The SAT Is a Test of Character

March 14, 2012 § Leave a comment

SAT problem: 3 x 4 box, stick figure with a question mark looking stumped

A typical hard SAT problem

Things I learned as an SAT tutor:

  • The reading section is harder than the math section.
  • The test is so long.
  • Sometimes, in very rare, fleeting moments, the test can provide a pinprick-size insight into a student’s character.

I want to write about the third one. I was working on the math section with a student and we got a question along the lines of “How long is a pencil that fits end to end inside a can that’s 4 inches wide and 3 inches tall?” My student wasn’t sure how to go about solving it — what kind of problem it was, what technique fit, what formula the numbers were supposed to go into, etc. So I got around to suggesting that maybe she should draw a picture of it, and she produced the above meditation.

But before she did, she stared at the problem for a moment (just a moment), and, I think, was peripherally fixated on the blank space underneath the question where she was supposed to show her work. And for a fleeting moment before she fell back on sarcasm, I got a glimpse of what it’s really like to take that test (I’d suppressed my own memories of it, of course).

Try to remember, despite the unpleasantness: you are in the latter, harder stages of a section, the minutes left have dwindled to the single digits, you’re starting on a fresh page, there’s a large-ish swath of blank space expecting you to fill it, and you just don’t know how to do this problem.

The right thing to do in this situation is so difficult: you have to pick up your pencil and you have to fill in the blank space even though you don’t know where it’s going to take you. You have to push your own thoughts forward without a destination in sight. The very counter-intuitive secret of improving on the SAT is that sometimes, on a test, under a time limit, you have to explore the possibilities of a question. (For some reason, “show your work” as taught in the classroom seems to imply that your work is a by-product of knowing how to do a problem, rather than the means to that end.) My student, in this case, couldn’t press herself to draw the pencil in somewhere.

In my experience, this was consistently the difference between students who made strides. It’s not a hard and fast prescription — some students could boost their score a hundred points on a section just by filling in some gaps in their knowledge and getting some practice. But for the ones looking to go from good to great, the difference was how they handled the blank page.

As an SAT tutor, you in fact have little control over how much your students improve after a certain point. For the good ones looking to break through, I wish I’d figured out sooner what I could do to help. I think I’d ease up on the notion of categorizing a problem and trying to figure out what the right approach is from a repertoire. Instead, I’d give them problem after problem that’s not complicated, but not conventional, and I’d tell them they can’t move on until they’ve broached their thoughts on the blank page.

Adventurousness is a skill. If students can get practice trying an approach out, pursuing it, discarding it, modifying it, playing with the premise of a problem, immersing themselves in it, learning to pursue their thoughts rigorously, then they can conquer the blank page.


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