Category Archives: Students

How to improve SAT test scores: Attack the Question!

When developing test-taking skills for standardized tests such as AP, ACT, and SAT tests there are usually two approaches:

  • Strategy no. 1: Improve on content knowledge & skills.
  • Strategy no. 2:  Employ test-taking strategies, such as skipping, annotating, anticipating answers, and elimination.

That’s all good and well, but there’s no single method to apply to every question. So what else can parents do to help students improve on standardized tests?

  • Strategy no. 3: Attack the Question

The Test Knows more than you?

This third approach emphasizes treating questions as sources of information, looking upon questions as giving, not taking.

All too often I hear from students that the test “knows more” than they do. What they’re saying is that they don’t trust themselves, and they end up second-guessing themselves or, worse, choosing incorrect answers simply because they don’t know the meaning of a word in it.

These students are not looking a the question as a source of information. They’re letting the question take — and not making it give.

So a very first place for improvement is to look upon…

Test Questions as Information

Effective test-takers will use information in the test, especially the questions. Questions are to them guidance and not an impediment.

Even the most basic question contains information:

Why is the sky blue?

Before answering the question, let’s see what it tells us:

  1. The sky is blue
  2. There is a reason for that.

Okay, great, but so what?

Well, that information is actually quite useful — if we look upon it as information and not a judgment about what we know or don’t know about the sky being blue.

If I don’t know what the sky or blue are, well, maybe here’s an opportunity to engage in a good skipping strategy.  Sometimes you just don’t know.

But just because I don’t know the direct answer, by looking at the question as a source of information I can begin to apply that information to something I do know:

  1. The sky is… the atmosphere.. it’s made up of, oxygen and other gasses, and clouds…  and clouds are water… sunlight bounces off the atmosphere…
  2. Blue is…  a primary color… blue light is high on the color frequencies…
  3. There is something about the sky, the color blue that combines to make the sky blue.

Having considered the information in the question and identifying what I know about it, I can now better employ our Strategy no. 2 of anticipation and elimination.

Just as importantly, since I have considered the question carefully, I will be less likely to be fooled by the possible wrong answers, many of which are designed precisely to mislead the student based upon an incorrect association with a word in the question. Thinking over the question deliberately helps me avoid that trap.

Attack the Qualifiers!

Once we get past the idea that the test “knows more than I do,” we can approach it as a useful instrument. Here Question Attack is essential.

Let’s go back to our question, “Why is the sky blue?”  Of course a standardized test will ask a more complex question,  but it’s never more complicated than a series of qualifications that limit or define a simple question, such as,

Why is the sky a lighter blue on the horizon than straight above?

First, we find information in the question

  1. The sky is blue
  2. The blue is lighter on the horizon than straight up
  3. There is something in the horizon that makes the sky a lighter blue.

Our simple question has now been qualified to a certain distinction, i.e., the difference between the color blue on the horizon and above.

Standardized test questions will always bring in some type of qualifier that defines the scope and purpose of the question. The effective test-taker will identify that qualifier and sort the information in the question according to it.

Typical qualifiers are “determiner” words such as “most,” “more,” “some,” etc.  Sometimes it comes in a prepositional phrase, such as “during the summer months…”

Again, possible wrong answers frequently tempt the test taker into making an incorrect association with a word or idea in the question, especially the qualifiers. By identifying the question qualifiers, we are less likely fooled.

Regardless the form, effective Question Attack will identify the qualifier and discern its impact on the information provided in the question.

Questions as Answers to Other Questions

If questions contain information, then it is likely that information will be used or repeated elsewhere on the test. We won’t notice it, however, if we’re looking at questions as a challenge rather than as a source of information.

This approach is less useful in SAT and ACT tests in which the textual material is random, however, on subject tests, such as AP tests and SAT subject tests, there will always be redundant information. The effective test taker will be aware of how to apply information in one question to answer another.

On the math side, it works the same, as math questions are often different forms of similar concepts, especially in the use of theorems or equations.

On the SAT and ACT tests, careful readers of test questions will identify repetition of required skills and concepts.

For example, in the SAT Writing section, a commonly addressed skill is appropriate use of semicolons, colons, dashes, and commas.  While the textual source will be different, the same concept will be tested multiple times.

For example, from the College Board Official SAT Practice Test 2, we find two questions at opposite ends of the Writing section on use of these punctuation marks:

It took me by surprise, then, when my favorite exhibit at the museum was one of it’s tiniest; the Thorne Miniature Rooms.

Her goals were straightforward, however: reduce waste, maintain and perpetuate knowledge and skills, and strengthen community.

If we compare what these questions are measuring, it helps remind us of the grammatical rules at work. In both sentences, we find  dependent secondary clauses, i.e., they do not stand as full sentences, which requires subject + verb. Therefore we know we are working with a list or example to extend or explain the first clause.

Whereas the first sentence is more straightforward in that the second clause provides an example (a list of one) to support the first, by remembering that rule, we can see through the more complex second sentence, which also provides examples or a list to support the first clause, only confused by inclusion of the unnecessary adverb, “however.”

Now that I have identified the concept or skill being measured, i.e., what punctuation mark sets up a list, and seeing multiple examples of it, I can better select the correct answer, which in both cases is a colon (only without the “however” in the second).

Slow Down, Be Thoughtful, Identify Question Expectations

Question Attack prevents the test taker from jumping straight into the possible answers, a fundamental mistake I see often in students. The temptation is to get through the test, so taking the time to consider the question seems annoying or unnecessary. It may also seem wasteful of time.

Actually, Question Attack preserves time, because it clarifies question expectations before getting lost in the wrong possible answers, which then throws the test taker back into the question for clarification — and wasting time.

Question Attack develops awareness, context, and allows for better application of prior knowledge.

In a next post, I will address effective strategies for elimination, which can only be employed upon careful consideration of the question itself.

Attack that Question, and raise your scores!

– Michael

Do Smartphones make students dumb? Parents, how to teach your children to avoid distractions & use the cell phone off button

Tap, tap, text, text, click, click…  Are cell phones taking students from merely distracted to dum, dummer, dummest?

I suppose it depends on what “dumb” is.  If dumb means instant access to vast sources of information that don’t require memory recall to access, that’s hardly stupid. And if dumb means webs of instant connections for help, sharing, and getting things done, that ain’t so dumb, either.

BUT… dumb is as dumb does, so if these marvelous little devices are getting in the way of student productive academic outcomes, then we’ve got a problem. Continue reading

How Parents and Teachers can use Bloom’s Taxonomy to engage student learning & curiosity

“Bloom’s Taxonomy of the Cognitive Domain,” known more commonly as “Bloom’s Taxonomy,” identifies levels of learning from basic knowledge to higher-order thought that if used correctly can greatly empower student academic performance.

Bloom’s original goal for the taxonomy was to guide curricular and assessment development with specific cognitive goals.

Most teachers are familiar with it, although few use it explicitly in the classroom. Fewer, still, are the students and parents who have heard of Bloom’s Taxonomy.

When engaged explicitly, Bloom’s is a powerful took for scaffolding both lower- and higher-level thought and, most importantly, for empowering student curiosity, academic ownership, and sense of accomplishment.

Using Bloom’s Taxonomy

While reviewing Bloom’s with a student in our A+ Club program, he exclaimed, “That’s on the wall in my English class!” That’s awesome, I replied. But then student said, “But I never had any idea what it was for. She never explained it.”

There you go, I thought to myself, all the education theory in the world lost on a classroom wall! Continue reading

Time Travel pt 2: Navigating the Now & the Later

Procrastination is a disconnect between the NOW and the LATER. Overcoming the urge to procrastinate requires reconnecting with our own future. “Time Travel” can help bridge the NOW and the LATER.

In Time Travel part 1: Ben Franklin & Managing the Now old Ben gave us some great advice on the consequences of delay.  Ben was an incredibly productive man whose pursuits and accomplishments spanned science, literature, politics, and business.  Good for him.

But how can we mortals get a little piece of Ben in our lives? Continue reading

Time management is Time Travel, pt 1: Ben Franklin & Managing the Now

You may delay, but time will not.

– Ben Franklin

By “time management” we usually mean prioritizing, using time effectively, getting things done instead of putting them off.  Except that we all “manage” time — it’s a matter of how well. If done properly, the rewards are large — and costly if not.

Ben Franklin put it more succinctly:

Remember that time is money.

So let’s get a new, good start on this “time management” job of ours and break into its essential parts to see how well it can pay. Continue reading

Getting Gritty: can academic “grit” be taught or is it a personality type like John Wayne?

Do we all have an inner John Wayne, or is grit unique to the gritty few?

Is grit a product of circumstance that reveals it or do we need to bring grit to the scene? I’m thinking it’s a little of both, but it’s certain that some of us are “grittier” than others, and each of us in different ways.

Academics are newly concerned with “grit,” or “resilience,” as long term success requires the ability to get past challenges and set backs.  In fact, students who overcome failure and keep steady towards a long term goal are understood to be better prepared for higher level academics and life in general than students who never faced failure at all. Continue reading

Teach don’t preach pt 2: Confirmation Bias & the unintented teacher preacher

Teachers, does your Confirmation Bias shut down student learning?

Having scolded teachers who politicize their classrooms in my post, “Teach Don’t Preach: politicizing the classroom is not just wrong, it’s bad teaching,” it begs the question of what to do with teachers who don’t know that they’re preaching not teaching and not just with politics.

As I noted,

Of course, curricular decisions are bound to teacher perspective. As History teacher, I value certain periods and concepts that other teachers may not care about. 

As lessons are inherently bound to the teacher’s knowledge and interests, the challenge for an effective teacher is how to make that limited perspective beneficial for students — and, most importantly, without limiting them to it.

Confirmation Bias and the Teacher Preacher

As they say, to a hammer everything is a nail.  Academics call it “Confirmation Bias,” a descriptor for the tendency of humans to see only what they’re looking for.

We all engage in Confirmation Bias on a regular if not daily basis. It often comes in the little things like searching for lost keys and finding something else you were looking for the week before. In this case, your “bias” to find the keys causes you to search out places or spaces that you didn’t think to look for when searching for that other object. You can also see how it works in this now-classic  “Awareness Test” video.

In the hard sciences, Confirmation Bias manifests as experiments or observations that limit or ignore contradictory evidence or results. In the social sciences, Confirmation Bias occurs when an observer ignores or dismisses evidence or logic that contradicts an existing belief.

In the courtroom, trial attorneys regularly manipulate witness testimony and jury decisions by developing in them a Confirmation Bias towards the desired verdict, with the classic leading question being ,”Did you see the broken glass” as opposed to “Did you see any broken glass?” Asking if there was “any broken glass” is a neutral question, whereas “the broken glass” implies that there was broken glass which may trick the witness into “remembering” what was possibly not there.  (Effective opposing counsel will object to such “leading questions.”)

A most prevalent form of Confirmation Bias comes, of course, in politics. Self-identity can be so wrapped around a political perspective or affiliation that simple facts become lies when they oppose our point of view. Even when we admit an inconvenient political truth, we easily get around it by diminishing it and convincing ourselves that it doesn’t matter for our guy because the other guy is worse, and so on.

If that makes any sense to you, please read my post  “Teach Don’t Preach: politicizing the classroom is not just wrong, it’s bad teaching,”

For today’s post, however, the point is that Confirmation Bias operates with equal power, if quietly, in other aspects of teaching than straight out imposing a political opinion upon students.

Missing the Dancing Bear & Other Opportunities

Confirmation bias is not inherently wrong, as insight can result from ignoring the “noise” that others, if weighing all evidence equally, may not be able to filter, seeing the forest and not the trees, as it were.  If you were too busy counting the number of basketball passes by the white team to see the dancing bear in the “Awareness Test” video, you may have missed out on bad moon walking technique while instead learning some cool passing moves. Your gain.

Because a narrow or overly broad perspective can be revealing in unique ways, I believe that one of the great benefits of Attention Deficit (ADD/ADHD) is precisely the lack of filters that can yield creativity and insight others may miss. The danger in only seeing things differently is that it becomes its own Confirmation Bias. Because my attention quickly goes to something else doesn’t excuse that I left the kitchen faucet on, it just means that my focus went elsewhere, for better or worse, and  sometimes that “better” means an insight others could never conceive.

The Power of Perspectives

If the point of classroom diversity is to bring in additional perspectives for common learning, then confirmation bias contradicts the very purpose of diversity. A homogenous classroom yields great focus on its common purpose or point of view. It does not, however, challenge that point of view and at the expense of learning.

In his 1644 in Areopagitica, the poet and philosopher John Milton defended freedom of expression under the theory that since the absolute truth is unobtainable, only by allowing competing, if incorrect, perspectives, can mankind approach the truth. Should wrong expressions be suppressed, truth is obscured.

Back to the Classroom

I place the teacher that demands one conclusion or perspective among the tyrants that Milton rejected. My concern is that these teachers don’t realize what they’re doing.

Whereas the Socratic Method itself requires confirmation bias in the teacher whose job it is to direct the student to a conclusion, at least the Method allows for student exploration of ideas. Teaching that places the conclusion first not only denies students a path towards comprehension, it short circuits student thought.

I’m not a math teacher, but I know from working with students in our A+ Club academic support service that while there may be a single answer to a math problem, there are multiple paths to it, and by insisting upon that single path the learning of both the conclusion and the desired path are lost. So when I hear a student complain that a math or science teacher “doesn’t explain it in a way I can understand it,” I’m not necessarily hearing that the student isn’t learning, I may be hearing that the teacher is not offering an additional perspective or method that the student can better comprehend.

If Confirmation Bias is at work in math and science, then we have serious trouble in the humanities where it can take hold of an entire curriculum. The worst of it comes in politicization of the classroom, but it can infect a classroom even if the disease is more subtle, such as from a teacher’s limited points of view or content knowledge.

Let’s say that an English teacher wants students to identify with a certain character in a Shakespeare play. A flat-out requirement that students focus on that sole character will destroy the learning for all but the most compliant of students. The ban on other characters destroys student exploration and development of the conclusions the teacher wants students to adopt. Learning opportunities are lost in such an imposition.

The emotional bond to a learning outcome can be overpowering to a teacher, blinding that teacher to the Confirmation Bias that drives the learning expectation. At that point, we are not teaching, we are preaching.

Expanding our Confirmation Biases

We cannot escape our Confirmation Biases. We act on and develop perspective on what we already know and the experiences that have created our self-conception. Additionally, we often face institutional restraints, such as a school-wide ban on certain behaviors or outcomes.  (I would suggest allowing classroom debate on such topics with the clear caveat that the school policy will not change regardless of student perspectives.) Still, we become better teachers, better mentors and guides for students when we can see past ourselves.

First, we have to listen. Next, we must never deliver conclusion before process.

We get there through active pursuit of new information, and when we as teachers can engage in a lively personal debate then we will become far more powerful teachers.

One of the worst kinds of Confirmation Bias comes from stagnation. When we stop learning we end up teaching the same thing over and over again and all we teach is only what we already know, which is inherently limited (see Milton). Worse, schools so often focus on pedagogy at the expense of content enrichment that teachers lose sight of developments in their own content areas that could otherwise expand and enrich their classrooms.

The solution is to place ourselves in a state of constant learning. If our consumption of information merely reinforces our existing Confirmation Biases, then we are learning — and teaching — nothing. It’s okay to read something you don’t agree with, and it will most likely affirm your own reasoned conclusions. But if we don’t expose ourselves to opposing or new ideas, we have no opportunity to grow intellectually and as teachers.

A Few Suggestions for Getting Past Preaching Not Teaching

  1. Consume the news not the headlines.
  2. Study your content not just its pedagogy.
  3. Avoid politics in your lessons and classroom (that does not mean that students should avoid politics, as that’s part of their growth which your job is to guide).
  4. Subscribe to content-oriented academic journals.
  5. Subscribe to general-interest journals
  6. Listen to podcasts on your way to and from work.
  7. Listen to your students.

My personal strategies include daily consumption of a printed newspaper, podcasts, and as many books as I can juggle at a time. Of course my choice of sources is biased according to my preferences, but I never stop consideration simply because I disagree.

This is all very time consuming. I had to drop my newspaper consumption from two papers plus a weekend third to a single daily and weekend paper, but even so every day I learn something new from that one newspaper that I can apply to my work with students and in my life in general. We must compromise for what’s possible, but we mustn’t ever let the undesirable guide the possible instead.

By becoming constant learners ourselves we will help our students to become owls not sheep — if only we ourselves are not the wolf in the sheep’s skin.

– Michael

Is your student an extrinsic or intrinsic learner? And how to bring out the best in each to overcome the other

So how can we bridge the gap between students who only do as they’re told and those who learn only what they find interesting?

As students rise through secondary schools, teacher expectations and demands can either tax or reward student learning and behavioral types, in this case, the extrinsically versus intrinsically motivated student:

Extrinsic learners strive to meet teacher expectations as explicitly as possible while intrinsic learners engage learning for its own sake. Continue reading

3.14: A Pi day celebration from a math idiot

Is math just for math people? Are you just not wired for math? Well, you and your math-struggling student can celebrate Pi day, too!

I was awful at math in  high school. So bad, in fact, that I  didn’t qualify to take math in college.

Felt great at the time, but looking back on it, what a shame. The only math I could do as a kid was “breaking a twenty” as a cashier at my job at the drug store. I could make change like a champ! Now, cashiers don’t even have to know any math at all, since the machine does it all for them.

So do we really need math?

Sadly, some universities think we don’t:

Wayne State drops math as general ed requirement

What a shame — and I know why they’re doing it, although they’ve got an excuse for it: Continue reading

How to know if your student is really learning: “If you can’t teach it you don’t know it”

We hear it all the time. Students say, “I get it when my teacher shows it to me, but I can’t do it on the test.” Then parents tell us that their child “doesn’t test well.”

When children say, “I get it when my teacher shows me,” what they’re really saying is that they didn’t learn it for themselves.

Turning New Knowledge into Prior Knowledge

The process of turning “New Knowledge” (NK) into “Prior Knowledge” (PK) is what I call “internalization.” When our brain receives new information, it looks to store it somewhere meaningful. If there is no related PK to connect it to, then the NK remains just that, unrelated, unconnected information that has no lasting memory.

However, when the NK finds a comfortable home, it is connected to meaningful PK and can now begin the process of internalization, that is going from NK to PK.

Kids get this. Continue reading