Tutoring university students is very different from tutoring high schoolers, but not any less important. An interview with the Co-Founder and -Managing Director of FBSB: Ramon de Punder.
We are almost a month into the new academic year. First-year students are struggling with Mathematics 1, not even aware of the monster they will have to face in the form of Probability Theory and Statistics 1 next period. In the meantime, second-year students are living the nightmare of Mathematics 3. Only the third-year students have time to relax, enrolled in their easy electives and doing "party" minors.
In my first year, I applied for tutoring sessions at Fibonacci Studiebegeleiding (FBSB) to get the support I needed to pass the resit of Probability Theory and Statistics 1. The FBSB tutor helped me a great deal and I passed with flying colors. A few weeks ago I had the chance to meet the brain behind it all. I spoke to Ramon de Punder, the Co-Managing Director and -Founder, and asked him about his vision on tutoring university students and the motivation and discipline that has gotten him and FBSB where they are now.
First of all, who is Ramon de Punder?
Well, I’m 25 years old. Originally, I’m from Tilburg, a city in the south of the Netherlands. I came to Amsterdam seven years ago, where I have been studying Econometrics, first at the UvA and now at the Tinbergen Institute. There, I am doing my research master to pursue a PhD next year.
My passion for mathematics started in high school. I went to the Theresialyceum, where I had a mentor in third grade who always gave me an additional exercise. An extra hard assignment especially for me. She said: “okay, you’re good at math, and you're enthusiastic about it, but you also like to do a little bit more than just math”. Then and there, she already recommended me to study econometrics.
In fifth grade, I was already enabled to have a first experience with this. My school was very close to Tilburg University and for mathematics D (the hardest high school mathematics of the NL) there was a special program where students were allowed to go to the university to follow extra classes on operation research, taught by the econometrics professors.
In addition to high school, I became a manager of a judo department within a gym (Club Pellikaan, Tilburg) at the age of sixteen. I started with twelve people, but within two years it exploded to a hundred students with a structured program. I made everything very stylized and sophisticated, and I even bought judogi’s (official judo suits). I also organized tournaments, which eventually evolved into me being responsible for the tournaments for all the clubs in the Netherlands at the age of 17. My efforts did not go unnoticed, as not much later I got promoted to Head of Marketing and Communication of the gym.
The reason I had time for this was that I got special treatment in high school. I was allowed to choose which class I went to. I could even take the entire day off, which I did many times. This was because I was an excellent student, but moreover, because I was really annoying. In the end, I filled most of my time with work meetings.
Next to high school and my career within the judo world taking off, I also was a big fan of having drinks. Back then, we were allowed to drink at the age of 16, so I enjoyed the AB hockey parties a lot.
So you like having drinks. How did you experience the VSAE borrels?
Not only were they were amazing, but also highly important and not at all what I expected. All my friends, of whom the majority went studying in Delft, told me Econometrics students were very boring, and they asked: “Why would you go to drinks with these people?”. But at the first borrel, everyone just drank a lot, which was very intense and nice and a lot of fun. Especially, since I didn’t partake in the Intreeweek, so I met all my new friends there. Also, where the borrels in the beginning mainly involved drinking, later on, they also became a place to talk about econometrics. At least, that is what I did, because the people there are passionate about it. How to model the world is always relevant and up for discussion, especially when you’re very drunk.
As a VSAE member, you were close to the UvA. You were also a teaching assistant, right?
Yes, I have been a teaching assistant for many courses, basically the entire Econometrics track. Probability Theory and Statistics 2 and 3, Econometrics 1 and 2, and more. On top of that, last year I also was a thesis supervisor, of which I’m quite proud. The reason I could be a T.A. for so many courses is that the track really is one big nice story. That is what differentiates Econometrics from other programs. Currently, I am a T.A. at the Tinbergen Institute.
The combination of being a T.A. and founding FBSB makes sense. What exactly is FBSB and where did it start?
FBSB stands for Fibonacci Studiebegeleiding (= tutoring). It started with dPT wiskunde (de Punder Thijssen mathematics), which I founded with my partner Stan Thijssen. This was a tutoring company focused solely on mathematics for high school students. At that time, we were both working as mathematics tutors for another company. This other company was matching students with tutors based on zip-code, so there was no way of verifying whether someone was actually qualified to do the job. At some point, one of my friends got assigned to tutor someone in French, while he had never taken a single French class in high school! Needless to say, we thought we could do better.
In my role as manager of the judo and Marketing and Communication department, I spend a lot of time at this expensive gym. What they were very good at was optimizing everything, from beginning to end. They even thought about how people would enter the room. We implemented this kind of optimization, for example by first inviting people over for an introductory meeting, where we explained everything about our company, our vision, and our mission. During this meeting, they also explained what their problem was, and most of the time, we could already take away a big part of their stress by describing how we were going to help them.
We are doing this together. All our tutors are econometrics or aerospace engineering students and they are all very good at mathematics. To teach high school mathematics, you don’t even need to be that good, but the passion, the true love for mathematics, that is what’s vital. When someone has a problem with an exercise at home during the Christmas holidays, and he or she sends you this question, you literally solve it during the après ski. That happened, and it’s a beautiful example.
Is this how dPT wiskunde won the Golden Unit award (award for best start-up in Amsterdam)?
I think what has brought the award home for us in 2017, in addition to our extremely passionate tutors, was that we have developed so many different tools for tutoring. ‘Mijn dPT’ (my dPT), for example, where the progression of the students is reported to the parents, but also to the teacher at their high school himself (if this high school has joined the ‘friend’ of dPT program). In this way, you make a broader deal with each other during the introductory meeting. Now the student has to improve not only his skills but also his discipline in class. We invite the parents to this meeting as well, and all together we agree that from now on the student is going to do his or her homework and pay attention in class. With 'Mijn dPT', everyone can track the progression, so if the student is still talking a lot during class, the teacher will notify us. It is a very important tool.
Another aspect is that we now have over 200 videos on theory and another 200 on final exams question, called ‘dPT Online’. After being taught by a tutor, students can also go online and watch the exercise being explained once more, but this time by someone else.
Why is FBSB a separate company? How are dPT and FBSB related?
Well, at some point we had a nice pool of tutors, but everyone was getting older. Our tutors were getting to the final stage of their Bachelor’s or were even starting their Master’s. At that time, I was a T.A. and I got questions from students asking if I knew someone who could help them with courses like Econometrics 2. I said: “Of course! I know many who can!”, so we started doing that as dPT.
After a while, a tutor of ours, came to me and said: “Now I am teaching the most complicated parts of statistics for the same money as I am teaching the abc-formula to high school students.” I realized this was not right, so this was one reason to start FBSB.
More importantly, however, was the difference in the connections with university students and high school students. The high school students often stay with us for up to two or three years, even if they get good grades. At the start of each year, we call all our clients asking if they want to continue the tutoring sessions. Sometimes, the parents reach out to us before we get the chance to reach out to them. For example, a mother who called us and said “She had a 9.5, so we want to continue”. For university students, this is very different. The relationship we have with them often is only for the duration of one course, or even less, if they are only interested in tutoring right before the exam. A one-hour introductory meeting for each university student who wants six hours of tutoring is not only too expensive, but it simply won’t work when we have to scale up for the peak weeks two weeks before the exams. Therefore, it made sense to create another start-up. This way we could also show the outside world that we understood this difference, hence we founded FBSB almost four years ago.
Since you have founded FBSB, you have been the owner of a company providing tutoring for the same courses for which you were also a T.A. at the UvA. Isn’t there a conflict of interest?
Oh, I never thought about it that way! I understand your reasoning, but we take our role very seriously, especially because we work together with a lot of UvA professors. Quite frequently, we ask them what they think about our set-up. On their turn, they agree to help us, because they know we’re doing this from an educational perspective. It is true that FBSB is a commercial company, but our objective function, to put it in mathematical terms, is to improve the quality of education. The first purpose always is the educational part, where we are filling a gap in the market. We also make our own materials, our own readers, and we schedule the 12-courses in line with the lectures, so we are on the same page as the professors of the UvA.
Also, when a T.A. is needed, we are often approached first by the UvA, because our tutors are of such high quality. Therefore, it sometimes happens that our tutors are T.A.’s at UvA as well. If this happens we always make sure that this tutor, as a T.A., will not grade the exams for the courses that he is also tutoring at FBSB for. That would indeed be a true conflict of interest.
Your employees are mostly students themselves. What does the recruitment process look like? Can VSAE members reach out?
Yes, they definitely can. We also reach out to them through Facebook for example. We only hire econometrics and aerospace engineering students, so the study association is very useful. Within VSAE, there is some more preselection, because people who go to the drinks, or are active members, have a higher likelihood of being social and enthusiastic about mathematics, making this group a very nice subsample. What we hope is that people join us quite early during their Bachelor’s, to start at dPT wiskunde, teaching mathematics to high school students. At some point, later on in their Bachelor’s, when they are convinced they have acquired the skills to teach econometrics courses, maybe even the 12-courses group tutoring, they get a level up and become an FBSB tutor.
In theory, there is no minimum grade that you have to pass a course with to be able to teach it. Empirically, however, we see that most tutors got an 8.5 or higher for the courses they’re teaching. In the end, this is not the most important point, because this grade is just determined by one moment: the test. Being passionate about the course is at least equally important. Besides, it is not hard for us to verify whether someone understands the material of a specific course up to the level we require so that high-quality tutoring is always guaranteed.
Whereas some students want a job, others need help with a course. What can you do for them?
For all the difficult courses, Mathematics 1 to 4, Probability Theory & Statistics 1 to 3, Econometrics 1 and 2, or other courses that are in demand, we organize pre-scheduled 12-courses group tutoring throughout the duration of that course. We start early, in week two, because acquiring this type of skills takes time. You can apply for those via https://www.fbsb.nl/12-courses. If you are interested in more Personal Tutoring, Duo Tutoring, or even Group Tutoring for you and your friends, you can simply apply for personal tutoring on our website. We have a search engine on the website, so you can easily find forms for every course in the econometrics program. Lastly, through the website, you can also contact us if you need help writing your thesis.
Because of COVID-19, regular group tutoring can only happen in small groups of six people. It is still in high demand, hence we have made online tutoring courses available as well. We are currently finding out what the demand is for that.