Nomi Ben-Zvi: Old Tests and New Problems
Nomi Ben-Zvi, a private science tutor, has garnered polarizing reactions from Stern students. Her tutoring has inspired and helped many succeed, while simultaneously creating a culture of exclusivity and pressure to enroll in her courses.
This past Thursday, April 26, a Commentator investigation revealed that Ben-Zvi has been illicitly conducting sessions for undergraduate students on the Beren Campus, without permission from the Office of Events, Security, or the Dean’s Office.
According to the Yeshiva University Office of Events, any tutor not affiliated with Yeshiva University is required to gain approval from the Dean’s Office before beginning to tutor on campus and is required to pay an insurance fee as well as a room rental feel of approximately $150 per session. Ben-Zvi, who operates the tutoring service Chromium Prep, previously had approval to utilize YU space. In Fall 2017, the Dean’s Office rescinded the authorization.
The Dean’s Office has yet to respond to a Commentator request for the reason for Ben-Zvi’s de-authorization to operate her tutoring service on campus.
Ben-Zvi, who is the founder of Chromium Prep—a tutoring service offering both private and group sessions and specializing in Chemistry, Biology, Organic Chemistry, Physics, Physiology, MCAT, and DAT—teaches group tutoring sessions on the Beren Campus for General Chemistry, Organic Chemistry, and Biochemistry. This spring semester, Ben-Zvi was tutoring classes in General Chemistry and Organic Chemistry class. A Biochemistry session was run at the beginning of the semester, but has not been taught on a consistent basis.
Ben-Zvi’s tutoring sessions are advertised mostly via word of mouth. Students who have taken and benefited from the sessions pass on the message to peers who are enrolled in the relevant Stern College courses. Additionally, Ben-Zvi sometimes contacts Stern students using Canvas, a private online service used by Yeshiva University to facilitate contact between faculty and students, offering organized access to assignments, grades, and class communication.
“DO NOT forward these [exams] to other [people]... there are exams out there, but I def[initely] make it easier by collecting and scanning, etc. … I hope I can trust you guys and you can respect the work I do … do not ask questions from the exams, or even talk [about] them with him... the less [Professor Evan Mintzer] knows the better it is for YOU!!!!”
Ben-Zvi, who herself does not have access to Canvas, has, according to an anonymous Stern student, asked a current Stern student enrolled in her sessions to contact incoming students registered for General Chemistry, requesting that they forward an email through Canvas introducing the tutoring service and outlining the details to the class. A junior in Stern College for Women, who wished to remain anonymous, recalled, “I heard from friends I have who went to Stern who took her for multiple science classes and they all had amazing things to say about her! An email was sent out at the beginning of last year to my Chemistry class, and I took that opportunity to sign up!”
The sessions have been conducted on average once a week, in varying classrooms at different times and typically cost around $50, lasting last about 2-3 hours. The same Stern student explained that this pricing “created a way to make it available to as many people as possible, where getting access to someone like [Ben-Zvi] would normally be for people who have the money to spend on expensive tutoring. Now everyone can afford a tutor who cares about them.”
During the sessions, Ben-Zvi reviews the material covered in the lecture, goes through practice problems, and hands out comprehensive notes and tests to assist the students in their studying. According to the same Stern student, Ben-Zvi offers “specific notes she wrote up for each topic, and practice questions she made up to prepare for a certain professor.”
The tests Ben-Zvi distributes come from previous General Chemistry and Organic Chemistry courses. Currently, Ben-Zvi distributes old exams written by the current General Chemistry professor, Dr. Chaya Rapp. In previous years, Ben-Zvi had access to Organic Chemistry tests written by the previous Organic Chemistry professor, Dr. Evan Mintzer. Since Fall 2017, however, Dr. Ran Drori has been teaching the Organic Chemistry course. Ben-Zvi does not have access to Dr. Drori’s exams.
Many students see the value in Ben-Zvi’s tutoring sessions. Malka Marmer, a pre-med senior at Stern, said that Ben-Zvi was an “incredible” tutor. The anonymous Stern student stated that she found “Nomi extremely helpful for all of General Chemistry as well as Orgo I. [Ben-Zvi] taught concepts in a way that wasn’t memorization, and really helped us understand difficult concepts easily.”
But not all Beren students have had a positive experience with Ben-Zvi’s tutoring service. When Tzip Roffe, a senior studying Mathematics at Stern, was struggling in Organic Chemistry, she turned to Ben-Zvi’s tutoring class. According to Roffe, Ben-Zvi “was just the obvious go to. Anyone who was having any problems, the answer was Nomi, she became an icon.”
Yet for Roffe, Ben-Zvi “was not helpful. The class was not controlled and so it took hours longer than necessary … The only thing she was doing for me was giving me test questions, which if I asked around I could get myself. I was 20 years old, I didn't need someone reading the textbook to me.”
Some of the dissatisfactions with Ben-Zvi, however, seem to go beyond teaching style and class structure. Tehilla Berger, a junior double majoring in Biochemistry and Judaic Studies, feels that a major issue with Ben-Zvi’s tutoring services lies in the fact that Ben-Zvi “tutors on school premises.” According to Berger, “while students that are not in Nomi[’s class] may be capable to master the material on their own in less time, they often feel at a disadvantage to those in [her class], being as it is on campus, it almost seems as a necessity in order to excel in the class … If Nomi is a necessary resource for some to succeed, she should be utilized, just not on campus.”
Ben-Zvi’s tutoring may not be an official part of any Stern College science department, but her service is so widely used that at times it feels as if her tutoring is part of the regularly offered science courses. “Taking Nomi,” according to Berger, “becomes the default … and puts pressure on students who can’t afford the luxury.”
Attending Ben-Zvi’s sessions seems like an added requirement for the course along with lecture and recitation, making many students, even those who cannot afford the cost, expect and assume that they must attend Ben-Zvi’s sessions in order to succeed.
“As a general rule, I think it is totally acceptable for students to hire private tutors for classes,” Berger continued. The strong presence of Ben-Zvi’s tutoring and her use of YU resources for running her sessions and contacting students, however, creates “a culture in which students expect that they need to use a tutor in order to excel.” According to Berger, this atmosphere is “unhealthy for the students who cannot afford the time or the expense, as well as [for] the students who use the service blindly, as they fail to recognize that they can master the material on their own.”
Dr. Drori feels similarly about the tutoring culture prevalent in Stern. According to Dr. Drori, students should not feel that they need a tutor to succeed in a class prior to attempting to study and excel on their own.
Once the semester begins and students decide whether or not to register for Ben-Zvi’s tutoring, a rift begins to form within the students enrolled in Stern’s General Chemistry and Organic Chemistry courses. Ben-Zvi asks her students to keep any notes and old tests, which she distributes, to themselves. Because of Ben-Zvi’s well-known presence on campus and the large amount of students who utilize her services, however, the secretive nature of her tutoring encourages an in-group, out-group mentality. Berger remarked how “it adds more tension to the already high pressure pre-med environment on campus. Because what happens in Nomi, stays in Nomi, it creates a divide among students.”
The Commentator attempted to contact Ben-Zvi to discuss her tutoring and the impact she has had on Stern students. Ben-Zvi initially responded that she “would prefer not to comment on my curriculum and strategies because it’s something that only the people I tutor should have access to.” Since the recent report of her deauthorization, Ben-Zvi has not returned repeated requests for comment.
Prior to tutoring in Stern, Ben-Zvi worked with Dr. Rapp for three years, an experience which Ben-Zvi, in an email to the Fall 2016 General Chemistry course, said helped her “teach [students] how to think like me and therefore how to think like her.” Additionally, the old exams distributed and used during the sessions help students prepare for the types of questions likely to appear on the exams in addition to mastering the material.
Dr. Rapp provides her General Chemistry courses with two old exams per test, and any student in Ben-Zvi’s class receives additional material. Dr. Rapp would not comment on any aspect of Ben-Zvi’s tutoring, but did say that she has “always returned exams so past exams are ‘out there’ and available to anyone.”
While this may be true, by giving old tests to her students, Ben-Zvi expedites the process of asking around for old exams and independently collecting the resources. In one email made available to The Commentator, Ben-Zvi requests of her students that they “DO NOT forward these [exams] to other [people]... there are exams out there, but I def[initely] make it easier by collecting and scanning, etc. … I hope I can trust you guys and you can respect the work I do.” Ben-Zvi adds, “do not ask [Professor Evan Mintzer] questions from the exams, or even talk [about] them with him... the less he knows the better it is for YOU!!!!”
Students do not always honor Ben-Zvi’s requests. Roffe recalled that, before she began attending Ben-Zvi’s sessions, she “just asked people in the class to email [the exams] to me and they did.” Marmer said that many students share these resources using Stern In the Know, a popular private Facebook group where Stern students share and sell resources for classes.
Most Stern students and professors do not take issue with studying from old exams. In addition to Dr. Rapp, Dr. Harvey Babich, the Director of the Biology department at Stern and professor of Genetics, and Dr. Richard Weiss, an adjunct instructor in Biology at Stern, encourage their students to study from practice exams which are part of the Yeshiva University E-reserves.
What Ben-Zvi offers to students goes beyond old tests and comprehensive notes. On its Linkedin profile, Ben-Zvi describes Chromium Prep as “more than just a tutoring company. It’s the place … [to] help individuals find the power to become the best version of themselves.” A major goal of the sessions is to “empower [students] to cross the finish line to success” and “climb their own mountains of challenge.” The anonymous Stern students said that Ben-Zvi “has [students’] success and goals in mind, and wants the best for them, both in school and life.” Shara Feltheimer (SCW ‘13), a second-year medical student at New York College of Osteopathic Medicine, wrote in her Facebook review of Chromium Prep that Ben-Zvi “doesn't only care about tutoring, she deeply cares for each person she meets with and will do anything to get them the success that they need in all areas.”
Photo Credit: Chromium Prep Facebook page.