I’m a professional programmer and I decided to move into teaching USACO about a year ago. I’ve had many students come to me, mostly beginners who’ve had no prior USACO experience. I’ve worked closely with them and seen them grow better.
The average length of time I’ve worked with them is 6 months. They are all in the 9th grade or younger. Most of them had prior tutoring and say that I’m much better at working at their level and explaining things than previous tutors or the courses they’ve taken on AlphaStar. Some of my students have come to me after doing the AlphaStar Bronze course and I can see that their programming skills are chaotic and over-complicated, so I work with them on writing concise code.
This year’s Bronze test seems to be exceptionally hard. Most of my students only got a few test cases right over all the questions. I had one parent come to me and say “Why is it that the USACO Guide-based course (the non-profit one) claims you can prepare for Bronze in 8 weeks, and AlphaStar practically guarantees they’ll get you through Bronze after one course, yet my child only got a few test cases right after 6 months of study with a private tutor?”
Honestly I don’t know how my students could have done better. They are still working on programming skills that would seem basic to most successful USACO competitors. They don’t necessarily practice every day. I can see them improve dramatically, say gain the ability to do 1000-level Codeforces problems after starting more like the 800 level. But to do this year’s Bronze test would require far more advancement in creative thinking abilities.
Yet I see clearly that these bootcamps and courses promise high achievement after one course. I’m kind of doubting myself a bit, wondering if I’m really not getting how to teach these students.
Am I doing something wrong? My students don’t practice every day… is that the entire reason they’re not making good progress? Or am I doing something wrong?
Or do the students that pass Bronze on the first try after a bootcamp… well are they especially gifted either mentally or with a surrounding culture that has encouraged and taught them since day 1 (say parents who taught them to code in 4th grade, or a magnet school with many fellow students working on the same skills)? My students aren’t in magnet schools.
I’m not a USACO finalist. I only picked this up a year ago after my prior experience with programming in the workplace. I got 100% on this year’s Bronze, and I can do very well on Silver problems from a few years ago, but more recent Silver problems are still above my level. I plan on passing my students along to better teachers as soon as they pass Bronze. I think that given the issues they are struggling with, I can still help them for a while. I’m a very good teacher in general and they like me a lot. I think I’m pretty good at bringing out creativity. So I do think I can help them still.
Any advice is welcome.