A student is trying to grasp a laptop computer filled with SAT Prep info that's just out of reach.

The External Hard Drive

How do you avoid stumbling into the hand-holding External Hard Drive? These starter questions provide some guidance:

  • How do you help students retain concepts so that they don’t forget them on test day?
  • How do you approach problem-solving strategies?
  • Can you describe the difference between the first and last session before an ACT or SAT? How about preparations for a retake?

With those questions in mind, let’s meet The External Hard Drive:

I nearly left this particular type of bad tutor out. Why? I forgot that these characters do indeed exist. The External Hard Drive is difficult to expose through interview questions but quickly recognizable once tutoring commences.

The External Hard Drive is the permanent hand-holder. While this might sound friendly or even ideal, the EHD never lets you go. Or, phrased another way, students are never able to let go because their EHD tutor has left them reliant upon their tutor’s quick insertion of information. The EHD echoes the first error of The Drill Sergeant, but with a different spin.

The Drill Sergeant offers the answer with little to no explanation about why it’s the answer or how to get it; the EHD simply provides the information necessary to answer each individual question, sometimes before a student has even missed it.

Now this might seem a fairly reasonable approach. Why wouldn’t you offer the necessary information for a question? The answer is that you certainly do, but when and how you do so is what separates a good tutor from the EHD.

EHDs make certain they have the information at the ready to get a student unstuck, but they never wonder whether their student has retained that information. Indeed, it’s to the EHD’s advantage if a student doesn’t retain information. “How is that?” you might think. Well, students who don’t retain the necessary information for their ACTs and SATs make for repeat customers. And since the EHD is ever so “helpful,” students and parents never suspect them of actually being unhelpful.

Whether EHDs are scheming opportunists or bumbling amateurs isn’t clear. (Quite likely, some are the former and others the latter.) But their good intentions pave a dead end for students who desire improved test scores.

If EHDs wished to be helpful, they would provide less direct or immediate interference as sessions progress.

Of course, this doesn’t mean tutors do less work the more they work with students. But it does mean that tutors do less obvious helping, particularly for concepts and questions that frequently repeat on the ACT or SAT. For instance, the EHD readily provides the equation of a circle each time a student needs it; a good tutor makes a student memorize the equation (or, if the student’s calculator-savvy, store it where it’s easily accessible for the ACT—frankly, most such students wouldn’t need the tutor’s help figuring that out…)

If a student cannot recall a word’s definition when she’s midway through a timed reading section, the EHD will swoop in with the definition. A good tutor would wait until after the student had finished the passage (without the clarified meaning). And then, when they correct the passage together afterwards, a good tutor would provide the definition. Further, a good tutor might offer some way of reinforcing that student’s knowledge of the word. The EHD would offer no such reinforcement.

More important, the student won’t have learned the essential skill of navigating a passage when the student doesn’t already know every term. The EHD’s benevolence will function as a hindrance, but it won’t seem that way at the time. It’s hard for students to realize when offered help instead does the opposite. Unfortunately, the clueless EHDs won’t recognize how students are being held back either, so the problem won’t be improved.

The EHD is often a master problem solver. By that, I mean that this species of tutor is great at solving problems one way. And, with a quick, “Here’s how you do it,” the EHD will swiftly sketch out a solution. No, a student doesn’t need to learn another possible approach; no, this problem doesn’t need to connect to future, similar problems; and no, it doesn’t matter if the student doesn’t get this problem-solving approach. Never fear, the External Hard Drive is here to explain it again to your uncomprehending mind every single time!

(Except, of course, on test day when you’ll lack access to your irreplaceable EHD.)

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.

Wondering about some of the things a good ACT or SAT tutor might provide for students? Families have found my test-prep guide a great help in evaluating how helpful current or potential tutors really are.