About a month ago I realized that, as someone who blogs about SAT prep, I really should have an informed opinion on what’s out there in the online test prep space. With the June SAT prep cycle winding down, I’ve finally had time to sign up for a free trial and give Grockit a test spin for a few hours.

For the uninitiated, Grockit is web-based test prep built with adaptive learning technology (in other words: it assesses your skill level and tries to challenge you accordingly), garnished with a few rudimentary social gaming elements. Students are awarded ready-to-share achievements for things like “hot streaks” of questions answered correctly, and there’s a “Multi-Player” practice system in which students tackle problems together, and are encouraged not only to chat with each other about answers, but to reward each other with points for being especially helpful.

I started with math, because I rightly assumed it would be the most fun, and then moved on to reading and writing. My thoughts about all three experiences follow. I should note that I didn’t try every single thing Grockit has to offer; I didn’t enlist the help of any of Grockit’s tutors, for example (I thought that’d be weird). But I did enough poking around in the SAT sections of the site that I feel like I have a decent sense of what it’s about. I should also state the obvious: I am a grown up and a test prep professional myself, so I didn’t approach this exactly the same way a 16 year old might.

The Good

  • Grockit does a fantastic job of encouraging interaction, and after adapting to the system I really enjoyed interacting with the few kids I joined in Multi-Player games. Of course, your mileage may vary, and I’m sure there are some trolls, but my interactions were nothing but positive. Multi-Player math practice was by far my favorite thing about Grockit, and while “playing” I actually lost track of time and stayed up far later than I had intended to. Students who aren’t shy will benefit from the locking-in of knowledge that occurs when they are able to explain it correctly to others.
  • The adaptive learning system seemed to assess my math ability level quickly and started feeding me only high difficulty questions when I was in a “Solo” game. That kept me engaged and appropriately challenged.
  • It was easy to view a summary of my performance, broken down nicely into different skill categories, each of which offered additional practice problems. This is an important part of the SAT prep process, and one of the hardest things for students to do by themselves.
  • Grockit’s use of badges and achievements that can be shared with friends isn’t exactly breaking new ground, but if it succeeds in keeping kids on the site a bit longer (and I suspect that it does), then that’s a good thing. Who doesn’t like scoring points and leveling up?
  • If you don’t want to be social on Grockit, you have the option to practice all by yourself. If you do want to be social, you’ll be able to find people to practice with quickly.
  • If you only want to practice for 10 minutes, that’s fine. If you want to practice for 2 hours, also fine.
  • The vocabulary in Grockit’s sentence completion questions was sufficiently challenging, but not ridiculous.
  • At $9.99 a month, Grockit is affordable.
The Bad
  • While most of the math questions I saw were decent approximations of the SAT’s style and some were quite faithful translations of questions I recognized from past exams, some of the questions were not carefully worded, and that frustrated me. An example:

    A group of five radio stations participate in a Rock Concert ticket give away. The first two radio stations give away one ticket each hour on the hour, the third station gives away one ticket on the half hour, and the fourth and fifth radio stations give away n tickets on the nth hour (for example, 2 tickets will be given out at 2pm, 4 tickets at 4pm, 12 tickets at 12pm, and so on).

    How many total tickets will be given away by these five stations between the times of 2:45 p.m. and 9:15 p.m.?

    This was a grid-in question, and it hinges on one’s interpretation of “on the half hour” — does it mean “every half hour,” or does it mean 3:30, 4:30, 5:30, etc.? There is a question with the same phrase in the College Board’s own Blue Book (page 598 #17), but the meaning of the phrase is clarified in that question with a table: it means 3:30, 4:30, etc. To get the Grockit question correct, one actually needs to interpret the phrase to mean “every half hour.” That really stuck in my craw. Careful, precise wording of questions is the hallmark of a good standardized test question, and that doesn’t seem to have always been a priority for Grockit’s writers.

  • After practicing for about an hour, I started to see algebra questions that looked very familiar. They had a few cosmetic changes, but were otherwise identical to questions I had already answered. That made me wonder how many total questions there were and how often I’d see repeats if I did it for a month. Repetition can be a good thing, but I’d prefer a little more variety.
  • It’s hard to answer math questions on a computer screen. This is also, I’m aware, a valid complaint about my own site. Bottom line: you’re going to want to have scratch paper handy if you want to get anything out of your time on Grockit’s, my, or any online math practice.
  • There’s no nicer way to say this: the reading comprehension passage games are just off:
    • The timer for each question (4 minutes) is plenty of time once you’ve read the passage, but the fact that the timer for the first question begins as soon as the passage is revealed encourages bad behavior, like skipping back and forth between passage and questions without first understanding the passage as a whole. Students should be given time to read the passage holistically before the question timer starts.
    • Some questions and answers themselves are poorly worded, and I fear they’ll instill a pernicious mistrust of the test in students who prepare using Grockit. The real SAT is very logical and precisely worded; it’s easy for a seasoned test taker to eliminate incorrect answers if he or she has understood the passage well. Grockit’s questions too often seemed to me (and I’m quite seasoned) to have either no fully satisfactory answer, or more than one. The SAT simply doesn’t do that, and causing students to believe otherwise is the opposite of preparing them well. This wasn’t true of every passage that I did, mind you, but it was true of enough of them that it’s a huge problem. In fairness, the reason you don’t see more reading comp practice on my own blog is that it’s really hard to do well and I’m afraid of becoming the target of similar complaints.
  • Some of the explanations that accompanied answers were wrong. Here’s an example from a paragraph improvement question:

    When teachers understand the complexities in the lives of their students, they will become more aware of certain issues as well.
    “Their” is an ambiguous pronoun here.

    Huh? Maybe “they” is ambiguous, but I think “their” is pretty clear.

The Ugly

Although many of the math questions were accompanied by completely adequate diagrams, the quality was very uneven and once or twice I came across some seriously bush league stuff. There exist numerous software solutions for making nice looking graphs, and Grockit can afford them. There’s just no excuse for these:

The Verdict

It’s my hope that if any Grockit folks stumble upon this post, they view it as I intend: as constructive criticism from someone who, like them, does a fair amount of thinking about how the web can be used to help kids on standardized tests. I support them in their use of technology for education (especially their appropriation of gaming psychology and adaptive learning), and I love their price point. I can see myself, in the future, becoming quite a fan. For now, here’s what I’ll say:

Grockit provides a decent service at a reasonable price for the math and writing sections of the SAT, but it falls short on the reading comprehension questions. Since the infrastructure is quite good, a little quality control on content would go a long way towards improving the product in all three subjects. Grockit is not a suitable substitute for assiduous Blue Book work, but if you’re looking for a low-cost, fun way to get some extra math and writing practice, you could do worse. Stay away from Grockit’s reading comprehension practice.

Comments (4)

I just did math problems on Grockit for about an hour.  I found it more enjoyable than the writing and reading, but I have this weird feeling that I’m not “learning,” anything and I can’t say why that is.

But here’s the really weird part: I am overcome with drowsiness every time I log on to Grockit.  The last two days I had to lay down and take a nap — an I’m not a nap person.  I NEVER nap.  Isn’t that strange?

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