How to Prepare for a Standardized Test: Books, Tutors, or Classes?

To kick things off here with my new column at the Ivey Files, I wanted to share an idea that's been going through my head recently: the idea of efficiency in test preparation.  

As a tutor, I would sometimes get calls from parents who wanted to find out more about what kinds of "services" I offered. More than looking for a specific answer, they seemed to be trying to assess whether I sounded competent.  

Well, having spent many years thinking about the tutoring process, I wanted to answer this question a little more completely and give an idea of what it is a tutor actually does (or is supposed to do).  At the same time, I hope to provide a framework so that everyone can make a well reasoned decision regarding whether hiring a private tutor, taking a class, or just buying some test prep books is the best way to study for a standardized test.  (I'll talk about online preparation in another posting.)

First, let me hit you with a whammy (in bold, no less): 

Test prep students would drastically improve their scores if they simply bought the official study guides, read them cover to cover, did all the exercises, and spent time trying to learn from their mistakes.   

In other words, the idea that certain classes and tutors possess "proprietary knowledge" or "secret tricks" is a quaint hypocrisy.  (This is a topic I will cover in detail in a later posting.)  

That last part of the statement in bold is especially important.  One of the things that baffles me the most is when students show zero interest in understanding why they got a question wrong.  I have spent more time than I would care to recount trying to convince students to spend more time learning from their previous mistakes and less time taking new tests.  I think there are some deep-seated psychological reasons for this, and the consequence is that people spend massive amounts of time making the same kinds of mistakes.  

When studying for any standardized test, you need to cover a certain amount of groundwork, whether you work with a tutor, a class, or a book.  Far too many people out there think that if they hire a tutor or sign up for a class, then they can skip the groundwork.  Part of what I hope to show over the course of these postings is how mistaken this notion is.

To those of you who read the statement in bold and think, "Well who has time to read the book cover to cover?":  you're on the right path.  What classes and tutors actually do is to provide a more efficient process.  A good class or tutor can zero in on exactly what you, as a student, are doing right and wrong, and prevent you from having to spend the time to read that book cover to cover.  The Official SAT prep guide currently clocks in at 889 pages, the ACT guide at 623.  My point is that if you actually took the time not just to read what was contained in those pages but actually to learn it, then you would be able to get most, if not all, of the score increase that you would get from a class or with a tutor.  

Classes and tutors provide a quicker way to learn the same thing.  Tutors are more efficient than classes in the same way that classes are more efficient than reading a book.  When thinking about getting a tutor or signing up for a class, don't just look at the dollar cost of things, but make sure that you factor in the amount of time that it will take to get your goal score, and factor the amount of time you need to spend getting there into your calculation.  

If you discover that your time isn't free (and it almost never is), then think about signing up for a class or getting a tutor, but just going through this exercise will prepare you to start asking some smart questions of whatever tutor or class you run across.  "How will you get me to my goal score faster than reading the book?" rather than "What can you teach me?" is an example of the way I would think about it.

There are two conclusions here.  The first is to remember to stay on your toes.  If you start working with a class that's basically an excuse to do problems and then go over them in class, ask yourself, "Could I be doing this on my own or do I need a classroom to keep me focused?"  If you think you could be doing the exact same thing on your own, then it's probably not a good class to be in.  If you're working with a tutor and the tutor is merely walking you through a set of classroom type exercises, ask yourself if the tutor is really making the process more efficient.  Too many classes and tutors fall into lazy habits.  Being aware of the bigger picture can keep you on your toes.  

The second conclusion is that any option needs to cover that important groundwork.  Efficiency doesn't kick in until that groundwork is covered, so before you start looking to classes and tutors, make sure you spend some time reviewing the basics.  If you have to spend lots of time in a class or with a tutor covering the basics, then you've essentially discovered a more expensive way to read a book.

Any thoughts or comments from your own test-taking experience? Please share.

Charles Williamson has helped hundreds of students prepare for standardized tests. He blogs for the Ivey Files about test prep, the intersection of education and technology, education policy, and whatever other topics strike his fancy.