06 March 2013

The five second rule

When a student who consistently runs out of time comes to me, one of the first thing I try to do is pin down what exactly is causing them to slow down. In the absence of a serious comprehension problem, I frequently find that as they work through the sentence completions and encounter words they don’t know, they simply stop and stare.

I can almost hear the little voice in their head saying “Wait… I’ve seen this word before… It looks really familiar… We talked about it in English class last month… It means like “stubborn” or something, right? I think…” Meanwhile the seconds and then the minutes tick by, and they’re still struggling their way through the same medium-level question.

As I constantly have to remind my students, it doesn’t matter if you don’t know what the wrong answers means as long as you do know what the right answer means. In other words, if you see a word whose meaning you’re absolutely certain of and it fits the sentence perfectly, it’s the answer, and you need to just pick it and move on. The fact that there might be three or four other words whose meanings you’re not sure of is completely irrelevant. The point is to answer the questions correctly, not to know the definition of every single word.

What happens, however, is that students see the unfamiliar words and assume that they know far less than they actual do. For those trying to break the 600 mark, that reaction is a disaster because it causes them to 1) get easy-medium-ish questions wrong that they should be getting right, and 2) waste huge amounts of time so that they run out of time and end up missing additional questions at the end of the section that they could have answered correctly.

One of the major mental adjustments that people have to make when they first start studying for the SAT is the fact that the exam tests flexible knowledge — the stuff you know so well that you can pull it out on autopilot, not the stuff you tried to cram last night or last week and that only got stored in your short-term memory. If you don’t know a word when you see it and don’t have any tools (roots, etc.) for figuring it out, there really isn’t much you can do about it on the spot. If that word hasn’t been stored in your long-term memory, the reality is that sitting and staring at it probably isn’t going to help, no matter how much it feels like it will; if anything, it’ll simply take time away from other things.

When I work through sentence completions with people, one of the major things I focus on is getting them out of staring mode and into “let me focus on something else” mode. The moment I see their eyes start to glaze over, I say “next.” Usually, that’s about five seconds after they’ve looked at the word. (To be perfectly honest, it’s probably more like a second or two, but if I called this post “the one second rule,” I’m not sure anyone would bother to read it. ). Inevitably, they’re startled, but I’ve learned that if they go any longer, they’re going to get stuck.

Consider this sentence:

Arsenic is a notoriously ——– substance; its ——- of groundwater poses a danger to the health of millions of people around the world.

Give yourself five seconds to come up with words to plug into the blanks. If you can’t come up with anything, just say whether each blank is positive or negative.

Now, when you look at the answer choices, you’re going to deal with each side individually, starting with whichever side you’re more certain of. Left or right, it doesn’t matter.

Go in order, (A)-(E).

If you know that a word won’t work, eliminate the entire answer; if you don’t know what a word means, keep it.

For each word, you have a maximum of five seconds to decide.

Repeat for the other side. Five seconds max.

Do not allow yourself to think, “well, maybe if I just stared at this word a little longer,” I might figure out what it means,” or “let me try plugging this word into the sentence and seeing how it sounds…” Just say “yes” or “no.” You can go back and plug in once you get down to a couple of answers.

If you go back and plug in your remaining answers and still aren’t sure, give yourself five seconds to decide what to do. You can guess, skip entirely, or circle it to come back to later. But you have to decide — you can’t just sit and stare.

GO:

Arsenic is a notoriously ——– substance; its ——- of groundwater poses a danger to the health of millions of people around the world.

(A) volatile . . anticipation

(B) edifying . . deprivation

(C) noxious . . contamination

(D) destructive . . purification

(E) benign . . pollution

How was that? If you usually have time problems, that was probably a much faster pace than you’re accustomed to working at. It might even feel a bit breathless. But yes, in order to finish on time, you do actually have to work that fast.

For the record, the answer is beside the point here; the point is the process. But you can scroll down for the answer.

The same is true for passage-based reading questions, by the way. If you’re consistently staring at answer choices for more than a few seconds without actively figuring out whether it’s right or wrong, you’re going to get into trouble. That doesn’t mean you have to answer the question in five seconds, just that staring at answer choices without actually engaging with those choices (thinking about how they relate to the main point, rephrasing them in simpler language, going back to the passage to check out something specific) will get you nowhere.

The answer is (C). If you did happen to get the question right, congratulations. You might, however, be thinking, “ok, fine, I tried it your way, but I would have gotten it right anyway — it wasn’t really that hard.” To which my response would be, “I appreciate that you might have gotten this question right anyway, but this is about 1) using time to maximum efficiency, and 2) working as systematically as possible so you don’t make careless errors — you know, the kind that can knock you down from an 800 to a 720, or a 700 to a 620. Besides, there will be other, harder questions that you will end up wasting huge amounts of time unnecessarily on if you don’t train yourself to make decisions quickly on the easier ones.

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