04 June 2013

Abstract out all unimportant information

I spend a lot of time teaching people to stop looking so hard at the details. Not that details are so bad in and of themselves — it’s just that they’re not always terribly relevant. There’s a somewhat infamous SAT Critical Reading passage that deals with the qualities that make for a good physicist, and since the majority of high school students don’t have particularly positive associations with that subject, most of them by extension tend to dislike the passage.

The remarkable thing is, though, that the point of the passage is essentially the point of the SAT: the mark of a good physicist is the ability to abstract out all irrelevant information.

Likewise, the mark of a good SAT-taker is the ability to abstract out all unimportant information and focus on what’s actually being asked.

One of the things that people tend to forget is that the SAT is an exam about the big picture — for Writing as well as Reading.

I say this because very often smart, detail-oriented students have a tendency to worry about every single thing that sounds even remotely odd or incomprehensible, all the while missing something major that’s staring them in the face. Frequently, they blame this on the fact that they’ve been taught in school to read closely and pay attention to all the details (and because they can’t imagine that their teachers could be wrong, they conclude that the SAT is a “stupid” test).

Well, I have some news: not all books are the kind you read in English class, and different kinds of texts and situations call for different kinds of reading. When find yourself in college social sciences class with a 300 page reading assignment that you have two days to get through, you won’t have time to annotate every last detail — nor will your professors expect you to do so. Your job will be to get the big picture and perhaps focus on one or two areas that you find particularly interesting so that you can show up with something intelligent to say.

But back to the SAT.

On CR, it’s fairly common for people to simply grind to a halt in passage when they encounter an unfamiliar turn of phrase. For example, most people aren’t quite accustomed to hearing the word “abstract” used as a verb: the ones who ignore that fact and draw a logical conclusion about its meaning from the context are generally fine. The other ones, the ones who can’t get past the fact that “abstract” is being used in a way they haven’t seen before, tend to run into trouble. They read it and realize they haven’t quite understood it. So they go back and read it again. They still don’t quite get it, so they reread it yet again. And before they know it, they’ve wasted two or three minutes just reading the same five lines over and over again.

Then they run out of time and can’t answer all of the questions.

The problem is that ETS will always deliberately choose passages containing bits that aren’t completely clear — that’s part of the test. The goal is to see whether you can figure out their meaning from the general context of the passage; you’re not really expected to get every word, especially not the first time around. The trick is to train yourself to ignore things that are initially confusing and move on to parts that you do understand. If you get a question about something you’re not sure of, you can always skip over it, but you should never get hung up on something you don’t know at the expense of something you can understand easily. If you really get the gist, you can figure a lot of other things out, whereas if you focus on one little detail, you’ll get . . . one little detail.

The question of relevant vs. irrelevant plays out a lot more subtly in the Writing section, where people often aren’t quite sure just what it is they’re supposed to be looking for, especially when it comes to Error-IDs. As a result, they want to understand the rule behind every underlined word and phrase, regardless of whether it’s something that’s really relevant. And because about 95% of the rules tested are predictable and fixed from one test to the next, a lot of the time the correct answers aren’t terribly relevant. Worrying about every little rule makes the grammar being tested appear much more complex than it actually is.

The reality is that if you only look for errors involving subject verb agreement, pronoun agreement, verb tense/form, parallel structure, logical relationships and comparisons, prepositions, and adjectives and adverbs, you’re going to get most of the questions right. And if an error involving one of those concepts doesn’t appear, there’s a very good chance that there’s no error at all. Thinking like that is a lot more effective than worrying about why it’s just as correct to say “though interesting, the lecture was also very long” as it is to say, “though it was interesting, the lecture was also very long.”

I’m not denying that understanding why both forms are correct is interesting or ultimately useful. I’m simply saying that if you have a limited amount of time and energy, you’re better served by zeroing in on what you really need to know.

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