08 March 2012

Know what you don’t know

If you read that title and thought, “well how could I possibly know what I don’t know — the whole point is that I don’t know it?” then let me explain that contradiction a little more fully.

People often don’t quite realize that the SAT is a reasoning test in more ways than one. The questions themselves are of course designed to test reasoning ability, but so is the construction of the entire test. That quarter-point penalty for wrong answers isn’t there by accident: it basically exists to make sure that people who like to guess but have no idea what they’re doing aren’t unduly rewarded for their audacity (that’s the non-mathy version — for those of you who want the statistics, look it up;) Various sources of course have various responses to this arrangement: guess if you can get rid of one answer. No, guess if you can get rid of two answers! And so on.

Anyone who’s ever worked with me can attest to the fact that my stance on wild guessing — even if someone is down to two answers — is exceedingly conservative for one simple reason: in all of the time I’ve spent tutoring, I can’t actually recall the last time someone took a wild guess and got the answer right. I’m not saying it can’t happen, just that I can’t remember it happening — and I spend a lot of time watching people trying to figure out SAT questions. I see people make educated or even semi-educated guesses, even those that are just based based on gut feelings, and get questions right all the time. But real, pure, wild guesses that turn out to be correct? No, that’s not something I really encounter.

This of course hearkens back to the big purple elephant in the room, the one everyone wants to pretend isn’t there (and will twist themselves into knots trying to avoid): when people consistently get SAT questions wrong, it usually isn’t because they’re poor guessers but rather because they don’t really know how to answer those questions. Either they don’t truly understand what the question is asking or they don’t know how to work through it to arrive at the correct answer. They could also be rushing or not working carefully enough, but again, in my experience, more often than not those are excuses that people give when they don’t realize there’s a deeper issue at work. In other words, it’s not really the test’s fault; it’s just catching an underlying weaknesses.

Think of it this way: if you didn’t have that weakness — and it could be a weakness of approach rather than one of actual knowledge — you would have gotten the answer right.

Let’s, for a moment, assume that we’re talking about weaknesses in actual knowledge. Unless you’re consistently scoring close to perfect in a given section, it’s probably safe to say that you have a couple. Ideally, of course, you’d start SAT prep far enough in advance to be able to address those weaknesses, but of course it doesn’t usually doesn’t work that way, and you end up having to make do with the skills you have.

In that case, the best thing you can do is to be aware of where your weaknesses are and, assuming that you’re not trying to get an 800, be willing to treat questions that test those areas with an extra degree of caution.

Let me give you an example: occasionally, just to try to put myself in my students’ shoes a little bit, I’ll play around with SAT math sections. Now, my high school math education was absolutely and thoroughly abysmal: unlike my English and History teachers, several of whom were absolutely extraordinary, my Math teachers ranged from apathetic to mind-bendingly incompetent. (Some of them were quite good at math — they just couldn’t teach their way out of a box.) The absolute worst was my tenth grade geometry teacher, Mr. Bookston, who literally spent an entire year responding to my and my classmates’ repeated insistences that we did not in fact understand a word out of his mouth with a wave of his hand and a confident, “Oh, YOU understand!” The inevitable result was that I learned nothing whatsoever about geometry, a sorry state of affairs that has unfortunately persisted to this day.

So, when I look at an SAT Math section, I know that I’m probably not going to be able to answer most, if any, of the geometry questions. I know that I’ll just sit there staring at them without the slightest idea of how to even begin to answer the problems.

In other words, exactly what a lot of my students feel when they look at particularly daunting CR or Writing question.

But here’s the thing: I don’t even try to answer them. I know enough about the test AND about my own abilities that I know it’s not even remotely worth it. I just focus on answering every single question correctly that I know I can answer correctly and forget about everything else; I don’t want to let my score get dragged down unnecessarily by the quarter-point penalty. My goal is to get x number of questions right for a particular raw score, not try to answer every question and hope for the best.

Working this way, I managed to raise my score by 60 points to a 590 (yes, I am willing to admit that publicly!) in about three tests. Without using a calculator. That’s better than I did in high school, and I haven’t taken a math class since then.

Now, if I wanted to get my score over the 600 mark, I would actually have to learn some more math — I don’t have any illusions about that. But for a relatively quick fix… Well, 60 points is a lot in a very short period of time.

The point I’m trying to make with that little anecdote is that learning where your weak spots lie is just as important as memorizing vocabulary and formulas because you need that information to be able to work strategically — a form of reasoning that requires a pretty high degree of intellectual maturity in and of itself. You need to know what kind of questions it’s even worth to take semi-educated gut-feeling guesses on, and which ones you’re better off skipping entirely. You need to understand that wishful thinking isn’t enough, that just guessing and hoping that maybe this time you’ll luck out and do really well does not constitute an effective strategy.

It doesn’t seem to matter how many times I say this to some people; they just keep on guessing, even when it repeatedly backfires, and if then they keep getting disappointed. There’s really nothing I can do about that. But if you’re stuck at a particular score level and keep missing the same kinds of questions over and over, you need to stop trying to answer them. Especially if you’re going to be a senior and don’t have time to really get solid on the content, focusing on what you do know how to do might represent your best chance to pull up your score.

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