"You get all this free stuff in exchange for a review? COOL!" Sounds easy at first glance- you get a book, game, or other product, use it for a few days, and write your opinion about it. How hard can that be, right?
The fact is, to be valued as a reviewer, both by vendors and readers, you must put forth some genuine effort.
Over the last 20 homeschooling years, I've had the opportunity to use a variety of homeschool resources, and been able to offer some insights to friends and acquaintances interested in my opinion of this or that curriculum. But not until I joined the Schoolhouse Review Crew did I begin to make a concerted effort to go about reviewing books and curriculum in a focused, organized manner.
The first question to ask yourself before accepting a product to review is, "Will I be able do my best to use this item to its fullest potential for me and my family?" In other words-
- don't accept a review just to get 'free stuff'
- don't accept a review based on good intentions and wishful thinking
- don't accept a review product that is outside of your ability to test it
Homeschoolers can succumb to the siren song of new and improved, of bells and whistles and gizmos, of glossy pages and pretty pictures. But unless you can use a product in the way in which it was intended, you aren't being honest with the vendor, or yourself.
- Make sure the review materials apply to you, your needs, your family's needs, the age of your children, their developmental stage, their interests...
- If technology is involved, make sure your computers or tablets have the compatibility and capability to handle any software requirements.
- Check your schedule for adequate time to not only use the product, but make notes as you use it, and take pictures if applicable.
When you receive your review materials, immediately check the package contents to verify that you have received the products you were assigned. If you need to register at a website or download software, also do this as soon as possible, so that any technology or compatibility issues can be resolved quickly.
Read the instructions or teacher's manual FIRST. It's probably fair to say that most of us assume that we can figure out the proper way to use a book, curriculum, or program. However, the instructions were written for a reason. Not only do they convey how the creator or publisher intends their product to be used, but any questions that would naturally come up while using the product will most likely have been addressed in the instructions. This is a respectful step, a time-saving step, and a frustration-prevention step. Not to mention the fact that it would be rather embarrassing to contact the company with questions that were answered in the materials they sent you to review. You are communicating disregard for their product, if not incompetency, which is never a good thing if you want to be a trusted reviewer.
Another benefit of always checking the instructions, teacher's manual, or website FAQs before contacting a vendor is that you can note the questions you had or the problems that arose, and include in your review how the product itself was able to solve them. If you did need to contact Customer Service, note how easy the process was, and how the problem was resolved.
Test your review materials for user-friendliness. How easily were you able to set it up or put it into practice? Better yet- could you hand it over to your kids and let them figure it out? We've all heard jokes about how parents, who did not grow up with all this technology, ask their kids to program their phones, fix their computers, or set the DVR to record programs. If a product is going to be used for or by kids, have them read over the materials and explain its uses to you. It's good for them, and good for you. Another perspective is always valuable, especially when you are talking to the target audience.
I shouldn't need to say that you must have a system for taking notes during the entire process. "But I'll remember what is important", you think. Are you serious? After a day of housekeeping and homeschooling and lesson planning and list making and phone answering, you are going to remember important details of how you used your review materials, in spite of the fact that you can't find your phone, your keys, or your sneakers? And you forgot to buy milk when it was the reason you went to the store?
Stack the deck in your favor and take lots of notes, people.
Describe the product in detail and then explain how it does or does not perform as described. Compare the advertised claims to how it actually works. The review should provide a verbal picture of every aspect of the product, and a clear explanation its functionality in your homeschool. Did you need to tweak it in order to make it more appropriate or beneficial for your children? How did your kids respond to the curriculum? How long did it take them to be comfortable with it?
Then here's the hard part- balance.
On the one hand, some people rather enjoy finding flaws, and could spot a zit on the Mona Lisa from 30 feet. "Honest?" they say. "I'll give 'em honest."
On the other hand, others are hesitant about saying anything negative, even if they were given skunk-flavored chewing gum. Every product receives a glowing recommendation.
Neither extreme is constructive or profitable for the vendor, the consumer, or you, the blogger.
Reviewers may believe that vendors want them to say only nice things and avoid any negatives, but most companies truly desire thorough, authentic reviews in order to continuously improve their products and meet the needs of consumers. They also understand that consumers are generally not gullible, and won't buy into reviews that sound saccharin or overly effusive.
Most of the time you will probably be satisfied that the materials are all that they claim to be. But occasionally you will receive something that just bombs in your homeschool. Before you write those negatives down, ask yourself "Why" it didn't work. Is it really a deficient product, or is it just not a good fit for your family?
This is just as valuable to note as any other aspect of reviewing. The curriculum may not have been helpful for your students, but imagine for a moment - who would find these materials or this approach useful? What about families who use other educational methods or have a different learning style? Do you have a friend that you think this resource would appeal to? Write your review for them, and tell them why you think they'd like it, even if you didn't.
When you finally sit down to write your review, think about how you can present all your facts, opinions, and insights in a way that will capture and hold your reader's interest. Remember that your credibility as a blogger, a reviewer, and an educator will also be tried and tested in your format, your grammar, and your spelling. Write your review, then set it aside for a day or two. When you read it again, you will see it with fresh eyes and spot awkward wording, repetitive phrases, cliches, typos, and misspellings that your spell checker didn't catch. Use pictures of the products - in use if possible.
And let your personality shine through- after all, it is your homeschool experience, and your blog.