Get smart with phone app, SMS Tutor, aimed at helping exam students

Frank McNamara with his sons

Helen O’Callaghan talks to former TV musical director Frank McNamara about his phone app aimed at helping Leaving Cert and Junior Cert students study for their exams.

IT wasn’t the kind of text a dad usually sends his teenage son – “The slow movement of the Mozart Piano Concerto is in F sharp minor. This is the only time Mozart ever wrote in that key.”

Composer and pianist Frank McNamara was texting his twin sons, Frankie and Quincy. It was February 2014 and the two were studying for their Leaving Cert mock exams.

“Throughout the afternoon, I was sending them texts on their phones — little snippets of information about their music course. They found them very helpful,” says McNamara, who is married to barrister and former RTÉ presenter Theresa Lowe.

In the middle of this, a friend asked Frank how his sons were doing with their Leaving Cert studies.

“I said if I could get their heads out of their phones and into a book, they’d have some chance.” And then he had a moment. 

“Teenagers are addicted to their phones, obsessed with them. As parents we fight with our teens — taking the phones off them, limiting their use. I realised this is the wrong way. The way to go is to embrace their love of the phone and put their schoolwork into their phones.”

This was the birth of SMS Tutor, which McNamara says is the world’s first mobile learning system for secondary school students. 

It’s built on the idea that the brain can more easily transmit information to long-term memory if it’s received as snippets of key points – SMS Tutor supports students to retain information, almost subliminally. It follows a flashcard approach. 

The student signs up for a subject(s) – SMS Tutor offers 16 Leaving Cert subjects, 11 Junior Cert and six Transition Year — and receives a text message containing a key point of the syllabus every day of the school year.

“When you read a textbook, the problem is you lose a chunk of the information within three hours, another chunk in 24 and, after 72 hours, only 22% is left. It’s called the forgetting curve. Whereas if you learn bite-sized chunks of information each day, the brain has 24 hours to process it – it goes straight to long-term memory.

“If a teacher is teaching a topic and turns around to write the salient, core point on the board, that’s the SMS Tutor text right there,” explains Frank.

A research trial conducted by educational psychologist Deirdre Griffin with 34 teen students found that with the SMS Tutor system of daily texts, students scored 40% better than those without texts and were four times more likely to remember details.

“In a Leaving Cert context, that’s the equivalent of an extra 25 points per subject,” points out McNamara. Griffin has described SMS Tutor as the “closest thing to learning by osmosis”.

Since its inception over a year ago, almost 2,000 students here have signed up – equal numbers of Leaving and Junior Certs and of boys and girls. Tutors are qualified in teaching the curriculum. “They have the inside track,” says former Late Late Show musical director McNamara. 

On average, students opt for between two and three subjects – cost per subject is €5 a month. Among Leaving Cert students, biology is the most popular subject —“the course is massive, there’s a huge amount to remember,” says McNamara — followed closely by maths and Irish. Home economics and art are also popular.

Sample SMS Tutor texts in biology include “a good experiment should be carefully planned/be carried out safely/include a control/be free from bias (prejudice)” and “edaphic factors are factors pertaining to soil, e.g. soil pH, soil type (loam/clay)”. 

Examples of SMS Tutor texts in Leaving Cert history include “the War of Independence had 3 phases: the campaign against the RIC; the struggle between the IRA and the Black and Tans and the use of IRA flying columns” and “by June 1921 the conflict had cost the British Government over £20 million and the behaviour of the Black and Tans had become an embarrassment”.

McNamara explains that SMS Tutor is meant to be a companion to formal school teaching rather than to replace it. He describes the CAO points system as “dreadful” and says when students miss out on points, most don’t miss out by 100 but by 10 or 20. 

“This relates to the purpose of SMS Tutor. If a student can go from a C3 to a C2, that’s an extra five points. If they do that across six subjects, they get their first choice.”

Many of the students availing of the service signed up last September – there was another upsurge of interest when the Christmas test results went home. Now SMS Tutor has launched an exam cram package. 

“It’s available in all Leaving and Junior Cert subjects. It means getting five texts a day for 20 days – 100 texts in total,” says McNamara. Each subject pack costs €20 with three costing €50.

Last year, McNamara had his twins do five subjects with SMS Tutor over a two-month period. “They went from an average between them of 180 points in the Christmas exams to Frankie getting 385 points and Quincy gettinggetting 435 in the Leaving Cert. They both got their first choice courses.”

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Minimise stress

Tamara O’Connor, learning support psychologist at Trinity College Dublin, says some stress gets you motivated and gets your brain working in top gear. “But too much stress stops optimum functioning,” she says.

She recommends:

* Introduce balance. Turn negative thoughts into positive coping ones. Instead of ‘there’s so much to review and not enough time’, re-frame ‘we’ve covered this in class so I’ll make some points about x’.

* Re-frame so you take responsibility. Rather than saying ‘I should be up in my room studying’, say ‘I want to spend more time on my English’.

* Set specific, measurable goals for each study session and try to have an output, e.g: ‘I’m going to write five points about Othello’s character’ or ‘I’m going to do this maths problem without looking at the book’. By creating something we remember it better.

* Get familiar with the format of exam — familiarity lends confidence and reduces anxiety.

* Turn distractions into rewards — instead of ‘I’ll just check Facebook, then I’ll do x’, try saying ‘I’ll do 40 minutes on x, then check Snapchat or get a cup of tea’.

* Studying can be lonely. Parents should be proactive with their support. Rather than instructing ‘go and study’, ask ‘how can I help you to study’. Perhaps you can quiz your child on a topic in history or ask them what they’re going to write about Pride and Prejudice.

* Parents can also help keep things in perspective and to manage expectations. Encourage them to think in terms of effort and doing their personal best.

* Maintain balance — sleep and exercise help memory, attention, and concentration.


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