The average SAT verbal score of American high school students has slid from 550 to 500 since 1960s. This average, out of 800, represents 50% accuracy in the test. If we count in the fact that the test is all based on multiple choice, some of the accuracy are result of chance not competence. In plain language, students on average are unable to finish more than 50% of reading and writing questions!
Experts and guidebooks take the students to every mistakes they tend to produce in the test. Some may be unable to discern key ideas from evidences; others may fall short in inferring through the logic. Attention is also paid to content areas such as the genres of passages, graphics, rhetoric, and so on. Granted, mistakes of any kind cost the students score points. But what accounts for the abundance of mistakes? It is ironic to say that students make mistakes because they are making those mistakes. Nothing can be counted as the cause of itself, except our creator.
Talking to many students, I noticed that almost all of them mentioned the same feeling—they don’t know what the materials are talking about. Many keep on reading till late, but still fail to understand. By insisting to try to understand what they eventually not, students use out their time allowance for one part and squeeze that for the rest. When they miss their chances on some easier questions in other parts, the result is disastrous.
Many others give up reading at all. They take up guessing to the best of their knowledge. This second approached are widely taught by the experts and guidebooks as a way to avoid the first disaster. It sounds wise, but is embedded with an erroneous assumption that the students’ best of knowledge will do them good. SAT reading materials are not supposed to repeat what has been presented in the textbooks or taught in the classrooms. Best of knowledge are generally inefficient for students to guess the test. In fact, SAT is increasingly deploying texts of controversial issues and ideas in its reading section. These materials are most likely the hardest for students to understand. The best of knowledge they acquired from classrooms can lead them to totally wrong directions.
Comparing both approaches, the difference—to read the hardest or to guess to the best—is minor. The students are all guided to one same direction—try to understand what they do not. It is assumed that they must understand the reading materials well in order to produce good answers. This assumption is wrong. Students are not learning but reading in the test. They should not be put into a position other than to produce the answers from the reading. Should they be required to learn there, they must be provided the time as much as they have been in the classrooms.
The better approach is to have the students focus on what they know. On stories and ideas that are not already theirs or can’t become quickly, take them as is. Do not read too hard into the material. Neither should they think too far beyond the materials. Their chances of understanding correctly is likely to diminish as they read or think too much. Here by “too much,” I mean to use more than their time allowance. A passage of ten questions is allowed ten minutes to read and answer. To read it for more than 3 minutes before answering any questions is considered “too much.” What they read is only what they know. Then apply logical reasoning on the know.
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I’ll steal a concept from Socrates to sum up here: know the knows but not the know-nots. You should read to know, instead of read to learn. When you combine this advice with mind2learn’s critical reading model, the result is what you will love.
The language and writing section in the new SAT has caught many students, even those who have mastered SAT grammar book. Their scores on reading and writing typically fall behind expectation by 20-50 points. By looking into the details, we are likely to see that one of the subareas hits their scores hardest—the expression of ideas. The score can be anywhere between 9 and 12 out of a total of 15. Really! What is it?
The quality of language can be understood in three levels. Base level quality is everything within a sentence where grammar rules govern. There is also a super level, or inter-paragraph quality on which passage structure is all about (refer to idea progression model). In the middle of these levels is the medium level quality. That is within a paragraph, or inter-sentences. This is where expression of idea mostly concerns.
Expression of idea means how well you can express one single idea. That is how you’d play with the information within a paragraph. It includes a key idea of the paragraph, evidence and reasoning to the idea, and often interconnections with other paragraphs.
Like logical reasoning, expression of idea within a paragraph falls in an overall structure either inductive or deductive. Inductive structure tells the key idea after its evidence and reasoning details. Deductive structure is just the opposite. There are more deductive paragraphs than inductive in general. This is quite simple.
However, much of the variety in expression lies in how the evidence and reasoning details are laid out. The order of details depends on the intrinsic relation among them.
To determine the order the details, you have to read the paragraph carefully. Where numbers in brackets are marked in the sentence, typically  to  (or 6), you shall read the paragraph and determine the structure and order. To many students, I found that the most confusing type of order is logical reasoning order. Here is an example that the order of the sentences are messed up. You can determine the structure and relation to find out the real order of them.
First, determine the key idea of the paragraph. 1, 4 and 5 are clearly details, not key idea. The key idea is certainly about Box’s research because most of the sentences are about it. So 6 is ruled out. Because 2 further explains 3, 3 will be a better candidate to represent the key idea.
Next, determine the structure of the paragraph. Paragraphs in scientific writing are generally deductive. You can always try to put the key idea sentence in the beginning. In this case, 3 sounds perfect in the beginning. If you are not sure, try to place 3 in the end. It sounds very awkward. So this paragraph cannot be inductive. It must be a deductive one and 3 should be placed in beginning.
Last, let’s determine what relation are the details. 1, 4 and 5 seems to have a logic order, 5>4>1. Box need to do something next step, and he is currently organizing it, then others can also track and help. There is no better way than this. Between 2 and 6, 2 connects with 5>4>1 better than 6. So, the entire paragraph must be 3>6>2>5>4>1.
One question you may come at here is whether 6 can be deleted from the paragraph, since 6 is the only sentence that says nothing about Box’s research and its further step. But, let’s see if 6 reveals any relevant information to the paragraph as a whole. 3>2 tells that the 2012 fire Box researched may happen again and harm the ecosystem. Then 5>4>1 tells what Box will do next relating to melting of ice. By now, it may sounds ok that the harm is ice-melting by possible fire-again. However, 6 means rising temperature makes Arctic greener, then more fire-prone. So it becomes a self-reinforcing effect of the 2012 fire. The harm is not just fire-again, but fire-again by self-reinforcing effect of the fire. 6 contains concept progressive to that conveyed by 3>2, and makes Box’s further research on fire more important than without 6. Therefore, 6 is better kept in.
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This example is an excerpt from SAT Official Guide 2016. But the exercise we did above is beyond the level of the questions in the Guide. Generally, expression of idea questions in the new SAT requires you to determine the following three things. Be sure what SAT asks before you make your choices.
When it comes to the standard answers with any test prep, the assumption is that they are referenced once you finish a practice. They allow you to confirm the true and correct the false immediately! They make possible that you know and work on your weaknesses right away. That’s a no brainer, you think.
Wait a minute. There is a question seldom asked here. Is your weakness the inability to reason a false with awareness, or without? In other words, should you practice on telling why a false is a false when you are sure that it is, or when you are not sure? The former is what you have assumed and been taught everywhere by now, from Kaplan to Princeton Review, the folks who claim to produce the best test scores for you.
However, your reality in a test is the latter. From the moment you go into a test to the minute you come out, you are never made aware the trueness and falseness on any of the As, Bs, Cs and Ds. What you do in those 3 to 4 hours is merely to find or think the pros and cons on the choices’ truthfulness as much as you can. The stronger the reasons you find, the more confident you are on your nominations and eliminations. To this end, the very skill you should be practicing is to reason on something without the absoluteness of its true or false—the standard correct answers.
It is wrong of all the popular test preps that they try to make you do the former—the assumed way—unfortunately. Knowing the correct answer brings your thinking with a hindsight bias. Such bias discounts your practice in terms your next immediate test scores. Most students I know who have used the popular test preps experienced disappointments. They were predicted to produce higher scores at the end of the prep courses and received lower ones in real later. The discount in scores comes at anything from 20 to 60. That’s significant.
Up to here, a question you might have is when the standard answers should be brought in. To avoid the bias does not meant you must avoid the standard answers. You only want to avoid of knowing it too soon. Once you are solid confident on your choices—chances are that you have weighed it back and forth 3 to 5 rounds on the difficult ones—you can go to the standard answers for confirmation.
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So, now you know you should not look at the standard answers too soon because the most significant effect they have on your practice is a hindsight bias that discounts your improvements. Try not to look at the provided answers until you have worked on a practice question 3 or more times.
Go mastering your practice now!