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E-learning success confounds cynics

Michael Shaw reports on a software package that seems to make GCSE grades jump

An online revision scheme is boosting GCSE results of lower-achieving pupils by an average of three grades, a new study reveals.

It suggests that the system alone can raise the proportion of pupils who gain five good GCSE grades by at least 5 per cent.

The report, published next month, is believed to be the first hard evidence that electronic learning can have a significant impact on exam performance.

Independent researchers analysed data on more than 80,000 pupils, of which 31,000 had been using the revision program SAM Learning, which teaches pupils to mark their work using the same techniques as examiners and reveals how they can score points even when they do not know a full answer (see box).

Lower-achieving students and pupils who used the software the longest benefited most. Average students who used the program for less than two hours saw overall results improve by half a grade; by one grade for between two and 10 hours; and by two grades for more than 10 hours. More interestingly, pupils with below-average attainment at key stage 3 saw their results raised by three grades - equivalent to three Cs rather than three Ds.

Previous studies into the benefits of software have been inconclusive.

However, the Fischer Family Trust researchers who carried out the study, claim it is more robust because it focuses on the value added to individual pupils' grades.

The Government has been criticised over plans to increase expenditure on ICT in education to pound;700 million a year by 2006 because evidence on the impact of computer use has been mixed.

But David Jaffa, managing director of SAM Learning, said the research showed that the Government was right. However, ICT should not be regarded as a panacea. "E-learning is not for everyone," he said. "But those who do like it may be the ones who aren't excited by normal teaching methods."

Queens' school in Bushey, Hertfordshire, is one of more than 900 signed up to SAM Learning and staff there regularly set pupils tasks on the program as homework.

Kerry Clarke, deputy head, said the system had helped in the school's 16 percentage point improvement in GCSE results last year. "Children are naturally competitive," she said. "So they strive to reach the screen that tells them they have achieved 100 per cent on the revision exercise."

Charles Desforges, emeritus professor of education at Exeter university, has carried out research showing that there is no evidence that ICT enhances learning. He described the SAM results as "surprising", but added that a similar effect could be achieved if the pupils had been taught exam-passing techniques by their teachers instead of an online system.


A blunt question from a friend got David Jaffa into the revision business.

He was made redundant from a property firm in the recession of the late 1980s, just after he had qualified as a chartered surveyor.

Uncertain what do next,he asked a university friend for advice. "My friend asked 'What are you good at?' and the only thing I could say was passing exams," Mr Jaffa said. "So he said 'Why don't you write a book about that?'" Within a few months Mr Jaffa had finished the book, How to succeed at exams if you haven't done enough work.

The book sets out the self-assessment method (SAM), which teaches pupils to mark their own work like an examiner.

He developed the book into an online program SAM Learning for more than 30 different subjects and covering Sats, GCSEs and A-levels.

The program often asks pupils to write out answers to exam questions by hand. It then gets them to go through these, pointing out exactly where they can score marks.

Mr Jaffa said: "It's as much about exam technique as content. The classic example is maths, where pupils can get half the marks just by showing their working."

Teachers are provided with reports showing what pupils have been working on, even when they log on at home.

More than 100,000 pupils used the program last year, on average for six hours, with 48 per cent of that time outside school hours.

However, the system is not cheap. Subscriptions cost from pound;699 a year for a small primary to pound;4,499 for a large secondary, although discounts are available and it can be bought using the Government's electronic learning credits.

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