What You Need To Know about the PSAT and SAT Test Math Fill-In or Grid-In Questions

ACT and SAT Test Prep, PSAT, SAT Math, SAT Prep
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The Math Fill-In Questions on the PSAT and SAT can be quite unsettling for many students because they are some different from the other questions throughout the test.  In my tutoring and teaching experience, these are the four things that often surprise students when it comes to the SAT Math Fill-In Questions:

  • There Are No Negative Answers.  There is no way to bubble a negative response in, so if you ever find yourself coming up with a negative answer, know that you are incorrect! 
  • Sometimes, There Are Multiple Correct Answers.  The SAT computer grading system will pick up on ranges of correct answers – sometimes there may be 2 or 3, sometimes there may be hundreds.  Knowing this will help you avoid overthinking several of the questions. 
  • There Is NO GUESSING PENALTY on the Fill-In Questions.   Since there are thousands and thousands of possible answers you could create, the SAT and PSAT will have no problem with you taking a wild guess on a question.  Be certain that you answer every single one of the fill-in questions! 
  • You DO NOT Have to Reduce Fractions!  If you enter a fraction like 3/24, the SAT computers will compute that you actually meant 1/8 and still give you the correct answer. 

You can find further details about the Fill-In Questions here on the College Board Website:

I hope you found this article helpful.  If so, please share it with your friends!  Thanks, Brian Stewart

Don’t Try Too Hard to Justify your Answers on Standardized Tests like the ACT and SAT

ACT and SAT Test Prep, ACT Prep, PSAT, SAT Prep
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When we take major tests like the SAT and ACT, we often expect WAY too much of ourselves.  How so?  By expecting that we should be able to clearly explain why we picked the answer we did. 

Don’t get me wrong.  Being able to explain why you picked the answer is a great thing to be able to do.  The problem is when you feel you must leave a question blank (on the SAT and PSAT) or spend too much time on a question because you cannot give a detailed justification to yourself as to why you picked what it is. 

If you are teaching a class on test preparation, then you should definitely be able to explain and justify why a particular answer is correct.  I know that if I attempted to explain a question by simply telling a student, “well that’s just the obvious answer!”, they would ask for a refund.  If, on the other hand, you are simply taking the test, then you only need to have a good sense of what is correct.  Where is this a significant issue for test-takers? 

  • On vocabulary questions where they hesitate to trust their intuition and instincts as to what a word might mean. 
  • On math questions where they might be afraid to use unconventional methods, like plugging numbers in, because they are not what they have been taught as a “proper” method in school. 
  • On grammar questions, they will know that something is incorrect, but because they can’t think of exactly what would replace it, they just leave it as is. 
  • On science questions, they think they need to recall in-depth facts from school when what they actually need is just a bit of common-sense problem solving. 

The SAT, ACT and other major standardized tests are not long fill-in tests:  they are predominantly multiple choice.  You will not need to give extended explanations as to why an answer is correct – you simply must know that it is correct.  Do your best on these tests by letting your instincts and intuition guide you when it is called for. 

12 Ways that Teachers Can Make Sure All Student Questions are Answered and Avoid Mock Participation

Teaching, Tutoring
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Is there such a thing as a stupid question?  As a professional educator, here are my two cents on this topic.  I believe there is no such thing as a stupid question – only a bad time or place to ask such a question.  What do I mean by this?  In a group setting, questions that can benefit the learning of the group as a whole, or at least some portion of the group, are perfectly fine.  Questions that only to pertain to one person’s personal situation are best asked at a later place and time.  The problem with classroom teaching is that it is very difficult to give students the opportunity to ask their “stupid questions” in a way that is emotionally safe for them.  The result is what we call “mock participation” – students pretend to learn when in fact they are understanding nothing.  As an educator in the private sector, if my students don’t learn, I will have no students.  I have had to find ways to be certain that my students are getting what I am teaching, and here are some ideas I’d like to share: 

1.  Happy/Sad Face Index Cards.  The idea is very simple.  Give every student an index card.  On one side, they draw a happy face, and on the other, they draw a sad face.  When you, as the instructor, need to see if students are understanding an explanation, simply ask students to “show their cards”!  Students are unable to see whether other students are having issues since the instructor is the only one who can see the face of the cards.  As a result, students will be comfortable sharing whether they understood a concept.  If you notice that many students don’t get something, take some time to go over the idea again.  If only one or two students are having trouble with it, chat with them at an appropriate time to address their individual concerns.   

2.  Teaching Assistant.  Last Spring I had my biggest class ever – 75 high school students.  I knew that there was no way I could answer all of their individual questions in order to provide a high quality instructional experience.  As a result, I hired a teaching assistant to go around the class to answer any individual questions.  This enabled me to keep the class moving along while ensuring that no student was left behind.  If you are a teacher in a regular classroom setting at a private or public school, recruit student volunteers to be student assistants to serve this role.  Any high-powered student who has a study hall during your class would likely be willing to help you with this.  My Mom, who teaches high school Spanish, has been able to find a student assistant for every one of her class periods.   

3.  Grade via Individual Conference.  Instead of simply giving students their graded essays back, I have found it far more effective to do mini-conferences with each student individually to go over their writing and address their issues and clarify my comments.  So many students simply take one look at their score and throw a graded essay away afterwards – by doing individual conferences, you can be certain that the students fully understand what they need to work on.  It is easy to do these individual conferences while another activity is taking place – a test or a video for example. 

4.  Social Media Interaction.  If you make yourself available to student via social media, they may feel much more comfortable asking questions.  Online discussion boards, twitter and moodle are great ways to do this.  Texting, phone calls and facebook are more problematic, since they may cross the boundaries between the proper student/teacher professional relationship.  You will want to see what your district policy is on this before you do anything. 

5.  Go around during class and ASK if they are getting it.  Instead of asking the class as a whole if something is clear, go around and ask each student individually.  It is remarkable how much more forthcoming students will be about their questions when you approach them this way.  Asking like this does not need to add several minutes on to a lesson – you can do it as another activity is taking place.    

6.  Ask “What Questions” instead of  “Any Questions”.  The way that we ask does so much to elicit solid student responses.  My wife, who is an occupational therapist, shared this idea with me; she has found it to be very effective in her interactions with special-needs students.  “What questions?” implies that the students should have questions.  “Any questions?” implies that the students should not have any questions, and they may feel much less reluctant to seek clarification as a result. 

7.  Plenty of Wait Time.  This is one of the most helpful general teaching strategies imaginable.  Allow a few seconds of time after you’ve asked students a question before you begin calling on kids or before you move onto covering the next concept.  Many students require more time to digest an idea before they can determine what questions they may have about it. 

8.  Praise those who ask good questions.  Foster a safe and welcoming environment for students by giving genuine praise to students who ask quality questions.  Never dismiss a student’s question as absurd – do your best to clarify and restate what the student is asking so that he or she may save face. 

9.  Allow time before and after class to answer questions.  Whether it is making yourself available in the five minutes between classes to answer student questions or conducting a voluntary study session for students before, during or after school, every little bit makes a difference. 

10.  Have them write down questions on index cards and you answer them in front of everyone without saying who asked what.  At the end of a major conceptual review, I find this to be a great way to determine what open-ended questions students still have.  An added bonus of this is that students tend to think of questions that other students also have, but didn’t think to ask! 

11.  Online Education.  Many critics of online education see it as a passive approach to learning in which students just mindlessly sit on their laptops viewing lectures.  The way I have crafted my practice section allows for considerable personalization in the learning process, despite the fact that it is online.  Students can work at their own pace and go over the video explanations to missed questions as many times as they need.  Online learning done right has the potential to give students who would never ask a question otherwise the anonymity they need in order to feel comfortable building on their weak areas.  You can see my questions & explanations here:

12.  Have the students get to know one another.  When I teach an ACT or SAT group class, it never fails to amaze me how quiet and reserved students are at the beginning of a class.  Why?  They don’t know one another and they don’t want to be the “idiot” who is asking stupid questions.  In a long-term class, if you can do icebreakers and create a safe, respectful learning environment, it will pay tremendous dividends throughout the school year. 

I hope you found this discussion helpful.  If so, I would invite you to share it with your friends and colleagues.  Thanks!  –Brian Stewart

How Focusing on Areas of Weakness Can Hurt You in Preparing for the ACT, SAT and Other Standardized Tests

ACT and SAT Test Prep, ACT Prep, GED, PSAT, SAT Prep, Study Tips, Tutoring
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Many people take it as common sense to focus on their weaknesses when preparing for the SAT, ACT, GED and other major tests.  If you have taken the ACT, for example, and done poorly on the Reading and Math, why not focus more on preparing for those problem areas the next time around?  Here are some things to consider when trying to decide the extent to which you want to focus on your weak areas when studying:

1.  Are you doing the ACT or the SAT?  Since the vast majority of schools superscore the SAT (i.e. they take the best score from each section), it makes perfect sense to focus on your weak areas on the SAT.  If you have already scored well on the SAT Math, for example, you can focus on doing much better on the SAT Critical Reading for the next test.  The vast majority of schools do not superscore  for the ACT, so you will need to have a strong across-the-board performance in order to have a solid composite score.  There are some exceptions to this general rule:  some colleges will superscore the ACT, and some may not superscore either test.  Contact the college to be certain as to its particular policy. 

2.  Have you maxed out your prep in one area?  Have you focused all your energies on bolstering your math score while doing virtually nothing for English or reading?  A little bit of prep can go a long way in an area of strength.  Perhaps you need to clarify some punctuation rules in English, or perhaps you need to adjust your timing on the Reading.  Think about where you will find the biggest bang for your buck.  I have often found that when I have tutored students just  a little bit in an area of strength, the score improvement was more on that section than it was after a great deal of focus on an area of weakness. 

3.  Are you going to let things slide?  Are you the type of person who gets really focused on one thing when you take the test?  In the back of your mind, will you be obsessing about your area of weakness even while you’re doing the sections with which you are more comfortable?  If so, you will want to adjust your attitude prior to taking the test – you will want to have a balanced attack and conserve your energy to perform at a high level on every test section.  I have had many students over the years who have gone into the test so determined to improve on one section that they let the areas of strength fall by the wayside.  Mentally prepare yourself so that you don’t let this happen. 

I hope you found this article helpful.  If so, please share it with your friends!  Thanks, Brian Stewart

Pros and Cons of Doing a Gap Year Between High School and College

College Admissions, College Applications, High School, Test Anxiety
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There is no rule saying that you have to go to college immediately after high school.  So often, we become stuck in doing things simply because they are “the next thing” to do.  You may want to think about doing a Gap Year – take a year off between high school graduation and college to do a whole host of things.  Here are several reasons to do a gap year. 

1.       You want to see what different careers are like.  The best way to see what a career actually entails is to do some job shadowing.  If you are coming out of high school and you feel torn among several career options, taking the time to do some internships or apprenticeships may be a great way to spend a year. 

2.       You want to build work skills.  With as competitive as it has become to find jobs after college graduation, having a year of real world work experience may set you apart from other applicants.  If you are in a financial position to be able to do unpaid internships, you’ll have no trouble finding opportunities to build great work skills.  If you must work part time, try to fit in at least one day a week of job shadowing in areas about which you are more passionate. 

3.       You know that you need to build your independence and self-discipline.  Freshman year is a time when many students “go nuts” since they are out from under the watchful eyes of their parents.  If you know that you are not prepared to handle yourself in a totally free environment, take a bit of time to get yourself together before having a terrible freshman year experience. 

4.       You want to travel.  The year before college is a fantastic time to see the world.  Even if you have little spending money, you could find a job teaching English in another country, being a tour guide, or house sitting for a wealthy family.  Travel may help you clarify your thoughts about what you want to do with your life before you invest tens of thousands of dollars in your education. 

5.       You want to improve your college applications.  Perhaps you’ve already been accepted to a school, but you would really like to go to a more selective institution.  You can potentially use a gap year to improve your college application.  You can focus on improving your AP, ACT and SAT test scores, and more importantly, having some in-depth extracurricular involvement that will distinguish you from other applicants. 

6.       You are already in, but you need a break before starting.  Many colleges will allow you to defer admission for a year if you would like to spend some time working or travelling prior to matriculation.    

Now, here are some reasons not to do a gap year. 

1.       You don’t want to lose academic skills.  It is said that the first 2 months of school after summer break are spent reviewing material from the previous year.  If you know that you are going to have a difficult time getting back in the academic groove, you may as well go to college right after high school. 

2.       You feel ready and eager for the independence of college.  Many students, more frequently female ones in my observation, find that they are ready to move on from the confines of high school and living with their parents. If you are ready to spread your wings, having a gap year when you will have to live at home may be an absolute nightmare.  If you are particularly ready to move on to the next level, you may consider graduating a year early!  I know many students who have done this. 

3.       You are planning on lots of education after college.  If you are planning on becoming a doctor, earning a Ph.D. or doing post-doctoral research, you probably don’t want to add another year to when you will be able to begin your career.   (Then again, if you want to avoid burn-out and the fear of regretting that you have only been in school you entire life, taking a gap year may in fact be a good idea!)    

Thanks for reading.  If you found this helpful, I would invite you to share it with your friends.  –Brian Stewart


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