Crossing things out mentally doesn’t count

Crossing things out mentally doesn’t count

I seem to keep having this conversation over and over again:

(Student gets a Writing question wrong)

Me to student: Ok, I know you know how to do this question. What happens if you cross out the non-essential clause between the subject and the verb?

Student: [looks at paper, smacks head] Wow, I really don’t know how I missed that.

Me: What’s the first thing you need to do when you see a non-essential clause?

Student gets a mildly guilty look and doesn’t respond.

Me: Remind me again… What’s the first thing you need to do when you see a non-essential clause? (more…)

If you want a different score, do something differently

If you want a different score, do something differently

A couple of months ago, I got a phone call from a father who was interested in having me tutor his daughter for Critical Reading. She was solidly in the 600s, he said, but should be scoring in the 700s and could use a couple of new strategies. We chatted for a bit, and then he commented that he was sure that his daughter would do better on the real test — didn’t people always do better on the real thing, with all that adrenaline flowing? “Well, no,” I said. “Not necessarily. Sometimes they do. But just as often they don’t. Usually their scores are pretty much in line with those from their practice tests.”

Apparently he didn’t like that response since I never heard from him again.

I realize that it’s become a cliché to define insanity as the act of doing the same thing over and over again while expecting different results, but that notwithstanding, the saying does contain a hefty dose of truth — especially when it comes to standardized testing, accent on the “standardized” part. (more…)

Procrastinate (or: if you can’t handle the question now, don’t)

Procrastinate (or: if you can’t handle the question now, don’t)

Occasionally I’ll be working through a section — usually a Reading section — with a student, and I’ll come across a question that just makes my head spin. Usually it’s an “all of the following EXCEPT” or a “which of the following would most undermine the author’s assertion that…” or a “which of the following is most analogous to the situation in lines 35-47?”

At that point, I generally turn to my student and declare that I just can’t deal with it right then. We’re moving on. I don’t care if my student wants to try it. I don’t want to end up with smoke pouring metaphorically out of my ears, which is frankly what will happen if I try to muddle through. Either that, or I’ll sit and stare at it uncomprehendingly for about five minutes, trying to figure out what I’m supposed to be seeing and not quite managing to make logical sense out of the letters on the page.

In other words, exactly the same thing that happens to most of my students when they look at a question like that. (more…)

Know what you don’t know

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. (more…)

Tricky is in the eye of the beholder

Tricky is in the eye of the beholder

Sometimes I feel like the SAT is a kind of Rorschach test. It’s so laden down with cultural baggage and anxieties (about race, class, social mobility, you name it) that people’s opinions — and they tend to be very, very strong opinions — seem to reveal more about their own concerns than they do about the actual test itself. I also sometimes feel as if people who complain about the SAT’s purported “trickiness” are missing the point of the it: both the questions and the incorrect answer choices are deliberately written to exploit the kinds of mistakes that people are most likely to make when working through the various kinds of questions. The real issue is whether that whole setup is a valid means of testing, well… whatever it is that the SAT is supposed to be testing (which is of course something that no one can agree on anyway).

I do feel obligated to point out that for the small percentage of test-takers whose skills are such that they can disregard the multiple-choice aspect and simply answer the questions, the whole concept of trickiness is essentially a moot point. (more…)

Write yourself notes – it helps

Write yourself notes – it helps

I’m the first person to admit that I have a terrible short-term memory. Terrible. I think it used to be halfway decent, but then my senior year of college hit, and that was that. Now it isn’t uncommon for me to get halfway through a sentence and drift off halfway through, unable to recall the point I was attempting to make.

This happens with alarming frequency when I’m tutoring, at which point I typically ask my student what I was saying. What really disturbs me, however, is that most of the time my student can’t remember what I was saying either. I’m sorry, but you just shouldn’t be losing your memory at sixteen. You have the entire rest of your life for that to happen. Besides, you need to have something to look forward to in middle age! (more…)