed together.

At Sandbox we think about a hierarchy of learning concepts

  1. Understanding the formula or rule — often a rote learning exercise.
  2. Apply the formula/rule given a question.
  3. Interpreting when to apply the rule — essentially picking the right strategy.

From our experience at Sandbox Learning Australia most of the time the reason why students make errors is not because they can’t apply the strategy correctly (phase 2). The difficulty is often in understanding which strategy should be used (phase 3). That’s why students regularly struggle with word problems — they can’t interpret what the question is actually asking them to do.

The way to help students develop this competency is by giving them mixed homework. When learning a new concept (e.g. adding fractions) perhaps you assign 30% of the homework to that. The rest of it should then deal with revising older concepts. Using this approach forces the student to practice spaced repetition.

But you may protest, if only 30% of the homework is on adding fractions is that really enough practice for them to cement the concepts? No it isn’t, that’s correct.

The point is that tomorrow when you assign homework after learning multiplying fractions, some of those homework questions will also cover adding fractions. And this will continue in future.

Why do we do it?

Research has shown that using an interleaved or mixed approach to practice produces significantly better results on exams than a standard blockedapproach.

The wrap up

So we have come to the end of the beginning. While there is much more to Sandbox Learning than what is outlined above hopefully you have an idea of our core principles. We’d love to hear your thoughts and comments.

If you are a student, parent, or educator what has/hasn’t worked for you. Bonus points if you can share some data to back up the anecdotes.

Jesse Whelan is the Founder and Director of Learning at Sandbox Learning Australia. He is passionate about helping children maximise learning by using effective long term strategies.

Do you, your child or someone you know need maths help? At Sandbox Learning Australia we use the science of learning to deliver maths coaching that is both personalised and effective.

If you are in Sydney please contact us to arrange a free baseline assessment of your child’s strengths and weaknesses.

Jesse WhelanComment