The Drill Sergeant

How do you avoid stumbling into the confidence-shattering Drill Sergeant? These starter questions provide some guidance:

  • What do you typically do in a session?
  • Is there homework between sessions? If so, is it just fully-timed practice tests or other work?
  • Do you provide handouts or other resources for commonly-asked math or grammar questions?
  • Do students study sections of the ACT (or SAT) in an untimed environment initially, or is training always timed at test-day speeds?
  • How do you approach the mistakes students make in training? How do you make use of them when you’re tutoring a student?

With those questions in mind, let’s meet The Drill Sergeant:

What’s fascinating about the Drill Sergeant archetype is that parents confuse their methods with rigor. Parents and occasionally students don’t realize that their drill sergeant could just as easily be named by a more infantilizing term: the paid babysitter.

You see, most of what the Drill Sergeant provides is an overpriced accountability partner. When your accountability partner isn’t a peer, one whose help would be free, you’re paying for a babysitter. That’s fine so far as it goes, but be honest about what you’re paying for, and how much you’re paying for it.

Aside from evaluating payment for the job that is actually being performed (expensive babysitter), you’ll want to be aware of the other potential pitfalls brought about by the Drill Sergeant—because they can be severe.

With the Drill Sergeant, all you’re doing is the same thing over and over again—full practice test after full practice test. While doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result may not be the best definition of insanity, it’s certainly representative of foolish, wishful thinking. A competent tutor would recognize that repeated full practice tests only help a small number of students, and even then only so much. Incompetent tutors don’t recognize this and think that their weekly drill sessions provide outstanding training.

Now, students do need consistent instruction and exposure to official ACT or SAT practice materials. But that isn’t the same as the Drill Sergeant’s approach of fully-timed, full practice tests each week. (Occasionally, the Drill Sergeant does only full sections of a test, say math or reading, but they are still fully timed.)

Drill Sergeants gravely err in three ways:

  • Missed Connections

First, little or no supplemental information is provided. For example, if a student misses a question involving a transition, the Drill Sergeant will provide the correct answer and no more. (It’s D, not C.) Even if the Drill Sergeant is more helpful than that, the most that’s offered is an explanation about that specific transition question. No connection is made to similar transition questions; no connection is made to transition questions generally.

Much worse than all of that, no broader context for transitions is provided—no handouts, no off-the-cuff examples, no nothing. For a student to benefit from practice tests, there must be full explanations of individual questions and their thematic connections to related questions. Further supplementary materials must be provided in response to a student’s particular struggles.

  • Full Steam Ahead!

Second, the student is forced to go full speed all the time. This makes little sense for several reasons. One, who learns things at full speed right away? Learning a new move in soccer? You practice it at half or quarter speed until you feel confident enough to try it faster. (Yes, there are freaks who pick things up full-speed right away. If your kid’s a testing freak, it’s doubtful any tutoring is necessary anyway…) Two, the student must figure out everything on the fly—which passages seem easiest on average, which math questions show up on every test (and thus are most important to master), and how to handle the pacing. Three, the best methods for performance improvement are ignored. As I’ve written elsewhere (and as any halfway competent tutor would tell a student), what matters most is efficiency.

To score better, students need to select more ‘best’ answers out of the questions they see. Without the chance to do some untimed or added-time passages, students can’t learn to manage their efficiency with or without the Drill Sergeant’s “aid.”

For those still wondering how students should approach efficiency, my book’s chapter for self-study, “An Outline of Success,” spells out a clear, incremental program for students to use as they explore their individual efficiency. Efficiency is an essential element for better performance; it’s also the one most screwed up by teachers, parents, students, and bad tutors alike. So please read the above-linked piece on efficiency. If you want a more detailed look at a study program that prioritizes efficiency, you’re welcome to see how my book approaches it.

  • Never Look Back

The third error the Drill Sergeant makes is omitting error review. As I’ve already noted, the initial error review with the Drill Sergeant might be as minimal as, “Your answer’s wrong and this one’s right.” (Told you it’s glorified babysitting. Next up: “Don’t touch the hot stove.”) With the Drill Sergeant, that one-time error review is it. So if you make an error on a practice test in September, you’re expected to magically recall your misses (and why you’ve missed them and how to remedy those mistakes) in December when you’re taking your real test. The Drill Sergeant is oblivious to the fact that you should be reviewing all your old errors at least once again before each official test day. Even with in-depth instruction from a non-Drill Sergeant tutor, students won’t retain everything several month later.

These then are the Drill Sergeant’s primary errors—no depth of instruction beyond right and wrong, no conception of efficiency as learning occurs, and no reinforcement of former learning (i.e., no error review).

All three of those are deeply problematic and can cause confidence problems, but I must note that the full-speed-at-all-times approach can cause the most psychological damage and even produce lower scores. Once a student’s confidence has been unnecessarily wrecked by the full-steam-ahead ideologue, it takes as much work simply to restore confidence as it does to resolve all the other testing issues left unattended by the Drill Sergeant’s inexpert attentions.

Want to learn about other tutor types to avoid? Check out the intro to this series as well as my page listing all of the bad tutor types covered so far.