1) Teach real lessons; don’t just go over practice tests

Yes, the amount of time you can spend just teaching material is obviously subject to time constraints; and yes, there is a small subset of mostly high-achieving students who just need to take practice tests and go over what they missed. However, virtually all students in the low-middle score ranges are missing specific pieces of knowledge, and getting taught the material while working through actual questions that involve additional, potentially unfamiliar pieces of knowledge, is often overly taxing for their working memories—there are just too many pieces to juggle. Unless you are very pressed for time, use the student’s diagnostic to figure out what they actually need to learn, and spend some time just teaching it to them before gradually relating it to the test. Repeat for as many concepts as necessary, gradually moving to full-length sections and then tests as students become comfortably with the material.


2) Remember that novices and experts learn differently

Students who are just beginning prep and who have a weak background in a particular subject matter require explicit, direct instruction; there is nothing to be gained from making a student who can barely recognize parts of speech flail around trying to “discover” grammar concepts. Yes, students need to be engaged, but if they don’t have the necessary background knowledge, it’s unfair to expect them to figure things out. If you’re trying to nudge them in a particular direction and they’re not getting it, stop and just teach them whatever it is you want them to learn. It’s okay, really. Better yet, forget the nudges and just teach. You’ll waste less time, and you’ll get to more advanced material faster.

On the other hand, more advanced students need to be pushed to apply their knowledge on their own; you do not want them to become dependent on you (you won’t be sitting next to them during the test, after all). If they don’t know an answer right away, don’t tell it to them; make them figure it out, even if that involves some awkward silences. It’s ok for them to spend five minutes grappling independently with a problem while you observe.


3) Keep reviewing old material

Students will often not really learn a particular concept the first time you teach it, no matter how well they appear to understand it at the moment. You *cannot* assume that a student has internalized new information after a single lesson, and you must be prepared to teach the exact same thing multiple times. (Yes, this can be tedious; yes, you may start to feel like a broken record. But this is part of what you sign up for when you tutor.) Better yet, start with the assumption that whatever you discuss during a give  session will not be fully retained, and start by quizzing the student on it the next time you meet. A couple of sessions after that, come back to it and quiz them again. If they have to periodically work to retrieve the information (forced recall), it’ll be a lot more likely to stick.


4) Go over all the questions, not just the ones the student got wrong

Otherwise, you have no idea whether the student actually understood how to work through a question, or whether a right answer was just a lucky guess. (Obviously this applies less to very advanced students; use your judgment with them.)


5) Have students explain things to you

When you’re discussing how they worked through a question, or trying to understand why they did x as opposed to y, make sure that you’re not putting words in their mouths: they should be narrating their process to you, not the other way around. Your goal is to really try to understand their thought process; if you jump to conclusions too quickly, you may overlook gaps in their knowledge and miss opportunities to teach important concepts. Note that you may need to ask pointed questions, in some cases repeatedly, to elicit the necessary information, e.g., what about the commas made you cross B) out? Students will not always be able to provide this type of insight unprompted.

Also keep in mind that many sixteen-year-olds (indeed, many adults) don’t have the metacognitive skills to accurately assess what or how much they’ve learned; moreover, the lower their baseline knowledge, the less accurately they’ll be able to self-assess. The fact that a student tells you they understand something, or that they nod and say, “Yeah, that makes sense,” does not necessarily mean that they really get it, or that they can apply the knowledge independently. Don’t assume; get proof. And above all, don’t let them guess. That might work in school, but your job is to pinpoint exactly what they do and don’t know, not to just move on if they happen to get lucky and to hit on the right answer.


6) Don’t assume students can derive applications from general principles

A major weakness of many test-prep programs is that they focus on general concepts without methodically considering the various ways they can be applied. To take the example of subject-verb agreement, it is often wildly insufficient for students to understand the broad idea that verbs must agree with their subject in number, and to recognize the most obvious types of disagreement (e.g., the boy sit).

Rather, unless a student can intuitively use logic to identify subjects and verbs in the absence of grammatical knowledge, the ability to recognize disagreements in *all* their forms requires mastery of a wide range of skills, including—but not limited to—the ability to identify singular vs. plural verbs, prepositions and prepositional phrases, non-essential clauses, and gerunds used as subjects. For many kids, each piece needs to get taught separately and explicitly, and must be gone over multiple times.

This is really complicated stuff for a lot of students, and you need to be able to gauge how much of it they can internalize at a given point vs. how much of it is likely to go flying over their heads. A kid who struggles to remember that singular verbs end in -S, for instance, probably isn’t ready for that used as a subject, and if you do encounter a question testing this construction, you might be better off skipping it entirely.
Remember that it does not matter one whit whether a student can, for example, recite the definition of preposition if they cannot actually recognize when a word is and is not one. Have them give you examples, or ask simple questions that require them to apply the knowledge (e.g., why can’t we put a comma before this word?). Do not just ask for definitions.


7) Don’t take background knowledge for granted

If you’re a natural test taker and are accustomed to being surrounded by other high achievers, you need to realize that your students may not know much of what you take for granted, and that they might require much, much more time and repetition to master certain concepts. In fact, concepts that make intuitive sense to you may required repeated discussions and in some cases may never really click.

What this means: if you are using any sort of even semi-technical terminology, make sure you either check that the student knows it (have them demonstrate it, no yes or no questions) or provide a definition yourself. You don’t want to launch into a 15-minute discussion of pronouns when a student isn’t even really sure what they are.

Remember that the lower a student’s score, the more glaring the gaps, and the more likely they are to interact in unpredictable and sometimes bizarre ways. To give some random examples, I eventually learned not to assume that students:

-Could tell when a statement was and was not a sentence

-Knew what was meant by “author’s argument”

-Knew that discussing an idea was not the same as agreeing with it

-Knew that the plural of “it” was “they” (not “its”)

-Knew that singular verbs end in -S and plural verbs do not

-Could tell when an unfamiliar word was a person’s name

-Could read the words on the page in order, from left to right

-Could distinguish between similar-looking words


8) Don’t over-explain simple concepts

One of the biggest traps I’ve observed for many new (and not-so-new) tutors is the tendency to try to turn relatively simple, straightforward concepts into unnecessarily convoluted ones. Sometimes this is driven by the need to show off, but I suspect that just as often it results from tutors’ sense that they’re somehow shortchanging students, or depriving them of a profound learning experience, if they don’t have an in-depth discussion about every question.

The problem is that not every question merits a drawn-out explanation, and spending time on these items 1) makes them out to be much more complicated than they are (and encourages students to waste time on them), and 2) takes time away from issues that do require extensive discussion.

Two typical examples are wordiness and idiom questions: for the former, there is nothing to be gained from repeatedly discussing what specific type of wordiness is involved (e.g., redundancy) when the answer can be gauged visually in a second or two; for the latter, there is no logic or reason to the answers, and thus nothing that can be applied to future questions. Provided that a student understands what an idiom is, there is zero reason to waste time on them.

For a good example of what I mean, see this YouTube video. The tutor spends several minutes explaining that a semicolon is equivalent to a period, a surpassingly simple concept that can be taught in all of three seconds. When students have difficulty with it, it is virtually never because they can’t understand the rule, but rather because they don’t really grasp what a sentence is. That’s a serious problem that does merit a very in-depth conversation (multiple conversations, actually), but it isn’t even on a lot of tutors’ radar.


9) Make sure you know what’s actually on the test

This might sound incredibly obvious, but I keep running across tutoring-company social media posts/videos (primarily Instagram and YouTube) that deal with rules and concepts not actually tested (e.g., the Oxford comma, the distinction between “where” and “in which”). I can’t really gauge how widespread the problem is, but suffice it to say that there’s a lot of misinformation floating around. If you can target the actual concepts that show up on the actual test, and nothing else, you’ll already be ahead of the game.

If you’re can’t spit out an impromptu list of exactly what students do and don’t need to know, I’d recommend sticking exclusively to ACT or College Board material. Most third-party tests contain significant inaccuracies, and while certain questions might be useful for solidifying particular concepts, there are enough issues that you should be very careful with this material unless you know exactly what students should avoid, and why.

And in a similar vein…


10) Make sure you know what the questions are actually testing

Again, duh, but I’ve seen tutors get seriously sidetracked by questions that appeared to be testing one thing but were actually testing something else, and then waste half an hour discussing a concept irrelevant to the question at hand.

Subject-verb agreement questions, for example, often masquerade as tense questions—that is, they include answers in different tenses but only one option that agrees in number. So while students do need to understand tense, having them focus on the difference between the present and the present perfect when that concept is specifically being used as a distraction does them a major disservice from a test-taking standpoint.

I really want to emphasize this point: one of the main goals of test-prep tutoring—as opposed to subject tutoring—is to teach students to work efficiently. Students will be taking the test for three-plus hours, and they need to conserve their energy. Teaching them to quickly identify exactly what questions are testing is just as important as teaching them to figure out the answers. A handful of questions will genuinely require significant time to figure out, and students should have a comfortable “cushion” so that they don’t have to worry about taking their time when they really need to.