• 21 April 2024
A Tutor's Take On Personal Learning

A Tutor's Take On Personal Learning

Jul 05, 2017

How professional tutor, Josh Sohn, learned to best manage the cards he was dealt.

When I was in high school, I hosted a poker game. There were seven of us who’d gather every month or so to play cards, to hang, to brag, to lie, to laugh, to eat queso dip and Entenmann’s donuts. These were the days before everybody played Texas Hold’em. In our game, we’d rotate the deal and, because the dealer got to decide the game, we’d play an array of poker variations. Some were sophisticated with betting restrictions, card purchase options and rounds of declaration. Others were loaded with wilds and glorious hands. Still others were just plain luck and bluffing. The more we played, the more we learned each other’s betting habits. I was probably somewhere in the middle as a bluffer, between guys who always acted like they had something and others who never did. Once in awhile, one of the safer players would bet aggressively and immediately the rest of us would fold. Invariably, he’d throw up his hands in frustration and collect the meager pot, grumbling how was it possible that we always knew when he had good cards.

This is personalized learning.

Allow me to explain.

As a tutor who specializes in test prep, I spend a lot of time scoring practice tests and evaluating students’ performances on specific exams. The latter comes in many forms. Turning a string of answers into a raw score and then a scaled score (depending on the intricacies of the exam and how opaque the score conversion is) can be a tedious and time-consuming affair, especially if one does this by hand. And when you only have 60 or 90 minutes a week with a student, time is particularly precious. So before I begin working with a student in any test prep capacity, I’ll make sure I’ve built an Excel spreadsheet that will, upon inputting a student’s answers, instantly tell me how she’s done. (I’ve also built statistical models to differentiate between careless errors and expected misses, as well as separating lucky guesses from expected makes, but that’s for another post.)

Over the last several years I’ve noticed that, while formulas, score conversions, and conditional formats are all helpful, the most important work — the poker piece — happens right after I’ve inputted a student’s answer string into my computer. You see, at that moment I’ve got a crucial informational advantage and I need to make a series of quick decisions based on that information as to how best to proceed. Among the variables I need to consider are: how much time we have left in the session, the student’s score goals, my ability to efficiently and effectively explain specific questions, the student’s level of self-confidence, how soon the actual exam is, how many practice tests the student has done, and my own bluffing skills.

The test prep students I work with tend to fall into one of three categories.


  • Grade: 11
  • Academic Profile: High-achiever
  • Subject: SAT Prep
  • Most recent assignment/practice test: Mock SAT — 1380 (127/154 right answers)
  • Score goal: 1500+
  • Session length/frequency: 90 minute weekly sessions
  • Days till actual exam: 34
  • Prognosis: Between us, we have the minutes and the raw skills to cover each and every miss in detail. In other words, my primary job with Eleanor is to deftly steer her through advanced content, as we will invariably be discussing the toughest questions on the test. If we have a few extra minutes, I’ll ask her to articulate her process on questions she’s gotten right so we ensure she’s moving as efficiently as possible through the exam, and capable of handling even tougher iterations. The only artifice here is borne out of a quest to keep her progressing toward an ambitious score goal.


  • Grade: 10th grade
  • Academic Profile: Solid student, but an inconsistent test taker
  • Subject: Regents Biology Prep
  • Most recent assignment/practice test: Mock Regents — 67 (53/85 right answers)
  • Score goal: 85+
  • Session length/frequency: 60 minute weekly sessions
  • Days till actual exam: 77
  • Prognosis: As quickly as I can, I key in on 10 of the 32 misses to discuss, steering us towards some of the easier questions she’s missed. Margaret doesn’t think much of her Biology skills and her work output can vary dramatically from week to week. So I’m nervous that if I begin by declaring her 67, it may result in her not giving as much to her next assignment or blowing it off altogether. In Margaret’s case, my initial sanguine reaction to her answers is especially important as she’s astute and can read me well. Maybe I’ve succeeded in bluffing her a bit this time or perhaps she’s simply decided not to press me on how she actually did. Either way, it’s a far more productive hour focusing on these 10 specific misses as opposed to the true 32.


  • Grade: 9th grade
  • Academic Profile: Erratic
  • Subject: Algebra
  • Most recent assignment/practice test: Algebra Exam — 45 (9/20 right answers)
  • Score goal: Passing Algebra
  • Session length/frequency: 60 minutes every other week
  • Days till actual exam: 7
  • Prognosis: We’re doing test corrections. Tim slides his work across the table to me. All of it is either wrong, illegible, or correct but via a completely incomprehensible method. A part of me wants to throw it in the trash. There’s a glimmer of something in his eye that I translate as, “Try me, Josh.” We have 15 minutes left in our session… I jot down five new algebraic equations. “You hit all five and you’re done,” I say. He looks at me, unblinking. “But if you miss any, you get five more.” Before I can say another word, he’s scribbling furiously on the paper. A minute later he hands me his answers. Four out of five. The next one is three out of five. Then four out of five again. And then finally he hits them all.

Tutor-student rapport is a peculiar game. Students can need different things within a single session, to say nothing of week to week. And any tutor who believes that each student must be taught in exactly the same fashion is in the wrong business. Customized pedagogy— personalized learning — is exactly what makes tutoring both thrilling and challenging.

Over the years, I’ve wrestled with whether it’s okay to let a student believe he’s done better than he actually has. And it’s still something I struggle with. Not every student is Eleanor but, ultimately, we should be thankful for that. If you’re lucky enough to be tutoring someone who genuinely needs academic and/or emotional support, you have an obligation to innovate on behalf of that student. Any educator will acknowledge that while content mastery is important, the ability to read your students’ often non-verbal cues and then improvise accordingly is even more crucial to successful educational outcomes. Within the fraught world of test-prep, these challenges can feel even bigger regardless of the test’s real life import.

On busy days, I’ll see as many as 7 kids, each with unique skills, tendencies and academic needs. It’s on these days that I can’t help but think about those poker games. How the guys who thought they could bluff everyone else out would pick games that let them throw their weight around, and how the safer players would pick games that came down to cards. And depending on the dealer and the game, the strategy required could be completely different. As a tutor, I don’t get to pick the games, but the more attuned I am to the vagaries of one-on-one instruction, the better equipped I am to manage the cards I’m dealt.

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About The Author

Josh Sohn

Josh Sohn