Why students need experienced teachers

As a tutor, I observed a striking phenomenon: despite the pressure to boost students’ confidence levels, I noticed that the amount of confidence my students exhibited often had an inverse relationship to their amount of knowledge.

My highest scorers were moderately confident but also very aware of their weaknesses, whereas my persistently low scorers tended to overestimate their abilities, sometimes dramatically so. (True story: the only student who ever told me he was going to answer every question right on the SAT was scoring in the high 300s-400s.)

As for students who started off lower and raised their scores significantly, they almost always experienced a watershed moment in which they realized that the test was actually hard and that they were going to have to put more in to get the results they wanted. As their knowledge increased and they were able to more effectively self-assess – that is, to more accurately recognize what they didn’t know – their confidence was shaken. But notably, their performance continued to improve.  

It turns out that all this is actually an established phenomenon known as the Dunning-Kruger effect; and as I’ve come to realize, it applies to teaching as well. Regardless of how well novice teachers know their subject, they don’t know what they don’t know about teaching.

Novice teachers, for example, do not know what stumbling blocks their students will likely encounter. This is a particularly acute problem for people who are naturally good at a subject. Having never struggled themselves, they often do not realize how much knowledge they take for granted. Indeed, the Dunning-Kruger effect also accounts for the tendency of knowledgeable people to assume that tasks they find easy are also easy for other people.

Because most new teachers cannot anticipate where the difficulties will most probably arise, they cannot take steps to address those potential pitfalls as they teach. As a result, they may inadvertently confuse their students, or end up having to spend time backtracking to clear things up. In some cases, they might not even become aware of the misunderstandings until much later, if at all, because they consistently overestimate the amount of knowledge their students possess. If something seems evident to them, why wouldn’t it seem obvious to their students as well?

I’ve come to hesitate about using the word “efficiency” because I think it has a somewhat dangerous connotation in today’s educational climate – behaviorism and canned, scripted lessons, trained pigeons, and the like – but I nevertheless think there is something to be said for it.

Some basic things can genuinely be taught quickly and easily, and when that is the case, there is absolutely no reason to waste students’ time and energy overcomplicating them. The most experienced (good) teachers know how to get the point across by making things seem simple and intuitive; they’re secure enough that they don’t need to show off by making concepts seem more sophisticated than they actually are. 

However, when teachers are pressured to turn everything into a “high level critical thinking skill” – and to continually demonstrate to administrators that they are doing so – the result is that simple, straightforward concepts are presented tortuously, leaving students confused about the basics and unable to apply more genuinely sophisticated ideas in anything resembling a competent manner. (See: Common Core.)

I think these issues also hearken back to the false dichotomy between “rote learning” and “critical thinking.” As I’ve written about before, I think it’s more apt to think of these concepts as part of a spectrum. Despite all the rhetoric, I suspect that there are exceedingly few – if any – classrooms anywhere in the United States where students are simply required to memorize names and facts and formulas and dates without any consideration of their larger context.

The real question is not whether concepts are investigated in any depth, but rather what quality of depth they are investigated in, whether that type of depth is appropriate, and how effectively new information is linked to the rest of the curriculum.

Ideally, teachers should understand not only how what they are teaching builds on what students have done before, but also how it builds a further foundation for what students will be doing a year or two down the line. But in order to accomplish that, teachers must have a solid understanding of their subject as a whole, not just their own little piece of it. 

In addition, “high-level critical thinking” is not always the best goal initially; sometimes shallow thinking has to occur first. But it really depends. So much of teaching new information and concepts involves negotiating and re-negotiating just how much depth is appropriate for a student, or group of students, at a given time. What’s true today might not be the case a month or six months down the line.

I was unaware of how much time I spent walking that line myself until I started training tutors and inevitably found myself confronted with the question of how to know the amount of depth to go into, and when.

How do you tell when to give a student the “hard” version of a rule as opposed to the easier “trick” that will get them the right answer 80% of the time?

How do know you when it’s time for a student who’s learned the easier version to make the jump to the harder version? How do you know when going into depth is more likely to cause more problems than it solves?

When I thought about it, I realized that so much of what had become intuitive to me was the result of having worked with dozens of students; of having observed patterns in their thinking; of having learned which questions to ask in order to accurately gauge their level of understanding; and of having seen which types of students responded best to which types of approaches. As a result, there was really no way for me to lay it all out in a set of rules.

And that, I realized, is part of what makes good teaching so challenging. It’s the constant monitoring of whether what you’re saying is really getting across, and knowing how to adjust your approach if things aren’t working. Those are things that come only with experience. Indeed, they are things most teachers do not really even start to think about until what they’re doing doesn’t work.

The crux of the issue is that teaching is something that happens between people. It does not matter how many education courses one has taken or how much developmental or pedagogical theory one has studied. It does not even matter how well one knows one’s subject.

One of the most important parts of learning to teach involves developing the ability to perceive the distance between oneself and others, and learning how to bridge that gap. This demands the ability to stop taking one’s own knowledge as a norm or point of reference, and to try to adopt the perspective of someone who knows much less.

Teaching is not just a matter of explaining xyz, but also of recognizing what parts of x are likely to require clarification to a particular group of students, or what parts of y students may be missing some of the foundation for – and of learning to work those issues into the lessons themselves so that the misunderstandings don’t even have a chance to occur. That is what I mean by “efficiency.”

I confess that I was a terrible know-it-all about some things when I started tutoring. I had my strategies, and since they worked best for me (and were pretty much all I knew), I tried to foist them on everyone I tutored. Sometimes it worked spectacularly well, and other times it, well, didn’t.

After working with enough students, however, I started to loosen up. I realized is that I needed to meet people where they actually were instead of where I thought they should be. Some relatively high-scoring kids, for example, had a terrible time with “big picture” reading questions on the SAT. They simply could not consistently identify main ideas, usually because they lacked sufficient context to make the leap from the literal words to what the passages were actually saying.

The more I learned about how what is called “reading” works, the less doctrinaire I became. Once I really clued into the fact that a lot of reading problems are actually knowledge problems, I stopped trying to insist that kids use strategies that were too sophisticated for them at that point. Understanding that sometimes there was no way to translate formal skills into concrete knowledge was in a way liberating for me. If students had already improved so dramatically reading passages in sections and diligently marking line references, who was I to insist that they throw that strategy away and approach the passages in a manner better suited to adult readers? That really wasn’t fair to them. Instead, I started building on what they had, in ways that worked for them.

But it took me years get to that point. Years. And some of that time was after I had written an entire book about reading!

To be clear, I should point out that I am not implying every veteran teacher is superior to every novice teacher – I think most people remember at least one teacher who had taught for decades and still managed to be an absolute disaster.

I am, however, suggesting that between the best veteran teachers and the best novice teachers, the former will pretty much always outshine the latter, hands down. This goes for tutors, classroom teachers, and pretty much anyone else responsible for teaching anything to anyone.

As is common knowledge by now, however, classroom teachers are currently leaving their profession in droves. Despite an occasional halfhearted gesture such as merit pay (whose effectiveness has been thoroughly debunked), most of the discussions about education now center on how to “build” a better teacher – as if great teachers could simply be churned out according to a formula.

One of the biggest problems (among many) with this line of thinking is that it completely overlooks the role of experience itself in making good teachers. There is absolutely no way to speed up the professional maturation process. What you end up with is a group of overconfident twenty-something ed school grads who can spout buzzwords like there’s no tomorrow but are utterly incapable of imagining just what it is they don’t yet know. And if there’s no one left to school them in those things – if the novices are the ones in charge – then the result is a very sorry state of affairs indeed.

The SAT and zombies

The New York Times op-ed columnist Paul Krugman often talks about zombie ideas – ideas that are unsupported by any evidence but that continue to linger on in the mainstream, where they are kept alive by Very Serious People who should really know better, but who collectively choose to bury their heads in the sands because it suits their needs to do so.

As far as the SAT is concerned, I would like to nominate two myths in particular for zombie status:

1) Arcane vocabulary

As I’ve pointed out countless times before (hey, someone has to keep saying it), virtually all of the supposedly obscure vocabulary tested on the old SAT was in fact the type of moderately sophisticated and relatively common language found in the New York Times

As I’ve also pointed out before, this is a misconception that could be clearly rectified by anyone willing to simply look at a test, but alas, people who hold very strong convictions are wont to reject or ignore any evidence to the contrary. Call this Exhibit A for confirmation bias. 

2) The guessing penalty

To be clear, there is no automatic correlation between guessing and answering questions correct vs. incorrectly. A student can guess wildly and still get a question right, or answer with absolute certainty and get it wrong. In theory, it was possible to guess on every single question of the old SAT and still receive a perfect score; likewise, a student could conceivably answer every question confidently without getting a single one right.

The quarter-point deduction for wrong answers on the old SAT was designed as a counterbalance to prevent students from receiving scores that did not reflect their knowledge, and to prevent strategic guessers from exploiting the structure of the test to artificially inflate their scores (as can now be done on both the new SAT and the ACT).

More than any other ideas, though, at least one of these two seems to make an appearance in virtually every article discussing the SAT, regardless of how valid the other points are.

For example, in a recent discussion of this year’s slight drop in SAT scores (old test), Nick Anderson of The Washington Post states that “The College Board jettisoned much of the old test’s arcane vocabulary questions, dropped the penalty for guessing and made the essay optional” – a sentence that remarkably contains not just one but two SAT words! 

And in her otherwise excellent Reuters article on the College Board’s failure to ensure that SAT math questions conformed to the test specifications, Renee Dudley makes several references to the “obscure” vocabulary on the old test. Just for grins, I went through her article looking closely at the choice of vocabulary and found nearly a dozen “SAT words” (including some real faves like prescient and succinct).

She also alludes to the fact that “The new test contains no penalty for guessing wrong, and the College Board encourages students to answer every question.” 

As I read Anderson and Dudley’s articles, it occurred to me that the inclusion of these zombie ideas has actually become a sort of rhetorical tic, one that anyone writing about the changes to the SAT is effectively obligated to mention. 

Obviously, these references involve two of the biggest changes to the test and can hardly be avoided, but I think that something more than just that is going on here. 

Consider, for example, what isn’t said: although it is sometimes stated that rSAT math problems are intended to have more of a “real world” basis, the fact that geometry has been almost entirely removed from the exam is almost never explicitly mentioned.

In addition, the kind of disparaging language used to describe SAT vocabulary is notably absent when it comes to math. I have yet to encounter any piece of writing in which geometry was dismissed an “obscure” subject that lacked any relevance to (c’mon, say it with me) “college and career readiness.” Nor does one regularly read articles sympathetic to students who whine that they’ll never actually use the Pythagorean Theorem for anything outside geometry class.  

Why? Because depicting a STEM subject – any STEM subject – that way would be taboo, given the current climate. Even if the College Board has decided that geometry isn’t one of the “skills that matter most,” the virtual elimination of that subject from the test is a matter that must be pussyfooted around. 

On a related note, the arcane vs. relevant discussion also plays to fears that students will be insufficiently prepared to compete in the 21st century economy. The goal in emphasizing “relevant” vocabulary is to provide reassurance that the students won’t fall behind; that the College Board can now be trusted to ensure they are prepared for the real world. 

At the same time, this is essentially a rhetorical sleight of hand designed to disparage the humanities without appearing too obviously to do so – a euphemism for people who do not know what euphemisms are because, of course, such words have been deemed irrelevant, and why bother to learn things that aren’t relevant?

The unspoken implication is that acquiring a genuinely rich, adult-level vocabulary is not really an important part of education; that it is possible to be prepared for college-level reading equipped with only middle school-level words; and that it is possible to develop “high level critical thinking skills” without having a commensurate level of vocabulary at one’s disposal. In short, that it is possible to be educated without being educated.

That is of course not possible, but it provides a comforting fantasy.

Call this the respectability politics of anti-intellectualism – a way of elevating ignorance to the level of knowledge by painting knowledge not as something overtly bad but as something merely irrelevant. That is a much subtler and more innocuous-sounding construction, and thus a far more insidious one.

As for the “guessing penalty” myth… This phrase is in part designed to reinforce a narrative of victimization. Its goal is to elicit pity for the poor, under-confident students whose scores did not reflect what they knew because they were just too intimidated to bring themselves to pick (C), even if they were almost sure it was the answer. 

Framing things in terms of guesses rather than wrong answers makes it much easier to evoke sympathy for these students. After all, why should anyone – especially a member of an already oppressed group – be punished for guessing?

The conflation of guessing and punishment also helps perpetuate a central American myth about education, namely that more confidence = higher achievement. By that logic, it is assumed that students (sometimes implicitly but often explicitly understood as female, underrepresented minority, and first/generation low-income) would perform better if only they knew they wouldn’t lose additional points for taking a risk. If these students felt more confident, so the argument goes, their scores would improve as well.

In reality, however, there is often an inverse relationship between confidence and knowledge: if anything, the most confident students tend to be ones who least understand what they’re up against. (True story: the only student who ever told me he was going to answer every question right was scoring in the high 300s.) Helping these students feel more confident does nothing to increase their knowledge and can actually cause them to overestimate their abilities. In fact, when students begin to acquire more knowledge and obtain a more realistic understanding of where they actually stand, it is common for their confidence to actually decrease.

The really interesting part about the phrase “guessing penalty,” however, is that it can also be understood in another way – one that directly contradicts the way described above.

An alternate, perhaps more charitable, interpretation of this phrase is that students were formerly penalized for guessing too much. Not realizing that they would lose an extra quarter-point for wrong answers, they would try answer every question, including ones they had no idea how to do, and lose many more points than was necessary.

Understood this way, the term “guessing penalty” refers to the fact that the scoring system made it almost impossible for students to wild-guess their way to a high score. I suspect that this was the original meaning of the term. (As a side note, I can’t help but wonder: when people argued for the elimination of the quarter-point penalty, did they realize that they were actually arguing in favor of making the SAT easier to game?)

According to this view, students who cannot afford tutors or classes to teach them “tricks” about which questions to skip cannot possibly compete with their more privileged peers. Here again, the obvious goal is to frame the issue in terms of equity.

At this point, one might observe a contradiction: students on one hand were described as being so cowed by the thought of losing ¼ of a point that they could not even bring themselves to guess, and yet they were on occasion also presented as being so oblivious to that penalty that they tried to answer every question. 

But back to the subject at hand.

Another reason I suspect the socio-economic argument against the “guessing penalty” has so much traction is that it would seem to be backed up by commonsense reality.

While plenty of students managed to figure out the benefits of skipping sans coaching, it is also true that a certain type of student could benefit significantly from some help in that department. Given two students with the same level of foundational knowledge, starting scores, and ability to integrate new information, the one with the tutor would typically be at an advantage. That’s pretty hard to dispute.

Whether this particular type of help is inherently more problematic than other types of help – help that more privileged students will continue to receive, quarter-point penalty or no quarter-point penalty – is, however, subject to debate.

Based on my experience, I would actually argue that in fact the quarter-point deduction made the old SAT an overall harder test to tutor than it would have been otherwise, and far less vulnerable to the kind of simple tricks and strategies that mid-range students can, to some extent, use on both the new SAT and the ACT.

The reality is that teaching students to skip questions on the old SAT was not always such a straightforward process; in some cases, it was a downright nightmare. It was only really effective when students had a good sense of which questions they were likely to answer incorrectly – that is, when the only questions they consistently got wrong were the ones they had difficulty answering. Unfortunately, this was usually only the case for about the top 10-15% of students.

In contrast, trying to help a student who was consistently both confident and wrong figure out which and how many questions to skip was often an exercise in futility. Because such students often didn’t know what they didn’t know, and had a corresponding tendency to overestimate their knowledge, there was no clear correlation between how they perceived themselves to be doing and how they were actually doing. This was most problematic on the reading section, where easy and hard questions were intermingled; there was no way to tell them, for example, to focus on the first twenty questions. 

When students’ knowledge was really spotty, it was difficult to determine whether they should even be encouraged to skip more than a few questions on the entire test because there was absolutely no guarantee they’d get enough of the questions they did answer right to save their score from being a complete disaster. And it was also necessary to be careful when discussing which question types to avoid because if students came across one such question phrased in an unfamiliar way, they might not recognize it as something to avoid. 

As a tutor, I came to loathe those situations because they forced me to treat the test as a cheap guessing game, particularly if the students were short term. Eventually, I stopped tutoring people in that situation altogether because things were so hit-or-miss. Often, their scores did not improve at all, and sometimes they even declined.

In addition, some students flat-out refused to even try skipping, regardless of how much I begged/pleaded with/cajoled them. I had students who repeatedly promised me they would try skipping some questions on their next practice test and then answered every question anyway, every time. I never even managed to figure out how many questions, if any, they should skip, and so I couldn’t advise them.

At the opposite extreme, I had students who knew – knew – that they could skip at most one or two questions suddenly freak out on the real test and skip seven.

The point here is that no matter how much tutoring they had received, and no matter how many thousands of dollars their parents had paid, the kids were the ones who ultimately had to self-assess in the moment and make the decisions about what they likely could and could not answer. Sometimes they stuck to the plan, and sometimes they panicked or got distracted by the kid sitting in front of them tapping his pencil and spontaneously threw out everything we’d discussed. No one could do it for them. And if their assessments were inaccurate and they messed up, their score inevitably took a real hit. The limits of tutoring were exposed in a very blatant way.

One last point:

On top of everything I’ve discussed so far, there is also the issue of which groups of students get compared in discussions about equity. When it comes to test-prep, there is a foundational level below which strategy-based tutoring is largely ineffective. If we’re talking about the most profoundly disadvantaged students, then it’s unlikely the kind of classes or tutoring that are generally blamed for the score gap would bring these students up to anywhere remotely close to the range of their middle-class peers.

Yes, certain individual students might draw considerable benefit, but on the whole, the results would probably be quite small. The amount of intervention needed to truly close the gap would be staggering, and it would have to start long before eleventh grade. But that’s a deep systemic issue that goes far beyond the SAT, and thus it’s easier to simply make superficial changes to the test.

I suspect – although I do not have any hard evidence to back this up – that the effects of tutoring are felt most strongly somewhere in the middle: between say, the lower-middle class student and the upper-middle class student who attend similarly good schools, take similar classes, and have similar skills and motivation levels – students who stand to benefit more or less equally from tutoring. If the former cannot even afford to take a class while the latter meets with her $150/hr. private tutor twice a week for six months, there’s a pretty good chance the difference will show up in their scores.

This is of course still a problem, but it’s a somewhat different problem than the one that usually gets discussed.

Moreover, the elimination of the wrong-answer penalty will give privileged mid-range students an even larger advantage. Yes, students who do not have access to coaching can now guess randomly without worrying about losing additional points, but students who do have access to coaching can be taught to guess strategically, filling in entire sections with the same letter to guarantee a certain number of points while spending time on the questions they’re most likely to answer correctly.

This is particularly true on the reading section. Because there are fewer question types, and the passages are not divided up over multiple sections, students on the lower end of average who have modest goals can be more easily taught to identify what to spend time on and what to skip than was the case before.

The result is that the achievement gap is unlikely to disappear anytime soon, regardless of the College Board’s machinations.

Starting SAT/ACT prep? Ask yourself these three key questions

1) Where am I? 

This does not just mean “what is your score on your first-ever practice test?” It means considering why you’re starting where you’re starting, and what that reveals about your strengths and weaknesses — factors that will in turn affect what type of prep is best for you.

If your overall score isn’t where you want it to be, where are the problem spots? Are your math and verbal score/skills comparable, or do you have a big gap between them? If the latter, a class that devotes equal time to both probably isn’t the best option.

Do you have problems with particular types of questions, or are your mistakes all over the map?

Is timing an issue? And if so, it is actually having a negative impact on your score, or do you just feel a little too rushed?

Do you feel comfortable with the content but aren’t totally sure how to apply it to the test, or do you genuinely need work on some of the fundamentals? A good rule of thumb is that if you score better on untimed than on timed sections, you can probably focus on strategy; if you make the same mistakes regardless of time, there’s probably material you need to learn. 

If you are already scoring well and primarily need strategy work, you might be fine with a class, or even self-study (provided you’re sufficiently diligent and motivated). If you really need to work on some of the basics and are looking for significant improvement, tutoring might be a better option.

You also need to consider your grades and the rigor of your classes. Colleges are very clear that your transcript is the most important factor for them, and if that needs work, high scores will not compensate. It is not a good idea to focus on test prep at the expense of your grades. Yes, I know people who have done this, and no, they were not happy with the results; I’ve also worked with a number of students who were marginal candidates score-wise but who nevertheless made it into their top-choice schools.

2) Where do I want to be? 

I understand that this can be a hard question to answer at the outset, especially if you haven’t seriously looked at any colleges yet, but one of the side-effects of the standardized testing process is that it forces you to consider the bigger picture and think about just what it is you’re working toward. Studying without that anchor can make the test-prep process seem as if it’s taking place in a vacuum, as opposed to something genuinely connected to your future.

Even if you don’t yet have a clear idea of where you want to apply, you should at least begin to consider what type of school you might be interested in, and get a sense of the scores you’ll need to be competitive. (As a general rule, “unhooked” applicants — that is, applicants who are not legacies, recruited athletes, development cases, or under-represented minorities — should aim to score at or above the 50th percentile for a given school in order to be seriously competitive.) You should also spend some time on Naviance seeing what scores correlate with acceptances at a range of college

The other factor to take into account is financial aid. If you are going to be applying for merit scholarships, you need to know various schools’ score requirements.

Likewise, some specialized programs such as engineering and medicine (joint BA/MD) have strict cut-off scores. You should also be aware that some schools will not superscore tests submitted for these purposes.

If you are applying to general B.A. programs, you will have to decide for yourself what constitutes a reasonable goal.

This step might seem like an annoyance, but it brings a degree of clarity and focus to a process that can otherwise seem vague and murky. Even if you fall short, having something to aim for makes it easier to define the necessary steps along the way.

If you’re scoring in the 500s/low 20s across the board, for example, it probably isn’t realistic to aim for a perfect score. But beyond that, you need to decide what’s realistic, given the time you have to have to prepare. 50 points? 100 points? 

It’s also important keep in mind is that improvement often happens in stages; you have to be able to walk before you can run. Your goal might be to raise your Math score by 100 points, but if you’re at 600 now, you’ll need to get to a solid 650 before you can aim for 700. 

3) What do I need to do to get there? 

As a tutor, I lost count of the number of times a student and/or parent looked at me wide-eyed and told me earnestly that they or their child really wanted to do well.

Obviously. I never worked with a student who didn’t want do well.

But wanting to do well and actually taking the steps necessary to do well are two completely different things. Unfortunately, is also very easy to overestimate the amount of time you will actually spend studying; good intentions have a way of getting misplaced in a morass of AP calc and basketball practice.

Here are some practical questions to consider:

How much time do you have before the test, and are you planning to take it multiple times? How long are you willing to commit to test-prep for? A month? Six months months? A year? Your expectations needs to be consistent with your timeframe.

How much of a procrastinator are you? (Or, for parents, how much of a procrastinator is your child?)

If you set a goal of studying, say, an hour at a time three days a week, will you actually follow through, or do you need someone else to stay on top of you?

Will you listen to your parents when they remind you study, or will you roll your eyes and say you’ll do it later?

Are you the type of person who can set a goal and persevere over a long period of time, or do you have a history of starting out strong and then losing interest when the payoff isn’t immediate?

If test prep has the potential to blow up into a major familial issue of contention and you can afford to hire a tutor, it’s something to seriously consider. Having a third party present to issue reminders and oversee the process can go a long way toward defusing tension. The psychological savings can easily balance out the financial expense. 

I’m not denying that all this is a lot to think about, some of it not particularly easy or pleasant. But the more honest  you can be about where things stand relative to where you want to end up, and about what specific steps are necessary to get there, the more smoothly the prep process will ultimately go.

When guidance counselors give bad advice

A few years ago, I was contacted by the mother of a former student who wanted me to tutor her younger son, a rising junior, for the ACT. I’d been pulled in to work with his older brother very late, after he’d already taken the test a ridiculous number of times (five, if I recall correctly), and by the time I got to him, he was convinced that he would fail yet again and never wanted to look at another ACT in his life.

This time, his mother was determined to avoid that kind of last-minute craziness. Her younger son was a very hard worker and a straight-A student, but she knew had hadn’t learned any grammar in school and would need to be taught from the ground up. She was going to give him a loooong runway.

I was therefore more than a little taken aback when she told me that she had gone ahead and signed him up for the September ACT. When I had recovered enough speech to make my thoughts known, I managed to suggest to her that that was perhaps not the best idea at that point, given that he hadn’t even started tutoring yet.

Her response: her son’s guidance counselor had recommended signing up for the first ACT of the year, just to establish a baseline score.

Luckily, I talked my student’s mother into signing him up for a practice test at a local testing center instead, and persuaded her that he should hold off on the real thing until the following spring. 

But I had trouble wrapping my head around the fact that a guidance counselor in such a highly rated district could give such misguided advice. How many students had followed it and ended up with a set of official scores far below what they were capable of achieving? 

From a strictly practical standpoint, it is not a good idea to treat an actual test like a practice run. While most colleges participate in score choice, there are a number of schools that require you to submit scores from every test date. Even if a school superscores (considers only the highest scores from each test date), adcoms will still see your scores from each test you’ve taken, and admissions officers may be subtly influenced by a set of lower numbers or by an exceptionally high number of sittings. Colleges tend not to ask for information unless they intend to take it into account. 

Furthermore, students who improve by unusually large amounts from one test to the next run the chance of having their scores flagged for review. This doesn’t occur often, but it does happen. Even if the gains are made absolutely honestly, students can still face score delays (a problem if the test in question was taken close to an application deadline) and the stress of being suspected of cheating. 

There’s also the psychological factor, which shouldn’t be underestimated. Taking the test for real and doing poorly is a downer. And taking the test over and over again, and failing to improve, can create a psychological stumbling block that can be difficult to overcome, and that can make improvement more difficult than it could otherwise have been. That was the case for my student’s older brother, as it was for my very first ACT student, who took the test a whopping seven times before I started working with her.

That’s point number one.

Point number two involves guidance counselors and college lists.

A few months ago, a friend of mine happened to find herself at a social event chatting with a woman who had worked as a guidance counselor in another tip-top suburban district for several decades. My friend’s son, a solid-B student with an interest in Computer Science, was starting to look at colleges, and my friend asked the woman whether she might be able to recommend a few schools.

She recommended exactly one school: Roger Williams, a notorious party school with an 80% acceptance rate. By coincidence, my friend had just spoken to another parent who had recently toured Roger Williams and had received what could diplomatically be called not a favorable impression.

So my friend asked whether the woman had any other suggestions. She humphed and said that she would need her go-to computer program to come up with even one additional option.

Twenty years of experience. In a district that sends students almost exclusively to selective schools. And she couldn’t come up with more than one option — and a poor one at that — for a student who wasn’t headed for the Ivy League but who was still smart and serious. 

Yes, the woman might have been peeved at being asked professional questions in a social setting, but just out of curiosity, I googled her district and managed to find the matriculation statistics for the high school where she worked.

What I encountered was one of the smallest group of colleges I’ve seen a high school send students to. Normally, there are a handful of colleges that enroll many students from a particular high school, then lots and lots of schools enrolling only one or two students. In this case, it was the opposite. There was a very short list of schools enrolling six or fewer students over a four year period, and a much longer list of ones enrolling between about 7 and 20 students. The fact that the vast majority of these schools were restricted to a fairly narrow geographical range near the district itself suggests that the guidance counselors were steering students toward the small group of schools that they were personally most familiar with.

Learning that reminded me of just why people hire private college counselors. They might be a luxury, but if that story was in any way representative of the state of college counseling, they perform a real service. 

On one hand, I understand that guidance counselors, particularly in large public schools, are perennially overworked and responsible for as many as several hundred students. They probably don’t have the time to keep up with which schools are up-and-coming, or to learn about of schools outside their geographical area in any depth.

Much like SAT tutors who focus on the Math section because they just feel more comfortable teaching it, these tutors tend to recommend the same set of schools over and over again simply because they’ve sent a lot of students to those schools in the past.

The result, however, is that students may miss out on learning about schools that are good matches for them — including ones that might offer significant financial aid — but that fall outside the scope of their counselors’ knowledge.

So my advice is to give your guidance counselor a chance when it comes to suggesting colleges, but also be aware that he or she may not necessarily be the best resource.

There are a whole lot of schools between the Ivy League and Podunk Community college, and you shouldn’t limit your options prematurely. Poke around on College Confidential, do a search for the best programs in your areas of interest, and sit down with the Fiske Guide or Looking Beyond the Ivy League. Just don’t assume that the schools you’ve been told about are the only ones you should be considering. 

 

Why you won’t get a full ride to Harvard on a National Merit Scholarship

After I posted a list of reasons that students should continue to consider passing up the new SAT in favor of the ACT, I received messages from a couple of readers who said that they shared my misgiving about the redesigned test, but that they had a very practical concern regarding that exam: namely, the PSAT and qualification for National Merit Scholarships.

In both cases, they indicated that their children would be dependent on scholarship money to attend college, and that they could not afford to pass up the opportunities offered by the National Merit program.

I confess that this was the last thing on my mind when I wrote the list, but it is a very real concern, and I appreciate having it called to my attention.

I do want to address the issue here, albeit with the caveat that I am not a financial aid expert, and that you should check with guidance counselors and individual colleges because policies and guidelines and vary from school to school.

I’m going to go into a lot more detail below, but in a nutshell: If you are unable to afford college without a full scholarship and are focusing on a group of less selective public universities, primarily in the (Mid)west and South, that offer large amounts of aid to students with high stats in order to boost their rankings, then yes, National Merit can count for a lot. But otherwise, it may have little to no effect on the amount of aid you ultimately receive.

If you are looking at highly selective schools, as many students aiming for National Merit are, you probably do not need to base your decision regarding SAT vs. ACT solely on the possibility of obtaining aid from that source.

Here’s why:

Approximately 1.5 million students take the PSAT each year. Of those students, the top approximately 1% in each state are automatically named National Merit Semifinalists by the National Merit Scholarship Corporation (NMSC).

Cutoffs are set by state and vary significantly; cutoffs in traditionally high-achieving states such as Massachusetts and New Jersey are substantially higher than cutoffs in traditionally low-achieving states such as Mississippi in New Mexico.

In total, around 16,000 students receive National Merit Semifinalist status. In order to become Finalists, they must be endorsed by their schools, fill out an application detailing grades and extracurricular activities, write an essay, and take the SAT to confirm their scores.

Most Semifinalists (about 15,000) advance to Finalist status, and of those students, around half will ultimately be named National Merit Scholars.

Although the designation of “National Merit Scholar” is considered an honor, the actual payoff in terms of reducing college costs varies enormously and depends on what type of institution a student wants to attend.

First, a few universities offer substantial scholarships to Semifinalists, so if students with that designation want to attend such a school and decide they do not want to take the SAT, they can obtain a substantial amount of money regardless. These schools include the University of Maine and the University of Southern Mississippi.

Most universities, however, require that students obtain Finalist status in order to be eligible for full-tuition scholarships. Some of them also have GPA requirements. Representative schools include the University of Alaska, the University of Arizona, the New Jersey Institute of Technology, and North Dakota State.

In addition, students who advance to Finalist status become eligible for corporate-sponsored National Merit Scholarships, which are open to children of employees of participating companies or, in some cases, residents of communities that those companies serve. About 1,000 corporate-backed scholarships are given out, ranging from $500 to $10,000 dollars. Some are one-time grants, while others are renewable for four years.

Finally, some schools, such as the University of Massachusetts-Amerhest, only offer full-tuition scholarships to students who have actually been named National Merit Scholars.

It is important to understand that it is an individual school’s choice to offer significant tuition discounts, full-ride or otherwise, to National Merit Scholars; the funds do not come from NMSC itself. In fact, actual National Merit Scholarships themselves are worth only $2,500.

It is also important to understand that although there are a number of prestigious universities that participate in National Merit, most of these schools offer fairly modest amounts of scholarship money on top of the actual National Merit scholarship. Usually, the amount is roughly comparable to the amount of the NM scholarship itself, with some schools offering a bit more (the University of Chicago offers a minimum of $4,000, for instance) and some a bit less. 

Although there are exceptions, the general rule is that the more prestigious the college, the fewer NM scholarships are offered, and the smaller the amount of those grants. Conversely, the less prestigious the college, the more NM scholarships are offered, and the higher the amount of those grants. 

The reason is that highly competitive schools such as Johns Hopkins, Vanderbilt, and Emory do not have a shortage of high-achieving applicants, and they can afford to allocate aid primarily based on need. Although they may offer full-tuition scholarships to students at the very top of their applicant pools (students for whom they are competing with Harvard, Yale, Stanford, etc.), they do not automatically hand out these scholarships to NMSC Finalists the same way lower-ranked state universities do. The Ivies do not offer institutional National Merit Scholarships, or indeed any merit scholarships whatsoever. 

Northwestern, for example, offers only $2,000 in additional aid, bringing the total to a $4,500. The school makes clear that students who receive corporate-sponsored National Merit Scholarships cannot also receive university-sponsored National Merit Scholarships, limiting the amount of NM aid a student can receive.

You should also be aware that elite schools have recently been reducing the number of National Merit scholars they support, in some cases from well over 100 to no more than a few dozen. So while certain elite schools may enroll large numbers of National Merit Scholars, those students are not necessarily being supported financially by the schools themselves — either that, or they are only receiving trivial amounts of merit aid relative to the cost of attendance. 

Likewise, a number of well-known universities, including the University of Texas-Austin and New York University, and the the Universities of Michigan and Virginia, have withdrawn from participation entirely, although they may still offer their own merit programs.

The other, exceedingly important point to be aware of is that merit aid virtually always replaces need-based aid; it does not supplement it.

Middlebury College, which admits students on a need-blind basis and does not offer merit scholarships, summarizes this policy clearly:

Middlebury College allows outside scholarships, such as local scholarships, high school awards, subsidies from parents’ employers or National Merit funds, to first replace the self-help (work and loan) component of the financial aid award. Any outside scholarship aid exceeding the self-help will then reduce Middlebury grant aid dollar for dollar. Outside aid cannot be used to reduce or replace your Family Contribution (EFC).

Even at a school that does offer matching NMSC grants, such at the University of Chicago, you can assume that the same will be true. If a student receives $7,500/year through a combination of $2500 from the NMSC and $5,000 from the school, that $7,500 will be used to reduce the size of any need-based grants the student is awarded; it will not be awarded on top of those need-based grants. The EFC will remain unchanged.

Obviously, at elite private institutions, merit aid policies tend to be most beneficial to well-off students who can almost afford sticker price, but who aren’t going to turn down an extra $5-10K.

Students from families who make too much money to receive significant need-based merit aid at elite private colleges, and who don’t qualify for one of the very few full-ride (non-NMSC) merit scholarships some of those institutions, may be unable to fill the gap through NMSC alone.

So the bottom line is as follows:

If you are a high-achieving student who is not necessarily aiming for elite schools, and whose ability to attend college is entirely dependent on your ability to secure a full scholarship, then yes, you should probably take the PSAT seriously, regardless of how ill-managed the rollout of the new SAT has been. If money is that serious a concern, you are best off pursuing every opportunity open to you, and you may discover ones you did not even know about.

That said, if you are a stellar test-taker and are committed to taking the ACT, it is unlikely that you will suffer too much. The vast majority of the universities that offer significant scholarships to NMS Finalists, also offer equally substantial aid to students who achieve high scores on the ACT. If you see that one of your target schools offers automatic merit scholarships for NM qualifiers but does not mention the ACT, call the financial aid office and ask about what sort of merit aid is available for ACT-takers. Colleges do not always put every piece of information on their websites. 

If you are a high-achieving but very needy student, you should also be aware that you may in fact be eligible for a free ride at some elite schools. It is true that the wealthiest colleges do not offer merit scholarships, but the flip side is that they can afford to offer enormous amounts of aid to their poorest applicants. You shouldn’t count Harvard out entirely — just know that you won’t be attending on a National Merit Scholarship. 

If you fall into the “too-wealthy-for-need-based-aid-but-too-poor-for-sticker-price” category, the amount of effort you expend in pursuit of National Merit should depend on a number of factors: how much time you will have to spend studying for the PSAT (are you almost there, or do you need another 150 points?), and what the tradeoff is in terms of spending time studying for that test vs. doing other activities; what type of school you are aiming to attend (public vs. private), and what sort of other scholarship opportunities it offers; and just how much aid you will require to make paying for a particular college feasible. These are individual decisions, and they must be made on a case-by-case basis. 

Finally, if you are a high-achieving student for whom financial aid is not a significant concern, and you are aiming to attend the most prestigious college you can be admitted to, then you should not base the SAT vs. ACT decision on National Merit. The reality is that elite colleges receive so many applications from recognized students that this factor will carry very little weight. Your actual SAT or ACT scores and overall record of achievement, both in and outside the classroom, will be the deciding factors. 

What is “active learning?” (in defense of contemplation)

What is “active learning?” (in defense of contemplation)

I think it’s fair to say that one of progressive education’s central characteristics is its obsession with so-called “active learning” and its abhorrence of student passivity.

The Center for Research on Teaching and Learning at the University of Michigan defines active learning as “a process whereby students engage in activities, such as reading, writing, discussion, or problem solving that promote analysis, synthesis, and evaluation of class content,” which seems like a perfectly reasonable pedagogical prescription.

Obviously, one of the primary goals of teaching is to encourage students to engage with the material; it would be difficult for anyone to seriously argue that students should approach material passively.

The problem, however, is that the definition of active learning has become increasingly literal. Perhaps unsurprisingly given the American obsession with sports, “active” has now come to be interpreted as “physically active.” The assumption is that if students are not moving around, or participating in a debate, or sharing their ideas in a small group, then they cannot possibly be learning.

The Stanford Teaching Commons website provides a typical example:

Whether you’re facing a lecture hall filled with 300 students or a seminar table with 15 students, one of your primary goals for the class should be to actively engage students with the material. Students learn more when they participate in the process of learning, whether it’s through discussion, practice, review, or application (Grunert, 1997). This is in stark contrast to traditional styles of teaching, where students are expected to sit for hours, listening and, theoretically, absorbing information presented by the instructor.

For example, encouraging short partner discussions during lectures (i.e., think-pair-share), adding problem- or case-based research projects to the curriculum, and incorporating time for small-group critical analysis exercises during seminars are all great ways to actively engage students in learning.

Let’s consider these two statements. First, in regards to “traditional styles of teaching,” the reality is that most undergraduate lectures last no more than an hour and are also broken up into separate, discussion-based recitation sections consisting of 20 or so students. Furthermore, professors are usually perfectly willing to entertain questions, either during or after their lectures, and to stop and clarify points that a class is clearly having difficult grasping.

The stereotype of the boring old professor droning on certainly does exist, but I would wager that it’s a far less common phenomenon than it’s usually made out to be – especially at places like Stanford.

This description is thus in many ways a caricature, a straw man argument designed to induce distaste for the traditional. When you consider that Stanford is arguably more of an incubator for future Silicon Valley techies than a university, that is hardly surprising; in this case, however, you’re likely to find identical rhetoric espoused at pretty much every other elementary school, middle school, high school, and university in the United States.

Also, to make what should be an obvious point, it is entirely possible for students to be passive while working in groups – they simply sit back and let their more motivated classmates do the work, regardless of whether the teacher assigns roles. 

Partner-based work is no guarantee either. A truly unmotivated student who is assigned to work in pairs may simply spend time distracting his or her partner. (Granted, such students are unlikely to attend Stanford, but still.)

To be very clear about this, I am not arguing for a return to a time when college consisted exclusively of lectures and memorization, nor am I suggesting that professors should not make use of a variety of pedagogical techniques as necessary and appropriate.

Rather, my beef is with current assumptions about just what constitutes passive vs. active learning, and about how those assumptions can cause effective forms of pedagogy to be both misunderstood and dismissed.

Consider, for example, the traditional lecture-note taking model – the version that involves writing notes by hand rather than typing them. Because I attended high school in the pre-ubiquitous laptop days of the 1990s, I have a good deal of experience with that phenomenon. 

Now, taking notes by hand as teacher lectures is typically held up as the epitome of student passivity, but in my experience, it actually demands a type of active engagement that is greatly minimized when students write on a computer.

Because there is no way to write fast enough to transcribe a lecture verbatim, note-taking by hand is an act that requires constant negotiation. It is necessary to decide which points are important enough to be written down and how they should be organized (headers, titles, roman numerals, etc.), and to summarize and condense them clearly while still retaining the essential ideas. These are sophisticated skills, which need to be taught as well, and they require students to consistently and actively apply their individual discretion and judgment.

When I was required to write huge amounts of notes, for example, I developed my own shorthand. I abbreviated constantly, and drew arrows and symbols. Although I thought nothing of these types of shortcuts at the time, having relied on them largely out of necessity, I suspect they are crucial to developing the ability to move easily between concrete and abstract.

A decade later, when I began tutoring SAT reading, I was baffled by the extent to which my students struggled with these skills, as well as by their persistent refusal to write things down. As I compared my own decidedly low-tech high school experience with their technology-flooded one, I slowly began to piece together the reason behind their difficulties. Now, I am increasingly disturbed by the emphasis on rapid group- and technology-based tasks that merely appear sophisticated at the expense of ones that actually build they type of foundation that ultimately allows more for sophisticated work.

Beyond that, it is shortsighted to assume that the note-taking process automatically precludes engagement with the actual content of a lecture. To argue otherwise is effectively to suggest that it impossible to listen and think simultaneously! People are not automatons – assuming they have some level of interest in the subject and are competent note-takers, most of them will spontaneously make connections between what they are hearing to things they have learned before; indicate questions and points of confusion; and mark ideas that are particularly interesting or important. This is in fact a type of dialogue; it just happens to be occurring in writing rather than speaking on one end.

Another feature of this type of learning that is often overlooked is the time scale on which it occurs. Students have weeks or even months to review, absorb, ponder, and formulate responses, in a self-directed way. This stands in sharp contrast to the immediate – and often superficial – responses that typical group work tends to encourage.

It seems to me also there is a performative aspect to the whole idea of “active learning,” one that I find vaguely disturbing. Students are expected to demonstrate – to make a show of – the fact that they are learning, in a very obvious visual way. The overt expression of excitement and happiness is taken as evidence that true learning is occurring. The underlying assumption seems to be that learning only exists if it can be directly and easily observed, and if it corresponds to the correct emotions. I suspect that this is related to the current obsession with measuring and quantifying, and to the value placed on instant feedback; processes that do not provide immediate results are inherently suspect. I also suspect it reflects the relentless American focus on happiness. People, even children, who do not convey outward positivity are suspect. 

A student who is merely sitting and thinking is assumed not be doing much of anything at all. In contrast, one who weighs in vociferously on a subject about which he or she is largely ignorant is more likely than not to draw praise.

Learning, of course, does not always take place a showy way. Rather, it can be a bumpy, unpredictable, idiosyncratic process. It occurs in fits and starts, sometimes in the company of others and other times in solitude. A student may struggle with a concept for months, then suddenly find that it mysterious “clicks” months later for no apparent reason. A system built around instant feedback completely ignores that fact.

The result of all this emphasis on constantly “proving” that one is learning is a system that prizes superficiality over substance, quantity over quality, and confidence over humility. (Indeed, studies have found that although American students are middling academically compared to their peers internationally, they are consistently tops in confidence.)

There is also a striking obliviousness to the motivations of more reticent students. I recently came across an article on the NPR website that captures this phenomenon in a manner so pitch-perfect it almost lapses into parody. It cites one expert who suggests that to accommodate quieter members of a class, teachers should allow students to “walk around the room, writing ideas on tacked-up pieces of paper. They can respond to each other’s ideas — like a sort of silent dialogue.”

This is active learning reduced to its most absurd extreme. The notion that some students might simply be more interested in listening to a knowledgeable adult explain things, or in puzzling things out on their own, is not even entertained. It is as if any physical activity, no matter how ridiculous, must be posited as an alternative preferable to having teachers talk and students listen.

And then there’s this. Discussing why some students are quiet, Erica Corbin, Director of Community Life and Diversity at Manhattan’s über-elite Chapin School has this to say:

Personality might be some of it,” she explains, “and we also might have kids who are quiet because they have been shut down. We might have kids that are quiet because they anticipate being shut down whether they have been or not.

Shutting down for all kinds of reasons, she adds. Stereotypes. Biases. Trouble at home: “When we’re thinking about students who are quiet, how does that also connect with their race … their gender … their sexuality?”

Newsflash: students who do not feel compelled to constantly voice their opinions in class might remain quiet for intellectual rather than emotional reasons. They might, for example, want to sit back and gather the facts before passing judgment. But that possibility is not even acknowledged.

Also overlooked in this oh-so-trendy discussion of victimhood is the possibility that students who are genuinely traumatized, or who come from chaotic home environments, are likely to benefit from having a stable, competent adult present information in a clear and structured manner. The last thing a student in that situation needs is a classroom resembling a three-ring circus. As the product of a not-quite-stable home, I can state that it was a profound relief to be able to just sit in a chair and write, knowing that an adult was in charge and that it was ok to let someone know more than me.

Although it may surprise readers of this blog who are accustomed to hearing my unrestrained opinions, I tend to refrain from commenting on a topic until I’ve gathered enough information to weigh in. Before then, I’m more likely to spend some time hanging out in the background, reading and observing, familiarizing myself with the major arguments and players, and parsing the rhetoric of the standard talking points. Only after doing these things do I begin to figure out just where I stand.

I’ve been this way for much of my life. I was not terribly talkative in class during high school, not because I was shy (something I’ve never been) but because I recognized that I didn’t really know enough to say anything particularly insightful. I realize that many people would nowadays interpret this as a sign of low self esteem, but it was a deliberate decision on my part: I was fully aware that there was a lot I didn’t know, and I wasn’t going to run my mouth off just for the sake of a participation grade. And the truth is that when I was 16, my thoughts were not notably interesting or original.

All the while, though, I was listening intently and absorbing and contemplating. The things I learned have remained in my head for years; I still regularly think about some of the questions my teachers posed (is it better to do a good thing for a bad reason, or a bad thing for a good reason? why are some people compelled to consciously act against their own self-interest?). And when I did finally begin to voice my opinions publicly – after college (where I did start to speak in class); after living in two foreign countries and attending school in one; after working with dozens of students ranging from Florida homeschoolers to Park Avenue penthouse dwellers – I really and truly had something to say.