An Innovative Approach To Competitive Exam Coaching - Interview With Dr. Balaji Sampath, Founder, Ahaguru

Are you looking for the right coaching class for your child who is preparing for IIT JEE or NEET? Here’s help as Dr Balaji Sampath offers some valuable advice and lists out a few preparation tips.

By V Saravana Kumar

An Innovative Approach To Competitive Exam Coaching - Interview With Dr. Balaji Sampath, Founder, Ahaguru

Faced with the challenge of choosing the right competitive exam coaching class for your child? Well, with competition in exams getting tougher, the choice of coaching class is very important as it plays a crucial role in defining your child’s future. AhaGuru is one of the top coaching institutes when it comes to preparing for IIT JEE and NEET, and is known for its innovative teaching methodologies and unique learning techniques. We reached out to its founder and competitive exam coaching expert Dr Balaji Sampath, who has the distinction of being ranked 4th at the national level in IIT JEE in 1990, to know how AhaGuru transforms the lives of thousands of students. Here are some excerpts from the interview:

What made you start AhaGuru, and how has your journey been so far?

I always thought there was a huge gap between learning and its outcome, both in the rural and urban areas. Students either didn’t have access to proper learning resources or lacked confidence. Also, they were under enormous pressure. I was taking IIT coaching classes in Chennai at that time and wanted to make a difference and help the students. I felt the need for a different teaching methodology which would make learning easy and build the confidence of children, and that’s how AhaGuru started.

We started working with around 18,000 schools – including government schools – with the basic principle of making learning enjoyable, helping children learn subject skills, and making them face exams with confidence.

How have competitive exams in India evolved over the years? Do you see them getting tougher?

Competitive exams were always tough. They have now become more competitive. Twenty years ago, there were just around 3,000 students writing the IIT entrance exam. Now there are almost 14 lakh students fighting it out for about 14,000 seats. The numbers are definitely going to increase in the years to come. Such heavy competition automatically increases the stress levels in students.

What are the various competitive exams you focus on? Is the teaching methodology you adopt different for each exam?

We coach students for around 15 entrance exams including IIT-JEE, NEET, VIT and Amrita. But we don’t have a different methodology for each of them. We apply a subject-based teaching methodology which makes the students think the mathematics way or physics way. This helps them develop a good understanding of the subject and gives them the confidence to face exams. We offer live online classes, mentored learning programmes and self-study courses.

Focus a lot on building subject skills.

Are competitive exams such as the IIT-JEE and NEET only for students from top notch schools? Can students from any type of school – like a government school- crack them successfully?

One of the reasons why we started AhaGuru was to make entrance exam coaching more accessible and affordable for students from all backgrounds. With institutes charging around 4 to 5 lakhs for a period of about 4 years, not all students can afford these coaching classes. So, the first thing we did was to try and bring the cost down and take our classes to where the child is, through our online classes.

What are the factors that you consider before enrolling a student in your courses – such as the student’s potential, academic scores, or tests that you may administer?

There are certain practices that we strictly avoid – having a qualifying exam to enrol students is one of them. There is no point in taking in brilliant students and making them top the exams. All we do is check if the students are ready to spend close to 24 hours a week, for months together. We only take in students who can stay committed and put in hard work. Our focus is to make all our students perform to their maximum potential. We also don’t offer scholarships to top performers, as it will take our focus away from the other students who are the ones who need our attention the most.

What are the general tips students should keep in mind while preparing for competitive exams? What about some specific tips for each exam? Should their preparation approach be different for each exam?

For all the students who prepare for competitive entrance exams, I would recommend the following:

  • Split the process into three parts – learning, practice and exam strategy. Create a habit of studying at least for two hours every day right from the beginning and start with learning the concepts thoroughly. Keep on practising the questions and problems which are based on these concepts until you master them. Finally, devise an exam strategy as to how you will approach the exam.
  • Focus a lot on building subject skills, be it mathematics or physics. In lower classes, there was a huge emphasis on skill building while learning concepts such as addition or subtraction. You were made to do a lot of practice exercises before getting into solving the problems. However, when you come to higher classes, you are introduced to a concept, made to work on solving problems, and then you need to move on to the next concept, everything in a very short span of time. All you need to do is spend a lot of time in understanding the concept thoroughly, so that you can develop your skill in it. For example, when you clearly understand multiplication as a concept, you will automatically develop your multiplication skills.
  • There is a tendency to try and solve hard problems in entrance exams, which is not a good strategy. In my analysis of thousands of question papers, I have found out that 70% of the questions are easy ones. If you get all of them correct even without answering the remaining hard ones, you will certainly clear the exam. So, focus more on simpler questions which are sure to get you marks, and avoid those tougher ones which might get you negative marks. However, in board exams, you can attend all the questions as there is no such risk.
  • While writing the exam, answer 8 to 10 questions at one go, and start checking them immediately. Don’t wait till the end of the exam to do the checking, as you will not have enough time to do it. This applies for both IIT JEE and NEET exams.
Stop worrying about the result and start focussing on the effort.

What makes AhaGuru different from the numerous other coaching institutes that exist today?

Right from our admission process to how we make students learn, we differ a lot from other institutions.

We follow the APE methodology, which stands for Agreement, Planning and Execution. The first thing we do is to have the student’s agreement for the course. We then help her plan the preparation in a structured manner. Finally, we guide her in executing her plans in the exam. The agreement is done by the students while the planning and execution is the responsibility of the parents. In other classes, it is just the opposite.

As far as the teaching methodology goes, most coaching classes focus on one particular exam and there is a pattern-matching with the exam and their teaching. They repeatedly ask the students to practise the same type of questions that will appear in the exams and make them answer accordingly. They will also teach them shortcuts to solve the problems. There is no subject focus. But what we do is totally the opposite – we have classes for different subjects like mathematics, physics and chemistry, which are common for all the entrance exams. We teach the concept and let the students know the reasoning behind why a particular formula is valid. The outcome of this is empowering the students to take on any exam and apply the strategy in any situation.

We also follow an entirely different approach in our assessment strategy. We don’t assess our students by ranking them, because it only causes stress and pressure. The big shift that we are trying to make here is to stop worrying about the result and start focussing on the effort. Our students are assessed based on the efforts they make and the commitment they show in learning the concepts. We strongly believe this will bring good results automatically.

Most importantly, we don’t ‘lock’ students in one course for 3 or 4 years. They can choose the subjects they want to focus on and can even change it midway, if they want to.

How does AhaGuru make use of technology in reaching out to students? What is its impact?And, in India, where digitalisation hasn’t yet reached the rural areas what challenges would there be in e-learning and how can we overcome them?

We were one of the pioneers in adopting technology in our teaching process. We started online coaching way back in 2012. Since then, we have done a lot of research in making use of the latest technology to give a better experience to our students. This has helped us reach out to students living in remote rural areas and make quality education easily accessible to them. There are quite a few challenges in online learning, but the problem is not in the way how technology works, but in the manner people use it.

Is video learning going to be the way ahead, with the new challenge the world is facing? How is it going to be different from the regular classroom learning?

Video learning is a lot different from the regular classroom learning. It needs a totally different approach. The real problem is that people haven’t done enough research on how to teach online – it is conducted much like a direct class, which is very distracting. In a regular class, a teacher gives a long lecture and then comes back to the students with questions, mostly at the end of the class. However, in an online class, the attention span of the students is shorter. So, the teacher has to do short presentations, keep interacting with the students throughout, ask them questions then and there, and make sure the message is passed on to every student. Preparation is the key here. For a 3-hour class I prepare for 4 to 5 hours every time. It is not about what the teacher is teaching, but about what the child is learning. Today’s teachers need to be trained on how to prepare for an online class, and on how to structure the lesson and make it more outcome-based.

What would you like to tell the parents whose children are preparing for competitive exams?

First of all, I would ask the parents not to force their children into some course that they don’t like. It is always good to listen to them before making a decision. Even after choosing a particular course, a child might feel uncomfortable and wish to change it. So, parents need to be flexible in allowing their children to do what will work well for them.

The next important thing is to stop blaming and start helping. If a child doesn’t perform well in a particular exam, his parents should focus on helping him to do the next exam better, instead of finding fault with him. They should learn to value the effort their child puts in, more than the marks he scores.

How do you help students cope with multiple pressures?

We try to avoid everything that puts undue stress on students. Ranking the students based on their marks is one important thing we avoid, and this automatically relieves pressure. This makes the students see their classmates as friends and not competitors. Our students help each other and work as a team. The real competition for a student is his own past performance which he tries to better.

We also make sure there is no gap in students understanding the concepts, which makes them confident to take on exams. We use innovative methodologies to make things easier for our students.

One more thing we do is encouraging students to raise as many questions as they can. There is nothing called a ‘silly doubt’ in our class. We clearly understand that the more a student raises doubts, the better will be his understanding of the concept.

All these collectively help our students cope with any sort of pressure.

Focus on your strengths, learn the subject with love, and always be confident.

Can you share with us the details of some notable alumni of AhaGuru?

We have had so many great achievers over the years – students like Keerthana, Vashisht, Vishwesh, Srivatsan, Gayathri Rajesh and Raghuram, to name a few. In fact, we are proud of all our students, irrespective of what their achievement was – because they have become changemakers in their respective fields. Most importantly, they play a huge role in helping the next batch of students by mentoring them even today. We share a strong bond with our students, both past and present – not just the toppers, but all of them.

What is your advice to young students who aim to succeed in competitive exams?

My simple advice to students is – ‘Focus on your strengths, learn the subject with love, and always be confident. Study every day, keep on practising, put in committed efforts, and you will get good results.’  

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