13 February 2013

If you don’t know why you’re picking the answer, you probably shouldn’t pick it

I’ve now uttered these words so many times this week that I feel compelled to post them. As you may have guessed, the typical conversation that elicits them goes something like this:

Me: So what made you pick (C)? Tell me how you got that answer.

Student: Ummm… I’m really not sure.

Me: There must have been something that made you pick it… Can you give me some idea of how you came up with it?

Student: (Giggles uncomfortably. Shrugs). Ummm… I really don’t know what I was thinking.

Me: If you’re really have no idea why you’re picking an answer, that’s usually a sign that you haven’t thought hard enough about what you’re doing.

In case you haven’t noticed, the SAT is a test that requires you to think (duh). That’s not to say that you have to focus obsessively on every little detail, but you can’t afford to tune out either.

A “reason” for picking an answer can be something as simple as a gut feeling. From what I’ve seen, they’re right far more often than not, and usually when I press someone to explain those “gut” answers, it turns out that there was a logical thought process there that they just didn’t quite know how to put into words.

It’s also fine to pick an answer based on knowledge of the test: if you’re struggling with a tone question and know that “wry” is usually right when it appears as an answer choice, you can pick it even if you don’t totally get what’s going in the passage. Or on a “function” question that asks you to identify the purpose of a particular line, if you know that correct answers tend to be short and phrased in a very general manner, you can probably make an educated guess. You might not always get the answer right, but at least you’re basing your answers on the way the test usually works, as opposed to the desire to just get the question over without leaving it blank.

One of the most frustrating things for me as a tutor is that unless the student willingly and actively decides to abandon the “guess and get it over with” mindset, my ability to help them is seriously curtailed.

As I incessantly remind my students whenever they ask me what a word means or what a question is actually asking, I won’t be there to feed them the information when they’re actually taking the test. I’m happy to explain AFTER they’ve tried working through the question on their own, but I need to see them try it with their actual level of knowledge so that I can help them figure things out even when they’re *not* entirely sure what’s going on. My job is to get them to the point where they can do it on their own because ultimately they’re going to have no choice but to do it that way.

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