… and why I don’t believe in them
Yes, you heard me right. I’ve noticed an interesting problem this summer with some of my students. I’ve happened to take on some students who have been dissatisfied with their progress in some previous prep programs … (no big names mentioned here!), and have come to work with my company, a small independent center in Toronto. Quite a few of them have come in with the attitude that the test is a “trick”, doesn’t reflect real achievement, and that you need to get inside the mind of the test … or enter the higher circles and access the secret knowledge, or something like that. They want me to teach them the SAT or ACT cheats and hints.
So why do I have a problem with this?
I totally disagree with this approach. For one, I think it’s just a marketing ploy. But more importantly, it does real harm to students! The tests are not a trick!! Grammar and Math questions always have one objectively correct answer that can be found by using rules are commonly accepted, and that’s at least 50% of the test! Granted, the rhetoric and reading questions on the test can be a little subjective, but in my experience, there is a clear right answer about 99% of the time on the ACT and about 95% of the time on the SAT (yes I do think there’s a bit of a difference actually).
The harm this does to students – you – is in making them second guess themselves. They are taught not to go with their intuition, which often would be correct. They receive the idea that there is some sort of strategy that’s a specific SAT rule (or some ACT cheats and hints) that will get them the answer. I don’t believe there is, and half the time, their belief in this actually hurts their test score.
One particular student (let’s call him Rob), came in struggling with the ACT reading section (score of 22, looking for a 30). We sat down together and read some reading passages, and he seemed to understand them really well. I was surprised at this, because I’d have expected him to be getting may 7 or 8/10, not the 4 or 5/10 he was currently getting.
We did another passage. Same thing happened. Rob fully understood the passage, but got more questions wrong than right. So I repeated the exercise again, just to be sure. I had an idea forming in my head, but I wanted to be sure before I told him. Here’s what I said, after he’d read and understood his third passage, but answered the questions poorly:
“Rob, I think you need to stop thinking of the test as a trick. For the past few questions, we’ve gone over the answers together, and you’ve agreed with my explanation for the right answer. I know you understand the passage. I think you just need to think simply: find the answer in the passage and choose the closest option. Forget what Big Name Company X told you about ACT cheats and hints. Just choose the answer you know is right. I think you’re trying to be confused because you’ve been told that you should be.”
Rob was a bit skeptical, but agreed to try this new approach. I picked out a difficult prose fiction passage (I used passage 1 in form 64E where a woman recounts her experience of not being able to dream). No word of a lie – his score was 8/10. I asked him how he felt about the new approach. He said it seemed to make sense. So we continued, and his score continued to remain at the same level – about 2 errors per passage. With subsequent practice, he now makes around 1 mistake per passage and typically scores 30+ on the reading!
So … how did I manage to achieve this tutoring magic?!
By NOT using any kind of ACT cheats and hints! I honestly believe that the only real tricks to the tests are timing tricks (which more often than not are ways of figuring out which questions you’re going to skip), and tricks that help you to understand the question better. For example, my recommended approach to vocabulary in context questions or what to do when the answers are a list of verbs. I really do believe that timing strategies like these can be really helpful, and I use them all the time!
I just don’t think most of these SAT and ACT cheats and hints are helpful to understanding, and let’s face it, we all know that better students do better on these tests. Clearly tests aren’t the entire picture, and there are some people who don’t do as well as they should do, but there is certainly a difference in achievement between a student who scores a 900 and a 1500. I’m not saying one is a better person, but that one has a better mastery of learning skills than the other. I’m also not saying that there’s a difference between a student who scores a 32 and a student who scores a 34 – I don’t think there is.
What can you do instead of using SAT or ACT cheats and hints?
- First of all, try to get to the point of the passage or question. It’s asking you to infer, or for the main idea of the passage, or the reason why the author used a specific example. So what was the reason? Ask yourself the question directly. Sometimes the answer will become clear to you.
- For rhetoric or style questions in English/Writing & Language, ensure you read the question really carefully. So many students are in the habit of choosing the choice they prefer, when often the question will tell you exactly what it’s looking for – for example, joining the two sentences together most effectively, or questions that begin “which choice best expresses … “. Read the question and answer it. Often it’s as simple as that!!
- One last useful tactic is to cover up the answers and think of your own. I would only recommend doing this when you’re practicing, as it takes too much time on the real test. It does really hone your skills though! If you like, get a friend or family member to cover up the answer choices with cut out post-its and write over the top of them. Then, when you’ve answered all the questions in your own words, peel off the post-its and match what you wrote to an answer choice underneath. This isn’t a way to approach the reading section as a whole, as it doesn’t work for all the questions, but it is a way to think about the test a little differently.
Why do I think this happens?
This is a really interesting problem and one that I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about. I think that encouraging students to use process of elimination for every question helps them to find “artificial reasons” – constructing reasons for any of the answer choices. This doesn’t help you see clearly which choice is the right one, it makes you able to find a reason for anything. Unfortunately, I think some tutors and test prep companies are guilty of doing this themselves when they teach. Certainly there are some SAT books which give very tenuous answer explanations for the reading passages on the SAT.
In my mind, the take home point is this: Be clear headed! The answer is in the passage, or the question. It’s a simple as choosing the right one! I genuinely believe this, and it’s an approach I communicate to all my students, with great results.