I had come to tutoring through a long history of volunteering and decided, last October, that I wanted to return to those roots. I looked up volunteer opportunities in Cambridge and found the Cambridge Public Library Literacy Project. Through them, I met my student, I’ll call her A, an Ethiopian immigrant who had only rudimentary English skills at best.
Archive for July, 2009
Every so often when I tell people what I do (manage Veritas Tutors), I hear someone pooh-pooh SAT prep, “oh, SAT preparation? I read studies that say that it doesn’t work. The test isn’t coachable and you’re just making a lot of money off of people who are scared.”
That’s simply not true. First, it’s easy for me to deny the validity of any such study simply based on my experience. Students who pursue individualized preparation with us routinely see 100-350 point gains, with a few students achieving 400+ gains every year. It’s not just one or two who see improvement, but almost every single one of them. Other boutique tutoring companies report the same, though I can’t say the same about the big giants, as many of their students come to us after taking prep courses with them and seeing no improvement. So, if so many professional educators are having success, I wonder if the ivory-tower scientist designing this study made a misstep in his experimental design (or just chose an inferior tutoring company to test).
However, just saying “it works,” isn’t enough. There are plenty of witch-doctors out there who say their remedy “works” without good reason. So, in order not to become the Harvard Square SAT witch doctor and to play by post-enlightenment rules of the game, let me give you some good, verifiable reasons:
1) Content. Though the SAT was initially conceived of as an IQ or aptitude test, free from the constraints of pesky content, the test makers realized at some point that ink-blots and shapes weren’t going to cut it. A verifiable fact: the test tests content. The SAT is based on concepts such as algebra, functions, vocabulary, dangling modifiers, subject verb-agreement, slope, y-intercept, and on and on… Yes, there is an abstract reasoning component that’s a bit harder to simply learn. However, everything, including the reasoning, is based on the foundational content of the test. Another verifiable fact: if a student learns the content that’s going to appear on the SAT, he or she will do better.
2) Question Type Recognition. (This is where it gets a little trickier, but there’s no doubt that tutoring still helps.) Using particular concepts, the SAT tries to test a student’s “critical reasoning” skills. In other words, they take a particular concept that a student may have seen and present it in a way that requires a conceptual leap of recognition or reasoning to come to the answer. However, the SAT is not an endless stream of never-before-seen brain-teasers. The test has to be heavily standardized from administration to administration and year to year, so the test-makers have to stay within strict bounds of what they can actually present to students. The result: question types. Question types are not nearly as recognizable on the surface, and are rarely recognizable to a first-time test taker or newbie tutor, but something any great tutor is intimately familiar with. Just as the SAT can only test a finite number of pre-defined concepts, they also only have a relatively finite number of pre-defined “tricks” or conceptual speedbumps that they can throw out. After preparing, most students will start to either intuitively or explicitly recognize these question types and be able to deploy the simple, yet effective, strategies that can be employed to deal with them. Another verifiable fact: if a student is taught to recognize question types, he or she will do better.
3) Familiarity. Finally, the least verifiable but most intuitive of the reasons that SAT preparation works: familiarity. The SAT is a grueling test. Any test-taker who has not prepared in the slightest for the test will feel the effects of the length of the test and is very likely to fall into the traps that the SAT sets near the end of the test for stumbling, weary testers. Just as the car ride to a new place always seems shorter on the return journey once you’re familiar with the route, the test immediately becomes easier once a student knows what to expect. By clearly showing students how the SAT is structured as a whole and coaching them through several practice tests, a tutor can give a student familiarity, strategies to deal with mental fatigue, and, most importantly, confidence.
Simply based on my experience and that of my colleagues, and the clear, intuitive reasons mentioned above, it is very hard for me to trust the experimental design of a study that says tutoring doesn’t work. Experimenter, if you read this and disagree, don’t take my word for it. Just stop by the Veritas Center in November or December and talk to our students.
This work by Veritas Tutors is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported.