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.
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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