- by Blake Jensen
“Ugh, I have to take the SAT/ACT”. Once that sinks in, you have to figure out how to study for it. The whole idea of it is pretty daunting (good test prep word!), but it seems like almost all of your friends are doing the same thing. You look at the options and see some bootcamps. They say they will cover the whole test, and can do it in only a day or two! So you sign up, show up, and get through it. You actually learn some things. That anxiousness about your test date is a lot lower. You have worked hard, and you know things today that you didn’t yesterday.
You go home with a book with lots of information, and you think you will probably even review some of it again before the test. But you are pretty busy, so you never quite get around to those review sessions. And a few times on test day, you see a question that reminds you of something from the bootcamp. However, you can’t quite recall the details well enough to apply what you thought you learned. You feel frustrated. But this isn’t a flaw in you, it’s a mismatch between the way human brains learn and the structure of bootcamps (aka, cramming).
So if bootcamps and learning aren’t the best match, why do they exist? To answer that, we have to discuss the two types of bootcamps. There are short bootcamps, consisting of 1-2 full days over a weekend. There are also longer term bootcamps, with 5 full days a week, for up to an entire summer. Each has its appeals and drawbacks, and fit certain students much better than others.
Short Term Bootcamps
-Why parents like them: Parents feel pressure to get their kids into some kind of prep. But parents also have to pay for the prep and organize the scheduling to make sure test prep doesn’t conflict with the innumerable other things their kids are involved in. Show them an option that claims to cover the whole test, is over in one weekend, and usually costs less than the competition, and they will feel like they have a solution to the pressure they feel.
-Why students like them: Students feel the pressure, too. They want to work hard and do well on their test, but they have to balance that against everything else demanding their time. If there is a class that claims to minimize the pain to one weekend, without compromising the gain, they will be interested. For the time students are in the bootcamp, they are working hard, and will go home feeling much less anxiety about the test. If students are organized, can take great notes during the bootcamp, and can review consistently after it, they can get results from short term bootcamps.
Long Term Bootcamps
-Why parents like them: Summer school for test prep! Parents like the many hours in a structured environment, since students can get a lot of practice. A longer bootcamp enables a schedule that can keep students on track. Though parents may not admit it publicly, it’s a good bet that parents don’t mind knowing students are also less likely to get into trouble over the summer if they are sitting in a bootcamp...
-Why students like them: Well, “like” is probably the wrong word here. Only a tiny fraction of students taking all-day, summer long bootcamps would say they liked them. But there is value in forcing yourself to spend many hours on test prep that would be harder to do on your own. If you are the type that can be focused enough for all of those hours, it can be very effective.
With the appeal of bootcamps covered, we need to consider the drawbacks.
Short Term Bootcamps
Short term bootcamps are the biggest compromise of learning for convenience. It can be quite reassuring to have spent a day or two watching a bunch of test prep material whiz by. And right after you finish, you will feel confident you understand a lot. You may also take home a big book full of tips and practice questions. But the drawback to quick bootcamps starts as soon as you are driving home. You’ll have learned some concepts, but not yet well enough to apply them under test conditions. And unless you review properly, you’ll be gradually forgetting the bits you did learn. Taking home that book may feel like it helps, but if taking home a big textbook was the solution to getting high school kids to study consistently and effectively, everyone would be getting straight A’s in AP Calc for the small price of lower back pain!
Long Term Bootcamps
Long term bootcamps don’t leave you alone to do all the heavy lifting of review by yourself. But they do expect you to be focused for 5-7 hours a day, Monday through Friday, for several weeks in a row. This can be more demanding than your regular high school! If you are like most teenagers, it’s difficult to imagine being focused for that long, day after day. You are trying to cram 25 hours of test prep into each week; you may be physically present for all 25 hours, but maybe only 15 of those hours impact your scores. The rest of that time could be more accurately described as voluntary detention.
All that said, each kind of bootcamp can work well for a very specific type of student. If your family is on a tight budget, and you are organized and very self-motivated, a bootcamp with good reviews can be very effective. If you don’t have a problem focusing intensely for long days, your schedule is open enough, and you need the structure to work hard, reputable long term bootcamps can help you be successful.
Getting To Our Point
And this (finally!) brings us to why we don’t do bootcamps; most of the students who sign up for bootcamps don’t realize they aren’t a good fit. Students will take the bootcamps, feel disappointed or frustrated with a lack of results, and blame themselves. A lot of students come to us after that experience with our competitors' bootcamps.
The first thing to realize is that the lack of success isn’t due to some failure on your part; it goes back to that mismatch between how we learn and how bootcamps teach.
As painful as it is for us to admit, those teachers who used to annoy us about the drawbacks of cramming were actually on to something. In study after study, cramming does much worse than spaced repetition. The research consensus is around 30-40% worse, for the same total study time. What is spaced repetition, you ask? Spaced repetition is a review strategy that progressively increases the time between review sessions.
For example, if you learned how to solve Distance = Rate x Time problems on the morning of day 1, a spaced repetition schedule could be: quick review before bedtime of day 1. Quick review on day 3, then day 7, day 14, and day 24. An hour of studying spread out this way will be worth more than about 1½ hours of cramming. Structuring your review around this idea is one of the single best ways to get the most out of your study time. To learn more about spaced repetition, and tons of other great scientifically supported insight into learning more efficiently and effectively, we strongly recommend Dr. Barbara Oakley’s Learning How to Learn course on Coursera. You can access all the videos and material for free, it has great reviews, and is widely recognized as one of the best online courses on any topic.
Now that we have seen the value of spaced repetition practice and review, we can think about the most efficient study structure. It could be through a class, working with a tutor, or studying on your own. The key is that you review and retry previously missed questions on a planned schedule. Cramming in more and more new material, haphazardly reviewing and hoping things will stick, certainly feels like a lot of work. It just doesn’t reflect well in test scores. In our experience, we have seen the best results with 1.5 to 2 hour lessons (good tutor not required, but recommended), once a week, with structured 20-40 minute review sessions on most days between lessons. Or, taking a class that lasts for several weeks with structured homework assignments.
It is also crucial to mix in several realistically simulated practice tests over the course of your study time to get used to the test as well as hone on in where to focus your study time. Everyone’s schedule and ability to focus isn’t the same, but this is a good plan to build from.
Bootcamps aren’t for everyone, and our experience is that they aren’t the best study option for most of the students that take them. Instead, this is what we think is the most efficient way for students to spend their time on test prep: follow a structured plan that includes several simulated practice tests, spreads the review work over the course of the week, for several weeks, with spaced review as a significant part of the plan. This is a plan that minimizes burnout and makes the most of the limited study time you have. Of course, if you have too much free time, and are sick of hanging out with friends, spending full days on a weekend or summer doing test prep isn’t the worst thing you could do.