The Better Approach to SAT + ACT Tutoring: One Section at a Time

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There’s a major reason why your SAT or ACT tutoring might not be working.

Most tutors teach the tests by showing students each Section (Math, English, etc.) and then working on all of the Sections simultaneously, week by week. Progress dribbles in, and preparing for the tests starts to feel like indefinite toil. Parents and students wonder: “do we just work at this forever?” “When does it stop?” “Will we ever get the score we’re hoping for?”

At Growth Wise, some of our tutors have started teaching the tests differently, and the results have been fantastic. We do it one Section at a time, where not until the student has mastered one Section are they allowed to “graduate” to studying for the next one.

We modeled the approach after Karen Pryor, legendary animal trainer who wrote “Don’t Shoot the Dog,” a gem of of a dog-training (and human-teaching!) book that is part of our tutor training curriculum. Pryor writes,

“Often when we seem to show no progress in a skill, no matter how much we practice, it is because we are trying to improve two or more things at once… If the task can be broken down into separate components, which are then [mastered] separately, the learning will go much faster.”

She then shows this to be true in case study after case study, ranging from Killer Whales she trained at Sea World to her friends slyly shaping the behavior of their romantic partners (told you it’s a good book!).

We start with ACT English (or Writing & Language on the SAT) and have students memorize 66 grammar rules. We ask that they do so to a standard we call “100 percent,” by which we mean we can ask them any rule at random and they can recite it without hesitation. Until they reach that point, we tell them to go back and flip their grammar notecards more before next session.

The “without hesitation” part is the key – saying a rule correctly, but with hesitance, opens the door to the student being mildly uncertain about that rule (even though they know it) under the pressure of the actual test day, and getting a question wrong despite having been able to say what was on the other side of the notecard when they were studying. That hesitance opens the door to uncertainty on test day, so we close it by asking them to show up at a higher standard in our sessions.

It isn’t hard to memorize grammar rules “100%” – it just takes more notecard flipping than students are used to asking of themselves. At school, they are more likely to look over their notes and tell themselves “I know this” at a memorization level akin to, say, 82%, or 88%, or 94%.

What we’ve seen in ACT English, though (quite curiously!), is that there seems to be a direct correlation to the “percentage” a student seems to know the rules when verbally quizzed on them and exactly how many questions on the English Section they get correct. This is surprising because 40% of the questions in ACT English are not even about grammar! Yet somehow this holds uncannily true. If I sense a student only knows the rules, say, “94%,” they seem to score about 94% of the questions correct on the Section! Equal to about a 32, say, when in truth, if they had just flipped their notecards for another hour or two, getting their memorization up to 100%, they score reliable 36s.

That gives you a picture of the degree of mastery that we expect from students before allowing them to progress to the next Section. When a student has memorized the rules and techniques for ACT English 100%, and scored two consecutive 75-out-of-75 36s on the Section, then we allow them to “graduate” to ACT Science.

Early in the process, students and parents often balk at a goal of consecutive 75-out-75 36s, fearing the goal is too high. What we have seen since applying the One-Section-at-a-Time approach, though, is that unless the student has learned English as a foreign language (and thus some idioms or vocabulary words are simply out of their range – that said, our native Chinese-speaking student this past Fall scored a 35 on her ACT English), they WILL score consecutive 36s once the rules are memorized 100%!

The approach ensures mastery: one of our students, for example, has scored 730 of his last 735 ACT English questions correctly across numerous tests after using this study approach. Another has answered her last 210 ACT English consecutive questions correctly. Both of them started at a 24. A third has answered 298 of his last 300 ACT English questions correctly, and a fourth has answered 209 of his last 210 correctly (after starting at a 21).

One of these students was certain he would score at a 31 or 32, max, on his ACT English, assuming 36 was out of range because, as he asked, “isn’t that what the really smart kids at school get?” You can’t imagine the joy in getting to show him several weeks later that, when he raises his level to “100% mastery,” he is “one of the smart students,” too.

We do English before the other Sections, and it usually takes the longest – 40% of the test prep time when you’d assume that as one quarter of the test, it should take 25%. English has considerable memorizing to do – schools teach minimal grammar these days (even the best schools), so students are unfamiliar with the rules.

But they’re also learning that we really mean it when we say “mastery” and “100%.” They spend a few weeks showing up at a level more like 88%, or 92%, only to find that, unlike in school, a tutor is watching their every step and saying (in a friendly way!), “not good enough, yet.” Pressure builds as the student fails to score consecutive 36s, and then finally, after any number of weeks, Boom!, the breakthrough comes, and 36 becomes their score de rigeur.

And they take this approach into Science, Reading, and Math thereafter. Science and Reading tend to be a breeze once students have become battle-hardened by English, and then we mop up the remaining blindspots in Math after in-school Math class coursework has filled those gaps as well as possible during prior months when we were focusing on the ACT English, Science, and Reading content that isn’t covered in school.

One might question, aren’t we asking too much of students? Won’t this take too long? Interestingly, not only are our students scoring 36s with amazing consistency (the student above who thought 36s were only “what the smart kids at school get” has scored 40-out-of-40 36s on his last three ACT Science Sections), but they’re also finishing their prep faster than our students did before.

By approaching the test one section at a time, and giving them no choice other than 100% mastery, we introduce an achievable element of completion into the prep process – I graduated ACT English, and then I graduated ACT Science, etc. – that isn’t there when you’re just doing a little of each Section week by week, as nearly every other tutoring service will do.

When our students have their 66 grammar rules for English, 3 steps for each question in Science, 5 techniques for each Reading Passage, and 70 math formulas memorized for Math (most of which have already been learned in school), there simply isn’t any more prepping to do.

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