“My academic experience of high school was terrible,” says Vivek Kumar bluntly. “I pretty much failed quite a lot of subjects. I failed maths and chemistry.”

It wasn’t until university – where he studied neuroscience – that he began to understand that it is how you study and the tools you use that have the greatest bearing on learning outcomes and engagement.

So, with friend Hamish Parbhu, Kumar has set out to change that for today’s high school students with the creation of QuickSense, a personalised learning tool that ultimately aims to change the way students study.

QuickSense works a bit like this: a student logs in and is provided with questions or problems to solve. Based on how well they answer the questions, QuickSense can gauge where the student’s strengths and weaknesses lie. For concepts the student hasn’t grasped well yet, the questions will continue at an easier level, but more frequently. For concepts the student is mastering, the questions become more contextualised and based on real-world application. Each student has their own personalised set of questions that are specifically tailored for them.

Meanwhile teachers can see where the individual and collective strengths and weaknesses lie in their classes. Teachers can also see where and why students have made mistakes. Students are given a chance to explain where they think they went wrong and teachers can help drill down into their working.

While QuickSense is aligned with The New Zealand Curriculum, its main focus is not so much about teaching to the NCEA exam at the end of the year but more about making learning relevant to various contexts and real-world applications. By taking this approach, better NCEA results typically follow anyway.

“QuickSense is flexible enough that it can help students get from ‘Not Achieved’ all the way to ‘Excellent’,” says Kumar, “At the same time, it’s not necessarily about achievement standards but rather about giving students an understanding that their education can be applied to everything in their life.”

Research shows that students typically achieve better results when learning is personalised. The duo did their homework before embarking on their new venture.

“On average personalised learning helps improve a student’s grades by 22 per cent,” says Kumar. “While this doesn’t translate exactly to NCEA, it just shows the power of how designing education around the student can really help the student’s learning and engagement.”

He’s right. There are many examples strewn across New Zealand and overseas to support the case for individualised learning. But the challenge has always been how to make this a reality in a class of kids at all different levels.

“In a classroom a teacher often has to teach to the average – it’s hard to cater for students’ differing levels of progress. There’s not enough flexibility in the classroom for the teacher to say, I’m going to create content that’s going to challenge you no matter what level you’re at’.”

QuickSense aims to provide a solution for teachers. It is currently operational in STEM-based subjects, but they are looking at rolling out to commerce subjects and eventually to the arts – although they are mindful that a different approach might need to be taken for these subjects.

The timing for the launch of a tool like this is spot-on. The NCEA Review is showing all the signs of moving away from ‘teaching to the test’ and more towards contextualised and individualised project-based learning. QuickSense plays perfectly into this sort of approach.

“With the NCEA Review coming up, we know that exams are going to change in some form or another, but what you learn is largely going to remain the same so what we’re trying to place the emphasis on not studying for the test, but rather for the context,” says Kumar.

They’re looking at developing this concept further with a feature called Learning Paths, which allows students to tailor their learning to particular courses, problems or vocations.

For now though, their immediate focus is on getting the nitty gritty right to suit the needs of teachers and students. It appears they’re doing something right, owing to the positive feedback they’re hearing from schools.

They’re currently working with 22 secondary schools, mainly in Auckland, and more recently in Hamilton. They’ve had some interest from Wellington schools, too. Macleans College, Green Bay High School, Sir Edmund Hillary Collegiate, Epsom Girls’ Grammar and Hamilton Girls’ High School are among those to experience QuickSense so far. They hope to work with over 100 schools by next year.

“Students love it,” says Kumar, “It makes it easier to study as well. Right now [study] feels more like a chore than something we care about.”

Epsom Girls’ Grammar teacher Eujine Kim says she is using QuickSense as a “do now” for her students.

“My students like it because it helps them remember what we covered before – it’s great for retention.

“I also like minimal input from teachers to run it – we are overloaded as it is! Once we put our course timeline in, then that’s it. I monitor students’ progress every day and I am planning to have short tutoring sessions soon.

“There are a few changes or improvements I hope to see but I think it is a great start. Vivek and his team are great too – so friendly and efficient!”

Kumar says they’ve been intrigued with the different approaches to personalised learning and are enjoying learning more themselves.

“I think it’s really cool to play in this ecosystem of building the future of education.”

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