Can skills grouping help adults learn better online? Startup Thinkful gives it a shot

If you sign up for a class on Coursera, complete lessons on Codecademy, or use another online learning platform, chances are, you’re mostly going it alone. Yes, students interact with each other on online forums, through peer grading and, occasionally, in offline meetups. But, for the most part, students travel at their own pace with minimal accountability to a group — and, in those models, many students ultimately drop out.

To help keep students engaged and able to progress at their own speed, startup Thinkful is bringing skills grouping or student tracking – an often-debated practice in K-12 education — to the adult world of online learning. Backed by Peter Thiel, the startup charges students $300 a month for a customized program that combines one-on-one tutoring with existing online learning resources from sites like Khan Academy, Treehouse and Codecademy. In an effort to boost completion rates and student motivation, the company will next week launch “Skills Groups” of 10 to 40 students who are organized according to different skill levels.

In K-12 education, tracking is supported by advocates who say it enables students at a similar skill level to push each other ahead. But critics argue that it can stigmatize students and limit their future options.

“[On Thinkful], the adult self-selects their group so the benefits of the tracking-style system are there, but it’s at your own discretion,” said Darrell Silver, a co-founder of the company.

Before starting a class on Thinkful (which, at this point, is limited to coding), students complete a skills assessment, which enables the startup to create a custom curriculum. Then, they’re assigned to a mentor, as well as a Skills Group of peers at their level. As students progress, they check in with their mentor and group weekly, but can decide to move into a faster or slower group, depending on how quickly they’re mastering the material and the demands of their schedule.

The hope, said Silver, is that the Skills Groups serve as a checks-and-balances mechanism for keeping students plugged into the class, while also providing extra support. Students can ask peers questions related to the content they’re covering that week or review and process material together. In testing the groups, the company said it’s seen a 40 percent increase in student participation in online communities and completion rates of their courses.

Given the potentially solitary nature of online learning, as the field evolves, it’s a positive sign to see more startups trying out different ways of bringing the power of peer pressure and support to bear. For example, earlier this year, NovoEd (yet another MOOC startup created by a Stanford professor) launched with the goal of putting small groups at the center of an online learning experience. And Codecademy is beta testing groups organized by interest, location and level.