Starting the New Year Right

Another new year has arrived, heralding new trends, new opportunities and new challenges. As the last of the post-Os celebrations die down, some fresh JC students looking forward to the next step in their academic career have resolved to build a strong foundation for this critical 2-year marathon. Others, responding to less than desired Promotional Examination results, might be anxious to address their flaws in understanding and technique in time for the crucial moment about eleven months from now. Either way, the reality of our competitive educational climate and the limitations of school teaching and self-study often lead students to seek an effective tutor as a force multiplier.

One of the important choices these students must make is whether to engage the services of a personal tutor, or to enrol in a group tuition class offered by the myriad tuition providers, including our vendors, GeneralPaper.com.sg and Economic Focus. While there is of course no universal recommended choice, and individual tuition is essential for certain specific student types, this article contends that the vast majority of tutor-seeking JC students do themselves a great disservice if they dismiss group tuition out of hand. Indeed, the main disadvantage of group tuition is substantially overstated, and there are significant benefits to it that should not be overlooked.

The main criticism levelled against group tuition is the relative lack of personal attention afforded to students.

Against: Lack of Individual Attention

The main criticism levelled against group tuition is the relative lack of personal attention afforded to students. There is doubtless no way to equate the undivided attention of a personal tutor over 90-120 minutes to the snatches of attention afforded by a sometimes harried or even overstretched group tutor split amongst multiple students over the same time. There are also some causes of underperformance, sadly far more common at the JC level than they really should be, that are unlikely to be remedied or even identified by a group tutor. These invariably take the form of fundamental weaknesses, such as severe mechanical errors that obfuscate and impede understanding in GP or Arts subjects, or a total failure to understand basic cause and effect. Students who suffer from such shortcomings, yet have found themselves on the A-level track, must engage a private tutor with utmost haste, ideally one with experience in remedying such fundamental weaknesses that the accelerated 2-year JC system is not designed to address.

(Majority of JC) students, who have been deemed by the Exam Board as “university bound”, or at least showing potential for progression to the Baccalaureate level, are expected to and likely to be able to engage in a reasonable level of self-motivated and independent study.

For: Space to Develop Independently

For the vast majority of JC students, however, whose O-level results accurately reflect their level of foundational strength and mastery, the importance of personal attention at the JC level is vastly overstated. Such students, who have been deemed by the Exam Board as “university bound”, or at least showing potential for progression to the Baccalaureate level, are expected to and likely to be able to engage in a reasonable level of self-motivated and independent study. What these students often need to give their results a boost is not the same kind of cosseting that, say, a Primary or Lower Secondary student requires. Rather, they require the effective building and reinforcing of key knowledge, and the imparting of and practice in examination techniques and familiarisation with the “tacit syllabus”. This can be no less effectively done in the small groups of 8-10 preferred by group tutors in a more “consulting-type” role. To insist on forking out for personal attention that is patently unnecessary is not only a waste of valuable resources, but could also build excessive dependency on tutors, reducing the student’s incentive to maximise school resources or engage in any kind of independent work or thinking. This will negatively impact his short and even long-term work ethic. Conversely, a sensitive and astute group tutor will still be alive to the student’s individual needs while giving him the space to develop independently.

While a personal tutor can challenge a student’s views as well, group tuition allows this to happen in what is often a more natural, less strained context, with more diversity in opinions especially in a class of different academic and non-academic backgrounds and interests.

For: Engage in High-Quality Discussion

Besides, there are significant benefits to group tuition, the chief of which is the potential for synergetic high-quality discussion. The opportunity to present and defend one’s point of view before a diverse community of tuition groupmates is invaluable in developing students’ ability to respond to challenges or objections and incentivising students to strive to make the most logically sound and persuasive arguments possible. It also pushes students, especially the more introverted, to overcome any fear or apprehension of making themselves heard, helping them build confidence and become more articulate. While a personal tutor can challenge a student’s views as well, group tuition allows this to happen in what is often a more natural, less strained context, with more diversity in opinions especially in a class of different academic and non-academic backgrounds and interests. The benefits from such a community of learning are particularly marked in the Arts and Humanities or Knowledge Skills subjects such as History and General Paper, but do not stop at the exam, reaching far into the future.

To beat the competition and respond to consumer requirements, group tutors often design their syllabi painstakingly, incorporating local and international best practices to the ultimate benefit of the student. In contrast, the ease and minimal cost of listing on a private tuition agency and the zero overhead required to teach at the student’s or tutor’s premises have led to a not insubstantial number of “casual” private tutors who see tutoring as a temporary job

For: Structured & Effective Curriculum

Group tutors are also more likely to have a structured and effective curriculum, as the high-cost barriers to commencing practice as a group tutor sieve out all but the most dedicated and long-game tutors, who have every incentive to invest in curriculum excellence to achieve consistent results and maintain reputation. Group tutors in today’s competitive market face substantial startup and overhead costs, including but not limited to rental and marketing costs. This dissuades all but the most dedicated and determined of edu-preneurs, while the unforgiving competition, including from oligopolies in some subjects, eliminates all but the most results-effective and the most favoured by students and parents. To beat the competition and respond to consumer requirements, group tutors often design their syllabi painstakingly, incorporating local and international best practices to the ultimate benefit of the student. In contrast, the ease and minimal cost of listing on a private tuition agency and the zero overhead required to teach at the student’s or tutor’s premises have led to a not insubstantial number of “casual” private tutors who see tutoring as a temporary job and, more worryingly, treat it as such. This often results in haphazard teaching of dubious quality. With explicit and “tacit” curriculum quality being key factors in influencing student performance, especially in Arts subjects, it only makes sense for students to seek the most effective curricula, especially considering the substantial resources they have invested in tuition as well as in education in general.

For: Affordable rates, Effective Results

This brings me to the final benefit put forth by this article, one that is arguably eminently apparent. Simply put, group tuition provides the most bang for the buck. Now, I am not necessarily saying that all group tuition is cheaper than all personal tuition. The rates charged by an esteemed and highly effective former senior teacher with international teaching and curriculum planning experience simply cannot be compared to those of a fresh school-leaver who wants to make a quick buck while his 7As remain current. Yet, when one compares apples to apples, he invariably finds that group tuition rates are almost always lower than personal tuition rates for comparable tutors. This is mostly because tutors can capitalise on economies of scale, and also do not charge a premium for personal time, leading to a win-win for both tutors and students. While parents’ love for their children is often such that few costs are too great for their good, the current uncertain economic climate makes this win-win economisation very welcome.

Thus, we have seen how group tuition provides the benefits of a learning community, is more likely to provide a structured and effective curriculum and provides so much more value for money. While the ultimate desirability of group or individual tuition depends on the specific student’s needs and profile, with students with weak fundamentals requiring individual tuition, the majority of JC students are likely to be better off together with appropriately grouped students at an established and effective group tuition provider. Some may say that three is a crowd, but eight to ten may well be the best number for all involved to learn and excel.