More Than a Higher Score

I was recently at a tech conference where Steve Wozniak, cofounder of Apple, was the keynote speaker. The most interesting portion of his talk for me, as someone who works in test prep, was when he spoke about how he started learning shortcuts and tricks at a very early age. What was fascinating is that he acknowledged that his tricks for one particular problem or program wouldn’t necessarily apply when he found himself working on a new problem, but his method of seeking out applicable tricks to each new problem has helped him to create simpler and better products throughout his life.

Obviously, Mr. Wozniak wasn’t advocating for an absence of subject mastery. But his talk emphasized the necessity of both subject mastery and the ability to employ shortcuts. For Mr. Wozniak, subject mastery and helpful tricks aren’t mutually exclusive: they are partners in creative endeavors.

The other notable bit from “The Woz” came when he shared his passion for one-on-one instruction. While he admitted that it was difficult for everyone to have a tutor—his solution, of course, is to create computer programs that act like human tutors—he emphasized how beneficial such an educational experience can be.

Because a good ACT or SAT tutor can provide a one-on-one learning experience that helps students enhance their subject mastery and their ability to discover shortcuts, I wanted to share some thoughts from others who work in test prep—thoughts about how students benefit from test prep beyond higher test scores. These are remarkable people from both coasts, and I hope you venture onto their sites to learn more about them.

Ted Dorsey, Tutor Ted

When test prep tutors are on the job, we have one clear goal: higher student test scores. The higher, the better.

How do we go about achieving that goal? The answer is much more complex than you might expect.

I wish that improving test scores were a simple, one-factor proposition. I wish that it were just a matter of teaching students a set of “tricks.”

(Quick aside on tricks: they exist, and if you know them you’ll do better on the tests. If you rely only on tricks, however, you shouldn’t expect any more than minor improvement in your score.)

What leads to improved test scores involves three major components: increasing our students’ knowledge of their academic subjects, teaching them to implement problem-solving strategies, and boosting their confidence.

You might even say it’s our job to make them better students. Here’s how we do it:

Increased subject mastery: I would share an anecdote about teaching a student how to read for tone or reminding a student how to convert a ratio to a fraction if I could pick one story to tell out of the tens of thousands that I have. Name an academic topic, and I can tell you a story about a student who learned more about it while prepping for a test with me.

Problem-solving strategies: Having knowledge is one thing. Using it to unlock tricky test questions is another. We teach students that there isn’t one approach that’s the best way to solve every question. Not only do we teach them new ways to solve questions, we teach them to be flexible in their approach.

Building confidence: You don’t build confidence in a student by fluffing them up. You could, but the probability of false confidence holding up over the course of a very difficult four-hour exam is just about nil. You build real, enduring confidence when you show a student that they have learned something, and that they are doing the job better than they were doing it before. It’s a virtuous circle: student improves, feels better about his/her performance, and does even better as a result.

Our goal may be simple, but how we achieve it is not. The net effect, if we do it right, is helping our students become better at their most important job: learning.

Mike McClenathan, PWN the SAT

For many students, the SAT is the first test they’ve had to take that’s not just a test of what they know. It’s a test of just how well they know what they know and how well they can apply it. I’ve rarely come across a student who couldn’t tell me that the Pythagorean Theorem was a2 + b2 = c2, but I’ve met many who miss opportunities to apply it on the SAT. For this reason, SAT prep is an opportunity to grow as a student—cramming and memorization won’t work here.

One of the skills I find many students lack when they begin prepping for SAT is the ability to turn a problem over and over in their minds until they see how to attack it. This is what I think the SAT math section is really testing. Isn’t that a skill worth having? Don’t you want your future employees to have that skill? Your future political leaders? Your doctor? Good SAT prep teaches this skill.

It’s also worth mentioning that SAT critical reading passages are really interesting. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve interjected an interesting fact about bioluminescence, brain plasticity, or Thomas Jefferson into conversation at a dinner party only to sheepishly realize where I first learned that fact: an SAT passage. Treat passages as boring drudgery, and they’ll beat you up. Approach them with curiosity and the willingness to learn something, and the spillover effects of all your hard prep work might surprise you.

Debbie Stier, The Perfect Score Project

The real miracle of our SAT project, which I didn’t anticipate, wasn’t our score gains (although our score gains were hundreds of points more than the College Board reports average score gains to be after test prep). The real magic was that my teenage son morphed from a happy-go-lucky little tadpole, perfectly happy to slide by in school doing the least amount possible, into a goal-oriented and motivated young man. Ethan really learned for the first time how to work, and he gained confidence by reaching (actually, surpassing) his own score goal. He ended up using in school the lessons he learned from the SAT project, and ultimately finished high school with his highest GPA ever, post-SAT. He entered college with expectations and confidence I don’t think he would have had had we not done the family SAT project together.

The profound effect on Ethan’s study habits was the best part of the whole project (and our score gains were significant!).

Ethan was a happy-go-lucky young man when we started the project, and like most teenagers, he had trouble seeing into the future and envisioning how a standardized test taken at age 15 might serve as an important opportunity (or liability) in his future. He was not one of the stressed-out striver kids I’d been reading about. When it came to school, Ethan was “a crammer.” He got mostly B’s with the occasional A and C thrown in for good measure.

Ethan set his own SAT score goal, which we agreed on, and mapped out a study plan, which he stuck to.  His plan was methodical and long-term, lasting almost an entire year, and it required a lot of hard work and sacrifice. Ethan missed out on many Friday night parties because he’d scheduled full, timed practice SATs for Saturday mornings during the school year.  In the beginning, of course, this was a bitter pill to swallow. Hanging out with mom on Friday night was not his idea of a good time ..

We plotted his scores on a graph, and a few months into his plan he saw the line going in the right direction. That motivated him.  He loved to study his numbers on those graphs!

Ultimately, he beat his score goal by 30 points, which was somewhat surprising to me because he’d had a few 11th hour, unexpected snafu’s (a broken “SAT hand,” an emergency root canal after the test, etc.), but the confidence he gained from reaching his goal was marked.  I don’t think he’d ever accomplished a big goal like that, and I’m not sure he really believed he could.

Before the project, Ethan thought that if someone did better than he did in school, it was because they were smarter than he was. “Not true,” I’d tell him (as I’m sure most mothers would say). “They studied harder than you,” I’d tell him. After achieving his goal, Ethan started to believe that he could “do it” (whatever “it” might be) through goal-setting, mapping a methodical plan, and then following through on that plan.

The project taught Ethan he could achieve much more than he thought he could through sustained hard work. He took that work ethic with him through the rest of high school, and his GPA improved as a result. He’s also continued to employ that strategy in college.

I hope thoughts from Tutor Ted, PWN, and Debbie will help you as you think about your test prep and as you go hunting for tutors and teachers to help you improve your test scores. If you have any questions, head to their sites or find them on Twitter and ask them!

Why I Took the December ACT in February


A December ACT in February

When all of my students came whimpering to me after the December 2013 ACT and said that it was the hardest test the world had ever seen, my interest was piqued. Then, I heard a podcast interview from a test prep expert (a claim made by thousands, whatever their merits) that suggested that December’s ACT was different from prior ACTs. At that point, I knew that I would have to take the test once my students received their official copies.

Typically, I will look over a student’s most recent ACT and cover the things she has missed without taking the test first myself. But, with all the hoopla over the terrors of December’s ACT, I decided to tackle it in the same conditions my students had before I went over the test with them.

So, I woke up at 7:00 AM last Friday and prepared to take the test, like most students do on a Saturday. (I had to take it on Friday because I tutor on Saturdays.) Don’t worry, I did not isolate myself in soundproof room. In fact, I took it on the tiniest possible regulation desk (TV dinner-size), surrounded by my office’s next-door neighbor—he of the stentorian voice—and the thunderous footsteps from the office above me. I promise, my classroom was anything but idyllic.

Lest you think my cramped desk and neighborly distractions were unsatisfactory as handicaps, I also couldn’t write in the test booklet, as it was my student’s. So it was scantron only for me. Here’s a recap of the test:

English Section

As always, the ACT’s despicable spacing was irritating. Seriously, who designs this stuff? No one formats their writing this way. Double, triple, quadruple spacing—sometimes breaking up a single sentence! Indeed, there are even three-line sentences that are split twice: first with triple spacing and then with double spacing.

Aside from the formatting curiosities, there were the typical essays that would best be edited by tearing them up and rewriting them. Honestly, the ACT has no business asking at least half of its “Rhetorical Skills” questions because the writing style presented by the ACT is often abysmal. Style is certainly subjective, which is why the ACT’s questions about rhetoric would be of limited value even if the questions were phrased with better style.

I finished the section with an easy 15 minutes to spare. Of course, I sat there for the remaining 15 minutes, checking answers and twiddling my thumbs. And yes, for those wondering, I scored a 36.

Math Section

Not being able to write in the test booklet made this section much harder. While I had a sheet of scratch paper, converting my work to that paper and then moving those answers onto the scantron took up an extra minute or two that I hadn’t planned for.

For those who have seen the test, question 45 took up the most time for me. Overall though, it was an easy math test. There were the standard 3-5 questions that were intriguing, but the rest of the questions simply exhibited the ACT’s typical level of trickiness.

Unfortunately, I was slower on the log questions than I should have been, mostly because I don’t deal with logs that regularly anymore. Because of that and complications with the booklet (tiny desk, no writing in booklet, plus scantron), I was a little sloppy and missed one question. Since the December ACT’s math section wasn’t curved up, one miss equaled a 35. And the miss wasn’t even a hard question, merely one that required more than a second’s thought.

Break Time

Best part of my morning. I agree with Debbie Stier’s recommendation to go with dark chocolate and an apple. Bathroom, yummy food, and stretching my legs. What a great ten minutes.

Reading Section

Well, the ACT managed to surprise me. Since I research literacy, I loved the section titled “The Shakespeare Brain.” While it actually looked a bit funky with its discussion of N400 and P600 effects, the excerpted article explored the mind’s hesitation when it sees a verb used as a noun or a noun used as a verb (or a noun as an adjective). For a literacy researcher, the article’s argument—that Shakespeare’s usage of “noun-verbs” and “verb-nouns” stretches readers—was fascinating. The article’s argument agrees with what any reading teacher could tell you, but it’s always fun when psychology experiments explore a known concept through a different lens.

I was shocked to see an ACT reading section that interested me for once. I find most everything interesting read, except for the dry excerpts the ACT usually rolls out. So it was a pleasure to read an ACT section that wasn’t soporific.

Oh, you’re probably wondering how I did. If you recall, I said that I research literacy (i.e. reading comprehension). I also created a reading comprehension app that has produced multiple perfect reading scores. Further, I can’t recall missing an ACT reading question since 2003. So yeah, I almost wrote 36 next to the reading section without bothering to score it. But I decided not to be lazy and make certain that I hadn’t missed any. I didn’t. Like usual, 36. No misses.

Science Section

With the ACT, this section is always a wild card. It isn’t science; it’s boring. And, contrary to the rumor mill, it isn’t “just reading graphs.” If it were, everyone taking it would score a 30 or above. Shockingly, this isn’t the case.

After creating an ACT Science app that is supposed to teach students how to consistently rock the science section, I had a little bit of pressure riding on my shoulders to perform well. This is the first full ACT I’ve taken since we released QuotEd ACT Science a year ago. Now, many of our users have done remarkably well (36s, 7 point improvements, etc.), but I assume that people expect the expert to be able to implement his expertise. While I don’t put great stock in the ACT’s ability to measure much of anything—it doesn’t tell you whether you are smart or dumb, successful or unsuccessful, or anything else—I do believe that anyone who teaches others how to prepare for the ACT should also be able to perform well on the ACT.

The December 2013 science section was hard, as my students had complained. But as I told them and tell QuotEd’s users, if the test is hard, that just means that it will be curved up. You simply have to do enough damage control to ride the curve up. And sure enough, you could miss two questions on this science section and still score a 36! This was handy because my inability to write on the test booklet robbed me of some key time-saving strategies. I’d forgotten how much harder it is to take the science section without QuotEd’s strategic approach. Fortunately, I was able to use most of the strategies, so I only missed two questions. As noted above, that’s a 36. I’ll take it.


Since the essay doesn’t count towards the “hard score,” I didn’t bother taking it. I frankly don’t care what my score would have been. As I tell my students, anything above an 8 is good. Since the ACT’s writing prompts are pathetic and the evaluative process is subjective, I had no reason to write the essay and force some poor person to grade it with the ACT’s rubric.

Composite score

(36 + 35 + 36 +36) ÷ 4 = 35.75. That’s right, a 36. Not my best work, but a 36 is a 36.

Some closing thoughts:

Overall, December’s ACT wasn’t a nightmare, at least no more than any other ACT is. Though I can understand my student’s complaints (the science section was harder than some have been), the curve on the section was so generous that it more than compensated for the difficulty.  And, I’ve certainly seen other ACTs with equally insane-looking science sections. As for the English, math, and reading, they were pretty standard fare.

My experience confirmed that QuotEd’s apps are more than a match for the ACT’s quirks. I suppose the experiment also confirmed that I can still rock a 36. But that’s probably more encouraging to those who use QuotEd or have consulted with me in the past. As I note above, the ACT doesn’t measure much that interests me. But that’s a post for another time!



Questions about QuotEd? Shoot an email to QuotEd_at_knerrtutoring(dot)com.

The Story of QuotEd

The World of QuotEd

Dear friends,

We thought you might enjoy an introduction to the oddity that is the world of QuotEd: where did it come from and why does it exist? So, here are some thoughts from Kreigh Knerr, the semi-sane creator of QuotEd.

Before I get into the full story, here’s a summary: I built QuotEd Reading Comprehension because I wanted to help people reach their dreams. Yup, that corny. But more important than “reaching for the stars,” I wanted to create something that would foster further dreaming, instead of killing it. Every test prep product I know is a gigantic time and mind suck, and I refused to get blocked into that limited realm of improve-your-score-but-waste-your-life. So I dove into what was likely an insane exploration of literature, literacy research, informal logic, psychology, and everything else I could read. Five years and thousands of hours later, I trust that QuotEd’s approach to strengthening your literacy will provide you with at least one thought or quotation to encourage your dreams (Oh, and help you build rocking test scores. That too).1

QuotEd’s story probably starts when I fully launched my educational consulting company, Knerr Learning Center, in 2009. Unlike most people, I didn’t drop exciting but meaningless titles like “Oxford,” “MIT,” “Ivy League,” or whatever other trumped-up title I could imagine. If my company were to fail to reach its standards, that would be on my head, not the poor, innocent town of Princeton or Cambridge. That decision probably makes for less marketing allure, but my students seem to handle my preference for straightforward dealings just fine.

Of course, I’d never have developed a strange app like QuotEd if I hadn’t been blessed to work with schools that had students from just about every corner of the world. Because literacy and English language learning were integral elements to many of my students’ struggles, I spent hours studying literacy, informal logic, and literature (I’ve easily crossed the 10,000 hour mark twice over…). I discovered that studying super complex, but short, passages really helped accelerate my students’ reading comprehension. (As a side-bar, to my earliest students, thank you for being gracious guinea pigs!) One of my favorite lines to go over with my students came from Alexis de Tocqueville, a line which is particularly suggestive of the American entrepreneur’s life: “Thus, forever seeking, forever falling to rise again, often disappointed, but not discouraged, he tends unceasingly towards that unmeasured greatness so indistinctly visible at the end of the long track which humanity has yet to tread.” With this reassuring line alongside me,  I chanced upon some brilliant people who agreed with my research.

But that didn’t really resolve the problem of how to help people improve their test scores outside of those whom I tutored. As I considered ways of sharing engaging quotes to improve students’ reading comprehension, I came across this gem from Edgar Allan Poe, found in “The Philosophy of Composition”:

“The fact is, originality (unless in minds of very unusual force) is by no means a matter, as some suppose, of impulse or intuition. In general, to be found, it must be elaborately sought, and although a positive merit of the highest class, demands in its attainment less of invention than negation.”

For some reason, this quote resonated with me. The idea that originality can be attained by an average person grabbed my imagination and wouldn’t let go. It seemed possible, and I consider myself fairly average. And then I got a smartphone. Suddenly, all of my research and ruminations came tumbling together, with, of course, my desire to share awesome quotes with others who could in turn share those quotes with their friends. If I’m being honest, I’d have to say that I would have built QuotEd Reading Comprehension just to share the quotes, even if QuotEd weren’t the perfect vehicle for the expression of my atypical research into standardized testing and literacy. Sharing quotes is just too much fun: it’s how we communicate much of the time (Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr).

The kicker for me was that my research perfectly aligned with how people use their smartphones. QuotEd fits within the cavities of thinking time that students have between interruptions from texts and Snapchats, and unlike with computer-based and paper-based study materials, students could study whenever was convenient. And I wasn’t even shoving a web-based product into a smartphone’s framework: QuotEd was specifically designed for smartphones and people who only have moments of time between activities and other studies. I wanted to build a product that people could use on the subway, bus, or airplane, or whenever they wanted to use it. That way, people could study when they had time, instead of muttering to themselves “Gah! I should have brought my study guide along.” Now the world’s most eclectic assortment of 35-75 word quotations was combined with my research into standardized test questioning, and my students (and every other test preparer) would be able to train when it was convenient for them.

So, I decided to bet the farm on QuotEd. The research was too good, and the data from users to encouraging to ignore. Every painful ounce of that investment is worth it. When I hear about students who still use QuotEd long after they are done testing, just because they love the quotations and brain-teasing difficulty of the app, that’s when I know that my elaborate seeking of an original way to help students improve their reading comprehension and reach their testing dreams has met with at least a modicum of success. And it reminds me of this quote thought from G.J. Holyoake that I return to regularly for encouragement:

Utopianism is not my idiosyncracy. But I have confidence in endeavour.

Good luck on your testing and welcome to the conversation! -The QuotEd Team


If you want a pragmatic summary of QuotEd’s goals: give students a way to train when it’s most convenient for them, offer teachers a way to get their students prepped for the ACT and SAT without expending extensive class time, and help tutors for GMAT, GRE, LSAT, SAT, and ACT to prepare their students faster. Of course, QuotEd helps with the reading comprehension section on any test (e.g. TOEFL), but those 5 are the most commonly known tests.