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How to read curriculum reviews

If you are like many internet savvy homeschoolers, you may have discovered the joys of online curriculum review sites. (If you haven’t, I’ll list a few for you at the end of this post.) These sites usually have reviews of hundreds of products, written by fellow homeschoolers. I love the sites because I often learn of products I’d missed hearing about elsewhere, and also it can be really useful to hear of pros and cons from so many other users. Since lots of homeschool products are primarily available through catalog or internet ordering, it can be difficult to get a good feel for the quirks of a particular product before you buy. These sites can give you a bit more information to go on, which can make all the difference when you are trying to fill a particular need.

That said, reviews can quickly get overwhelming. There are so many products. And every single one seems to be loved by everyone. Everyone, that is, except all the people who really hate it, or think it is over-hyped, or that it just doesn’t suit. Are these people really reviewing the same product? It boggles the mind.

Because I’ve read quite a few of these reviews, and because I’ve taken note of some of my own tendencies, and those of my fellow homeschoolers, I’ve come up with some little tricks I use to help me make sense of the online review sites:

  1. Remember that there are no perfect products. If there were such thing as a perfect, universally useful, product, you wouldn’t need to go to a review site to read about it. People would be trumpeting it from the roof-tops, and printing it in every newspaper. Until that happens, it is better to remind yourself constantly that what works great for one person may not work so great for another, even in the same family. You should expect most products to have both fans and detractors. Your job is to figure out if it is going to work in your situation.
  2. Remember that people over-value new stuff. They absolutely love it. I’m completely guilty of this, myself. Every time I get something new, I’ve done so much research that I’m convinced it has to be fabulous. Sometimes it is. Sometimes, after using it for a while, I discover that it might be fabulous for some people, but not us. The moral here: You’re going to want to put more stock in the opinions of reviewers who have actually used the product for some significant length of time. New users may have done a lot of research, but they can’t really tell you enough about how the product actually works in their family, yet. This moral also applies to their children’s reactions, because kids really love new stuff, too. Their child may be begging to use it every day the first week or two, but how will they feel about it in 6 months? After some time has passed, people are usually able to write better reviews. They will be able to tell you both the good and bad points in their experience, and are usually much more objective. Unfortunately, after the new has worn off, people are sometimes less motivated to go out and write reviews of products. When they do, give those reviews a lot of respect!
  3. Note that it seems to be human nature for people to assume other people will think and learn the same way that they do. This means that sometimes reviewers don’t tell you enough details for you to know if their experience will apply to your situation. I’m always a bit skeptical of the really short reviews that basically say, “This is a terrible product – nobody could understand how to make this work.” This tells me more about the reviewer than it does the product under discussion. It tells me that the reviewer is impatient and may have low self-confidence, but it doesn’t tell me what, exactly, the reviewer was hoping to get out of a product, nor does it explain the ways in which it failed to live up to expectations. That means I have no idea whether the reviewer’s experience will be relevant to mine.
  4. Try to get a feel for the kind of homeschooler that is writing the review. For example, some of us (admittedly, like me) are curriculum junkies. We love variety, and we love to see all the different things that are out there. This means that we are more likely to grow bored with a product than other homeschoolers. We are less likely to finish things, and we are more likely to move on to something else when we do finish something, rather than continuing to the next level with the same product. Bear that in mind when reading our reviews, and don’t blame the product unnecessarily for our restlessness. On the other hand, when you hear one of us say that we tried 5 other products until we used this one, and then stuck with that one for the next 5 years, you know you may have a winner! Other homeschoolers are what I like to call “default” homeschoolers. They don’t sample around too much, and if they find something that works (possibly the first thing that their good friend recommended), they happily continue with it to the very end of the very last level. When they say they’ve always used something, and never even looked at anything else, you have to wonder how well they can compare the product to what else is out there. You know it works for them, but you don’t know if it works as well as something else would.

Those four points are probably the most important ones I try to keep in mind as I am reading reviews and picking curricula. I take these points into consideration when I am given advice by friends. I don’t use them to completely discount anyone’s advice, but rather I try to put each person’s advice into perspective. That helps me develop a clearer picture of how the product may work for our family.

Some of my favorite review sites:

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4 Comments, Comment or Ping

  1. Very helpful thoughts–I will try to keep them in mind when I write reviews, too.

  2. Great post! A couple of other sites you might want to check are: (I write reviews for this one)

    Thanks again for the interesting thoughts. I’m going to print this out and add it to my “writing” file.

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