I recently had the opportunity to attend the National Test Prep Association conference in Dallas, Texas, and boy, was it an eye-opening experience. Picture this: nearly 200 tutors gathered in one place, discussing the latest trends and research in the test prep world. Ok, I’ll admit that’s nightmare fuel for basically everybody, but for me it represented a fascinating melting pot of ideas, strategies, and innovative approaches. However, amidst all the discussions, one unexpected topic caught my attention: student motivation (or lack thereof).
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Some tutors were literally discussing ways to keep students motivated. How could that be? Test prep is intrinsically motivating —and fun! Ivy Tutor students all do their homework and take the process seriously. Most happily give up their Sunday mornings (and, by extension, their Saturday nights) to join our practice tests. And so I wondered, what on earth are some of the other tutors doing?
After striking up a few conversations with tutors to understand what was going on, I identified two major sources of tedium. The first is “lecturing.” Many tutors spend hours following a curriculum. They go over numerous concepts and explain the exam’s structure. Sounds useful —I guess— but the problem is students don’t want to sit through boring lectures. They want to get good at taking the exam. So cut out the tedium! Let the students experience the test right away and allow it to reveal the areas we need to improve. At Ivy Tutor, we will cover the exact same material but only when it feels useful and relevant to the student: “Sally, you got this question wrong. That sucks, but here is how to get it right next time you see something similar.”
The second issue I discovered was “practice overload.” Many tutors believe that practice, practice, practice is the key to success. While that may be true for playing at Carnegie Hall, it’s not true for test prep. And research shows it. The value of each additional practice question diminishes rapidly, especially when students repeatedly practice the same concept. Practice overload is not only pointless; it’s soul-crushing and robs students of the joys of test prep. Rather than suffer through endless repetition, our students do targeted practice: “Tim, missing midpoint questions is costing us points, so I’m going to assign you 5-10 similar questions so you get the hang of it.”
Now, some might argue that this approach is simply catering to student enjoyment. They might say that students need to “eat their proverbial vegetables” by enduring boring tasks. “No pain, no gain!” My response: Nope. Extensive research on learning has consistently shown that learning knowledge and skills is deeply connected to the reward pathway in our brains. Students can memorize stuff if they fear punishment, but that information won’t be encoded in a meaningful and lasting way. Students thrive on engagement, and when test prep feels relevant to their goals, they stay invested and continue to improve.
My conclusion is tutors fall into the checklist trap. They genuinely fear that if one concept is missed or students don’t see a certain number of question types, they will fail their student. That’s wrong. Tutors fail their students by attempting to teach concepts outside of a framework that students perceive as relevant to the task at hand. Falling into this trap means wasted time and —for parents— wasted money.