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Is Test Prep Worth It?

Posted in Knerds on October 9, 2010 by

Tutoring is a booming industry, one of the few to continue expanding during the recession. The reasons for its growth are numerous and familiar: among others, intense competition to get into top colleges and graduate programs, a lack of resources in schools, and the conviction that when the future is at stake, no expense should be spared. Students and parents are understandably anxious – the pressure is high, and some worry that tutoring franchises take advantage of this anxiety for profit. They ask, “What can a course offer me that I can’t gain from a $20 study guide?” In other words, is a test prep course worth it?

In reply, the test prep companies reference guaranteed score increases and glowing testimonials. They point to charismatic Ivy League tutors who scored in the 99th percentile on dozens of standardized tests, or boast of strategies guaranteed to work for every question. These impressive qualities are important and should be taken into account when making a decision, but the real answer is simpler: You make it worth it.

The central truth about education is that students only get as much out of it as they put into it. Although great teachers make their subjects fascinating and their classrooms fun, the student’s role is not to sit back and wait to be entertained. School is not like television, a sporting event, or a Broadway show. Many students, young and old, are under the impression that learning is a passive activity. They open their textbooks and stare at the pages, or gaze at their instructors and dictate every word in their notes, but all the while they forget the most critical step: thinking for themselves. The best pupils evaluate their textbooks, debate with their teachers, and take nonstandard approaches to homework. Their wheels are constantly turning. When done right, learning is the most active process we can engage in.

This misunderstanding about education should not be blamed on students alone. Some teachers are so worried about disruptive behavior that they essentially encourage “passive learning,” an oxymoron. They would rather be met with quiet, glazed-over eyes than risk the chaotic give-and-take involved in true learning. The more students think for themselves, the harder teachers have to work – but the extra effort pays off. The improvements are exponential.

Parents share some of the responsibility as well. As a society, we fantasize about the prospect of getting something for nothing – losing weight without dieting, making money without working, developing friendships with the click of a button. Students naturally pick up on this mentality, and as a result they believe in the possibility of learning without critical thinking.

The importance of thinking for oneself in the classroom might be so self-evident that it has been forgotten. The typical image we have of the learning process, a teacher pouring ideas into a pupil’s mind, is misleading. Even the greatest teachers can only teach; they cannot learn for their students. Students must meet them halfway. Teachers can offer information, resources, tips, anecdotes, advice, and encouragement, but they ultimately do not have the power to get inside your brain and make connections between neurons. That ability belongs solely to you.

A much more accurate metaphor for the classroom (especially relevant in a fitness-crazed culture) is the gym. A gym offers all types of equipment, people to exercise with, and trainers who assist you in getting the most out of your workout. It would be foolish to buy a gym membership just to watch your trainer exercise or look at the equipment. Nobody can strengthen your muscles for you. You have to lift the weights yourself. Exercise, like learning, should be simultaneously strenuous and pleasurable.

Asking if a prep course is worth the time and money is similar to asking if a gym membership is worth the cost. You can certainly check out a book from the library and learn on your own for free, in the same way that you can do push-ups and crunches in your bedroom. However, a course with a first-rate instructor and a variety of in-depth materials is like a great fitness center: It can challenge and guide you in ways that you may not be able to on your own.

Merely having a gym membership is not going to do much for your body. On the other hand, if you go four times per week, take advantage of the weight room, the pool, the elliptical and yoga class, and find an exercise buddy or hire a trainer, you’re most likely going to notice substantial results. The same applies to the classroom. If you dive into the homework, grapple with the most difficult questions, come at them from every direction you can possibly think of, read the relevant material, examine your strengths and weaknesses, then come to class and office hours with high-level questions and an extremely analytical eye, you will not be disappointed with the rewards. The fruit of your labor will be genuine learning, which is much more valuable than any score increase or admissions decision.