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!