Selling the product instead of teaching the test
I’ve been wanted to write a post about why individualized tutoring matters, why simply taking a class or picking a book off the store shelf can lead students away from the learning they need in order to improve their score.
I worked for a number of test prep companies over the year, before coming to Cambridge Coaching, and I’m pretty familiar with the most common curricular approaches. One of them I’ll call “teach to the masses,” which involves creating materials tailored to the 50th percentile but masquerading as prep for everyone. These materials tend to leave students overconfident going into the test and dismayed at their final result. Another other approach, which often reveals itself in test prep classes with standardized curricula, is to create devilishly difficult problems designed to present the test as overwhelmingly tricky and accessible only through the support of the company’s materials. The narrative arc, if you will, of these classroom lessons tends to start with the toughest problems and ease into easier ones as the lesson continues, which gives students a sense that they’re improving. I worked with one student who signed up not only for class but for video lectures that repeated the very same material, as though those specific example problems were a kind of magic key to a high score.
What’s most insidious about this approach is that it leaves students in the dark about the factors that contribute to a high score: Test scores are, in fact, influenced by a combination of content knowledge, test-specific fluency, and capacity for complex and focused thinking. Good tutoring usually begins with a focus on test-specific fluency, which is all about understanding better how the test asks for what it wants. Test typically have their own idioms, or ways of asking the test taker to perform certain kinds of mental tasks: The GRE has something very specific in mind when it asks students to “infer,” for example; students taking the SSAT often miss cues for estimation, for example, or are unfamiliar with analogies; and SAT students are typically thrown by the math problems with invented notation.
Once a student is fluent in the relevant test, we build content knowledge to the extent that the student is able. Younger students, in particular, often lack key vocabulary and mathematical concepts, so this learning curve is steep. Students preparing for the SAT may need refreshers on what they learned in algebra last year, while students preparing for the GRE may need to think back ten years or more. Students recover content quickly, but they learn new content more slowly. For students who struggled through algebra or always hated reading, test prep is a time to make some tough decisions. Foundational skills take a long time time to build, and it’s each student’s choice how much work they want to put in. Students with limited time for the tutoring itself make less progress building new content foundations.
This brings us to the issue of focus and complexity, or “cognitive load,” as the educational psychologists call it. All students can get a question correct when they’re presented with the same situation over and over again. But these tests require students to flexibly combine a wide range of knowledge from one question to another. Furthermore, some questions require students to draw information from more places and recombine it in more ways than other questions. Students have different capacities to hold onto all of this information, and to apply to “the next” question. This is another place where the amount of time spent really affects final score. Some students need more practice than others to learn the range of problem types and patterns. This is also where I see students plateau -- not everyone will be able to assemble all the pieces to solve the hardest problems, and this doesn’t mean the student hasn’t still learned a great deal.
This is the greatest danger of some published test prep materials: By focusing on projecting a certain image of the test, creating a particular narrative arc in the lesson, or fostering a feeling of dependence on the published materials, they create confusion about what the student has actually learned. They prevent students from becoming self-aware learners who know how much they know, how they got there, and where the limits of their knowledge currently lie. A good tutor, on the other hand, can help students do just this.
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