How to Make Learning Easier than Cheating

How to Make Learning Easier than Cheating

Image credit: Shutterstock/Roman Pelesh

This is a follow up to ‘Building an educational app? Read this first’. At Socratic, we’ve spent 3 years building educational products for high-school students. Here are some of the lessons we’ve learned.

Everyday, high school kids in the US spend 7 hours at school, a couple of hours doing extracurricular activities, and then go home to do 3 hours of homework.

In all, a third of a student’s total time spent studying, and often a meaningful portion of their grade, is based on self-directed, unsupported learning.

Over the course of hundreds of interviews and user-tests with high-school students, we’ve learned that while doing homework, students face the following set of decisions:

Getting to the last step, “Copy an answer!”, doesn’t serve anyone - the student fails to learn the material and will do poorly on a future test, the teacher isn’t alerted that the student needs help, and the student is awarded an inaccurate grade that is unfair to others.

We must stop students from hitting step (4), but how do we do that?

We can catch them on the previous steps. Educators, administrators, parents, and policy-makers are thinking deeply about changes to teaching and assessment, addressing steps (1) and (3). As entrepreneurs, we have an opportunity to affect step (2) - helping students learn the material they need on their own.

Today’s situation in education has a parallel to the entertainment industry in the 2000s. Piracy boomed as demand for digital music, movies, and games surpassed the options for convenient access. This trend eventually reversed in the 2010s, as Pandora, Spotify, and other services made it cheap and easy for consumers to legally access great content.

It turned out that “pirates [were] underserved customers”. Similarly, we believe most cheaters are underserved students. Students are living in the education equivalent of a pre-Spotify world.

Today, the ways students learn on their own is inequitable: some students have tutors, some have parents who can help, some have smart friends, many have no one. Even if a student is genuinely motivated to learn, it’s difficult to do this at home without help. If you don’t believe this, ask a teacher how many of their students can learn new concepts on their own from their textbooks. The most dominant educational tool for students is Google, and when students Google homework-related questions, the content they find is often hard to understand, unreliable, and not focused on teaching.

If we want students to learn on their own, we need to do better. We’ve thought hard about how student-focused apps and services could better serve struggling students, and have boiled it down to three key ideas.

Easy to access

Doing homework is stressful enough without having to spend hours looking for the right help. Help students get to content faster by making apps fast, intuitive, and flexible.

  • Speed is a feature. The importance of loading speed, especially on phones, cannot be overstated. According to Google, users quickly abandon apps that load too slowly. In our tests, 40% of educational pages take more than five seconds to load on phones!
  • Allow photo and voice input. Improvements in AI technologies are making voice and photo input increasingly more accurate. Both allow students to get their question into an app faster, meaning less time spent searching.
  • Design for phones. It’s clear that mobile phones are the device of choice for students. We need to design educational products that are native to mobile, and feel and work like the services teenagers use all the time.

Easy to trust

Students judge educational content by its perceived ‘return on investment’, and ask themselves: “Will I learn what I need from this content if I invest the time?” Students should be able to quickly judge the value of the content to their learning.

  • Don’t bury the lede. Newspapers have known for a long time that readers have short attention spans and need to be engaged immediately. Unfortunately, education content has often treated students as captive readers.
  • Put your content front and center. As an example of what not to do, try finding the answer to the question on this page.
  • Split content into small chunks. Ten 2-minute videos are better than one 20-minute video. And be thoughtful in how you name content. A title should give students as much context as possible: Finding the Inverse of a 3 x 3 Matrix using Determinants and Cofactors is a better title than Example of finding matrix inverse.

Easy to understand

Finally, content must be easy to learn from. A student reading the content should find it simple, engaging, and educational, all of which is affected by the design of the content.

  • Make content approachable. Avoid jargon, tangents, and lengthy explanations. Sites like Better Explained, the subreddit ‘Explain Like I’m Five’, and the Simple English Wikipedia all focus on simplicity and building intuition instead of presenting all the details.
  • Keep it short. Content needs to look different when you can only fit 150 words on the screen. A typical textbook would take 1,000 swipes to read on a mobile phone. No one wants to do that.
  • Make it visual. The most compelling experiences on phones are highly visual. Use images and animated gifs - they can serve as powerful teaching tools. If possible make use of video, but don’t always assume students are in a place where they can hear the audio.

Homework and other forms of self-directed learning can be stressful and challenging for students, but we believe there are many opportunities to make this process more engaging and valuable.

Content can be made more accessible by being faster to load, designed for phones, and flexible in how students can search for it. Content can be made easier to trust by putting the main points up front, and splitting up and naming content to be more specific to the student’s question. And finally content can be made better for learning by using simple language, visual aids, and keeping it short.

Helping students achieve better educational outcomes is a massive, long-term project. We plan to spend many more years working on it, and we’d love to hear from and engage in conversation with educators, parents, and entrepreneurs that are working to make learning easier.

Shreyans Bhansali is the co-founder and CTO of Socratic, and was previously the 1st employee at Venmo. Chris Pedregal is the co-founder and CEO of Socratic, was among the Forbes 30 under 30 for education, and previously worked at Google on Google Maps, GMail, and Google Now.

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