Lessons from Teaching My SAT Reading Series at schoolhouse.world

I had the privilege of designing and teaching my own free 8-week SAT Reading tutoring series over this past summer 2021 at schoolhouse.world! In this post, I walk through a couple of principles and techniques that significantly enhanced my teaching, and I prove their effectiveness through all the quantitative and qualitative student feedback I have received.

What is schoolhouse.world?

schoolhouse.world (SHW) is a free peer tutoring platform started by Sal Khan, the founder of Khan Academy, with comprehensive tutor certification and training policies in place to foster a safe learning environment. Anyone can tutor and become a student! Discover more testimonials at https://schoolhouse.world/stories.


Even though I have TA'ed before at UC Berkeley, I learned so much through this series about teaching effectively due to one key challenge: student attendance was completely voluntary. If anything I did were unhelpful, students could simply decide to quit. I really needed to hone in on how I can offer a unique learning experience beyond what other online resources provide.

Ultimately, I found guided reading demos and the cultivation of simple habits to be most impactful for my students. These activities kept students engaged, built long-term reading skills rather than test-taking skills, and, best of all, achieved "product–market fit" as something valuable yet unique to my series.

Week 1: Data-driven beginning

Over a hundred students registered for the series initially. I knew there would be significant attrition, so I tried to leverage the scale while I could. I required every student to fill out an intro survey, which revealed some surprising insights.

Principle 1: In an online course, require effort upfront so that students feel invested.

The most distinct aspect of my intro survey was my 200-character minimum requirement for the question: "What do you want to get out of this series?" Here were some example responses:

"Better SAT score for writing and get a better grade in English. This is my weakest subject. I need more skill in English so I can get a good score. Also English in SAT is hard so I want to improve it and get a better score." – Survey Response #3

"From this series, I hope to be able to answer text-based questions at a faster pace. Usually what I do is in the following order: I read the questions, note down different sections/paragraphs/keywords I have to look for in the passage, and then read the passage, stopping whenever there's a point where a question can be answered. This process takes a lot of time and I want to learn possible strategies that may work better for me or would speed up the process. I think practicing paraphrasing and learning more about from guided readings would be beneficial to develop a different approach to retaining more information from passages." – Survey Response #14

I showcased these responses to my students as an example of effort, taking advantage of my class's diversity to develop "data-driven" course content. Some students needed to build a habit of putting effort into their introspection and their responses.

Principle 2: Foster a growth mindset by showing examples of quality, especially from fellow students.

In the same survey, I asked how helpful students would find a variety of teaching techniques. The top two forms of instruction were "Guided Reading" and "Official SAT Practice". In "Guided Reading", I walk through a passage, demonstrating my strategies and periodically asking students to paraphrase what we have read. Compare that against "Official SAT Practice", where I let students work on a practice test written by CollegeBoard, then go over each question individually.

Surprisingly, the survey revealed that students generally preferred "Guided Reading" over "Official SAT Practice", even though I thought "Official SAT Practice" would be more relevant. At first, I paid little attention to this insight. I did not alter my original session plan of Strategy Lecture > Strategy Exercise > Official SAT Practice > Debrief. This approach seemed to work well for Week 1 and 2, mainly because attendance was high, so I got by with less student interaction.

Week 4: Diminishing Effectiveness without Guided Reading

After Week 4, I started to notice that something was wrong — I had no idea how well students actually understood SAT passages. I only knew where students were at when they asked me to review a particular practice passage question.

My tutoring feedback reflected a similar negative trend. SHW enables students to report each session on a three-point scale: "Super Helpful", "Helpful", and "Not Helpful". I define Session Helpfulness Average as (2*SH + H - NH)/(SH + H + NH), a weighted average with SH contributing double weight and NH contributing negative weight. My Session Helpfulness Average dropped to its lowest point in Week 4 (11 SH, 16 H, 2 NH → (22+16-2)/(11+16+2) = 36/29 = 1.24).

At this point, I knew I had to adjust something. I went back to my survey and found that I should maybe just try out the "Guided Reading" technique I had neglected to implement.

Principle 3: When presented with surprising data, take the time to understand the data and adjust your behavior accordingly.

Week 5: Transition to Guided Reading

I entered Week 5 with a haphazard plan to implement Guided Reading. As defined above, I walked through an actual SAT passage for my students, versus going through canned strategy exercises. I would then pause at each paragraph to ask what they observed.

The result was like wearing glasses for the first time! While students adequately summarized what we read, I saw that they would frequently miss the nuances. I could now address that behavior in real time!

But something still felt off — my demo was all over the place. I highlighted words, drew some circles, etc. But I thought, "If I were a student, I'd have such a hard time following the teacher." My Week 5 metrics again reflected this weakness (7 SH, 10 H, 1 NH → 1.28).

For Week 6, I addressed this issue by focusing my demo on finding main ideas. I made sure that I kept referencing "main ideas" as I annotated the passage. Now, with the proper technique and execution, my metrics started to recover (6 SH, 7 H, 0 NH → 1.46).

"The way you introduce new strategies that are seamlessly included in the lesson. I really like that we had the chance to apply those strategies as a class." – Week 6 Student Feedback

In hindsight, it makes perfect sense why students preferred Guided Reading in their survey responses:
  • Every SAT practice exam already comes with an explanation for each individual answer choice. However, they don't tell students how to read a passage. Guided Reading fills that gap.
  • Guided Reading gives me a clear view of how well students understand what they're reading. I can address deficiencies on the spot.
  • Guided Reading gives students a paradigm to emulate.
  • Guided Reading is the perfect bridge for showing a general strategy, how it should be applied, and how it is effective.
"The demos were always the most helpful throughout this series and I'm glad I'm seeing some improvement." – Week 8 Student Feedback

Principle 4: The best teaching techniques surface immediate feedback so you can quickly address deficits in understanding.

Building Good Habits for Long-Term Success

Of the 120 students who registered, around 50 students attended my first session. I had enough students to produce an answer distribution for a passage, shown below.

Overall, if we took the majority answer for each question, the class scored 10/11. The questions below had the fewest correct responses:
  • Q3: "Which idea is presented in Passage 1 but NOT in Passage 2? (Majority was wrong)
  • Q9 and Q11: "Which choice provides the best evidence for the answer to the previous question?"
This data reinforced my class's intuition that they had trouble with "dual passage" and "best evidence" questions. These questions are a testament to the SAT's effective new format, because they really assess comprehension. Students cannot simply look at certain lines or memorize vocabulary to get by as I did when I took the test years ago.

How in the world would I teach something as vague as "reading comprehension"?

At the same time, students would constantly complain, "I ran out of time." "I'm having trouble finishing these passages." Adults don't seem to run out of time though. What's missing?

I took inspiration from Charles Duhigg's The Power of Habit, Stephen Covey's The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, and Daniel Kahneman's Thinking, Fast and Slow. Aha! Students have not yet developed habits for reading efficiently. They may be getting stuck on complex phrasing that is second nature to adults.

Principle 5: Good habits help you succeed with minimal effort.

I broke down reading into a collection of concrete skills that one can improve on with practice. Over the course of the series, I developed this list of basic skills:
  • Identify subjects, verbs, and objects.
  • Identify the right antecedents for pronouns.
  • Identify transition words and words with strong connotations.
  • Literature: Identify elements of a narrative: characters, setting, conflict.
  • Take notes. Organize by drawing, etc.
  • Develop a checklist and stick to it. Trust the process.
  • (...and potentially more, yet to be discovered.)
These skills seem like second nature, but until students consciously practice these skills, they will get lost again and again. As taught by Dr. Barbara Oakley's Learning How to Learn course, experts engage in chunking, where they develop significant efficiency over basic skills. For example, chess grandmasters can picture the board many more moves ahead than amateurs can. I believe students can achieve such mastery, even for a task as open-ended as SAT reading, by practicing concrete skills.

Now, I reference these skills as I give my Guided Reading demos. Students fully know what to expect as I give my demos, so they are less likely to become lost.

"The tips you gave in each session (making a checklist, following pronouns, etc.) were really helpful and helped me to better understand what I was reading." – End of Series Survey Response #5

The beauty of this approach is that it works for all types of reading assignments, not just SAT Reading passages. These skills become a force multiplier for students in their careers, not just an addition that they need to toss away once they're done with the SAT.

"I loved that you didn't make it a series about "beating the test", but rather you taught us amazing comprehension skills that could be applied anywhere. It was a thousand times better than the first option could have been." – End of Series Survey Response #6 Conclusion

Based on the above findings, I have settled on the following session format.
  1. Introduce a simple strategy.
  2. Demonstrate it on a sample passage.
    1. Solicit student feedback throughout.
  3. Have students take a time practice passage test.
  4. Go over the answers.
This setup generalizes well for developing any skill:
  1. Start with a simple strategy for improvement.
  2. Practice using it, both in isolation and on the actual task.
  3. Test for mastery.
  4. Repeat.
This setup is incredibly similar to the process I discovered when learning how to type from z to a. Working through the tedium of the process is most difficult, but hey, that's what a community like schoolhouse.world (SHW) is for. Everyone is passionate about learning and teaching. My series is one of many at SHW, where there are so many other classmates to meet, classes to take, classes you yourself can teach, and volunteering leadership opportunities.

Special thanks to the SHW team; Zoom, where SHW hosts these online sessions; and Wacom, which gifted a One by Wacom tablet to every active SHW tutor. I'm teaching more this fall! Feel free to join either series at any point.

AP Computer Science A First Semester (Java): Saturdays at 10am US/Pacific, from 2021/08/28 - 2021/10/23 (9 weeks)
SAT Reading — Practice Test #6: Sundays at 11am US/Pacific, from 2021/08/29 - 2021/09/26 (5 weeks)

Thanks to Maxwell Ruckstuhl, Albert Wu, Sumukh Sridhara, and Sarah Kim for reviewing this post! All remaining errors are my own.

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