Good SAT and ACT prep demands review of everything… even questions you’ve answered correctly.
I’ll never forget one of my first times tutoring in a public library.
I was sitting at a small table in a spacious “learning zone” in the library’s basement. It was prime time tutoring hour––right after school in the middle of the week––so mine wasn’t the only session happening down there. As I worked with my student, I couldn’t help but see and overhear the other sessions around me. And boy, were they shocking. At another small circular table against the wall, a tutor sat across from her student––she was huddled behind a laptop, and he was buried in his SAT book. She was typing away as he finished a set of math problems. At some point, he muttered, “Done.” She peeked tentatively over her laptop screen, craned her neck forward to look at his answers, remarked “Good!” once she confirmed they were correct, asked the student to complete the next ten problems, and resumed her typing. Another tutor was showing his student how to do a problem. He conveyed the idea pretty nicely, but it was all him: no input from the student whatsoever. And there I was, asking my student questions, trying to get her to answer them and think critically, wondering, “What is going on around here?” It certainly wasn’t tutoring, and might not even have been learning.
Test prep needs to be more than just problem review. Of course, the problems and questions students answer incorrectly serve as helpful starting points for learning. But the real learning begins where the basic explanations end. Tutors––or even students who are self-teaching––should always be bridging individual problems and questions to larger concepts and strategies, recognizing how they fit into categories that can be addressed by predictable, repeatable methods. After all, this is what leads to true score improvements.
A big part of this is reviewing not just what students answer incorrectly, but also what they answer correctly. With limited time, focus, and energy, it may seem silly to spend precious minutes on concepts in which students seem to have achieved proficiency. But the fact that they’ve gotten a few questions correct does not mean they’ve learned the bigger picture. Sometimes, students answer questions correctly for reasons they can’t explain––either because they possess only a cursory understanding of the topic at hand, or because they got very lucky. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve asked students how they answered certain questions correctly, only to hear in response the incorrect reasoning, or no reasoning at all. This presents just as valuable a learning opportunity as one in which the student gets the answer wrong from the start.
So, students: when you answer SAT or ACT questions correctly, make sure you know why. Note your reasoning and whether you used the same approach as the one you used on a previous question. Were there “giveaways” that a certain question type was being asked? Were there simpler concepts you recognized? And if you found yourself wondering, “how in the world did I do that?,” it probably means you need to address the question as if you got it wrong. That’s doing right by what you’re getting right.
Evan Wessler is the Vice President of Education at Method Test Prep. After graduating summa cum laude from Bucknell University in 2009, he joined MTP, where he has since been involved in all facets of the organization, including curriculum development, private tutoring, classroom teaching, content writing, tutor training, and operations.