Alyssa Bowlby has a masters degree from Johns Hopkins and a bachelor’s degree from Haverford College, from which she graduated Phi Beta Kappa and Magna cum Laude. Since 2006, she has taught the SAT one on one, in a classroom setting, and as a master teacher, academic director, and founding staff member at the Socratic Summer Academy.
Q: How has SSA changed over the time you’ve been here?
A: Well, for starters, we’ve become smarter in how we structure the day—how we organize the program, minute by minute. For example, in 2012, we eliminated homework. Sounds crazy, right? As teachers, we’ve always been taught that more homework is better, and homework is how students learn. Most SAT programs - and we did this in the past - assign homework that students do at night, but we all know there are problems with that system. Students don’t always use the right strategies (they forget); they forget the questions they have about their homework by the time they get to class the next day; they don’t do the homework. So we decided to ask: is this really the most effective way to both teach and ensure our kids are relaxed, well-adjusted, and motivated? In 2012, we switched it up: we added an hour or so of class time each day, and then allotted blocks of time after each class when we gave students specific assignments that reinforced what they had just learned.
While we were at it, we added interactive, short games within and outside of class time to refresh important concepts (so that kids could see concepts in a variety of settings) and sports and game breaks to break up the the day. We made sure that each class had at least two teachers so that we could divide the class into small groups and take students one on one (we call this team-teaching or "the adaptive classroom") and make learning faster. Homework was hurting the camp part of SAT camp: students couldn’t relax during free times or let loose during capture the flag. So we designed a new schedule which maximized the effectiveness of every classroom minute, eliminated homework, and made camp better, both for students’ scores and well-being.
More broadly, after all these years (I can't believe how many years we've been running this now!), I think I've become a better director and teacher - more able to understand instantly and intuitively what a kid needs, what she’s not getting, and what’s really behind the question she just asked. As a private tutor, I've had more time to try different strategies that worked, or didn't work, with different kids; I've met more kids with impediments to their learning in a variety of ways and figured out how to get around those impediments, get over them, or get through them. I've seen more curricula and had more time, in redesigning ours (whether it's a series of tweaks, as it has been in previous years, or a large-scale redesign, as it was for 2014 and and then again in 2016), to figure out what works and what doesn't. What makes a kid a good reader? A fast reader? Do those crazy speed-reading methods really work? I've now had more time to answer those questions, having personally taught test prep for thirteen years, and I try to bring all of that to leading as well as teaching, and pass it along to our teachers in our rigorous trainings.
We try to create an atmosphere where there is a lot of small-group, so that no question goes unanswered, and there's no one whose needs we aren't meeting, and we try to create a feeling between students and teachers that the teachers are humans - quirky, intelligent, funny, neat, well-informed, and honestly, inspiring. As we garner more experience - both the wounds and the lessons that come out of that experience - we've become more and more confident that we can get score improvements with less effort. It is this extensive experience, introspection, and success that makes me confident we'll continue to create an amazing, effective academy.
Q: What about the new SAT (out of 1600)? How hard is it? How is it different from the old SAT (out of 2400)?
A: It's my strongly held opinion that the new SAT is actually easier: the changes to the math have made it simpler for a lot of kids - we will still need to distinguish between cogitation and calculation, but the topics which are tested are more related to algebra (there's very little geometry on the test, as compared to the old SAT) and more like what they learn in school and what they see in their math books. Also, the math isn't as advanced as it was - the topics queried are not as far along in the progression - and those concepts they've added include things like an emphasis on basic statistics and graph-reading, at which most people are intuitively good.
They've also started asking the question "why" - a concept that you can think of as "logical roles" - all over math itself. I'll give you an example. Let's say we're doing a word problem, and there's a scatterplot with a line of best fit and that line has the equation y=3x + 4. The SAT will now ask "In the context of this setup, what does the 4 mean?" It's the starting value - before you can calculate the change from 1 to 2, or even 0 to 1, you have to start with 4. So if we're talking about hailing a cab on Broadway, that might be the taxi's flat fee before you start getting charged for the mileage. I, as a Socratic educator, actually think this is an AMAZING question - because we do better as human beings when we're constantly asking and answering the question "why"! :) Kids who are able to ask these questions do better in high school and college, as well as real life! These are the critical thinking/higher order thinking skills we're always talking about. So to know that test prep will actually make a student a better thinker elevates prepping for the SAT to an actually educational experience (and the fact that test prep was a bunch of quick fixes and small tricks has long been a critique of test prep; I think this will help us counter that perception).
The writing section of the SAT has changed tremendously - in fact, it now is almost exactly identical to the ACT. The reading section is still the toughest section (and always will be, because it's completely dependent on a sixteen-year-old's accumulated reading skills - how fast you read and how well you comprehend what you've read), but it has gotten somewhat simpler - the questions themselves are worded more simply and a lot of the difficult vocabulary was removed from the answer choices. And obviously everyone is very happy that there are no more vocab lists to memorize for the reading!
Q: What about the SAT vs. the ACT? What's the difference between the two tests? Why would you pick the SAT?
A: Great question. Well, if you were to run down the sections:
- ACT English and SAT writing are now similar enough to be a wash.
- ACT math tests concepts which are significantly more advanced than those on new SAT math: If you've spent time studying the ACT, you know how you approach those questions over #40 - and where you stop being able to do them. On the SAT math, I remember the first time I was going through the tests, I said to myself as I neared the end of the math section (remember problems get harder as the section continues), "Where are all the hard problems?" Then I flipped to the next page and found I had finished the section. I said, "Is it possible? Are there NO HARD PROBLEMS on the new SAT math?" Sure, some of the problems are tricky, and they're definitely multi-step, but the new SAT math section is significantly easier than both the old SAT math section and the current ACT math section.
- ACT reading has gotten significantly harder since about 2009 - almost exponentially harder: If you look at a test from 2009 and one from 2013, for instance, you will see a marked difference in those questions we call "fetch" - ones where you have to "fetch" the answer from the passage, as they have asked for harder and more obtuse details. A lot of the ACT reading seems only like a check to see if you can find the tiny detail we are asking for, not "Did you understand this passage?" The SAT is asking a lot more broadly, "Why does paragraph 3 focus on birds?" because the author is trying to make a point and birds is his chosen analogy. As a person who reads a lot, it's a lot more comforting to know that, as I prep my students, I'm making them better readers - I'm not making them crazy over finding really small details which, in the end, aren't important to the passage. Also, the ACT reading has always been a BEAR in terms of timing - even students who are great readers struggle to break the 28/29 barrier because they simply can't read fast enough to get to all the questions in time. The SAT is nothing like that. It's so much more comfortable.
- ACT science is always a stumbling block for students. It's less that the questions are hard; instead, a lot of people feel just plain overwhelmed by the skills necessitated to break down the graphs and answer the questions. And truth be told, just as the ACT reading has gotten harder over time, so has the ACT science - I'm specifically referencing the kinds of graphs they give you and the types of questions they ask and the conclusions they expect you to draw; the difficulty has increased exponentially since about 2009. I'm so overjoyed to not have to teach science on the SAT!!
So if you stack it up: SAT math is easier, SAT reading doesn't come with that terrifying timing problem, SAT writing = ACT English, and THERE'S NO SCIENCE SECTION. So for me, choosing the SAT was a really strong choice. Not that we didn't spend about three months considering which choice was the right one - because we did; we would have been foolish not to truly weigh both sides and investigate everything we knew - both what used to be true and what is now true - about both tests.