Archive for April, 2012

Protected: The double whammy

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Inspired by this post by LennoxTutoring

The issue of whether or not it is acceptable to make mistakes in front of students, and how we expect or allow them to respond, has always been an awkward one for me. I have had no small number of peers and supervisors insist that I should never admit to any mistake I make in front of my students. Supposedly itโ€™s unprofessional and will seriously damage their faith in me as an instructor. I have found exactly the opposite to be true – their respect for me and faith in me only grows when I am willing to be seen as human and fallible.

None of us is perfect. A perfection culture that suggests it is even possible sets the stage for children to experience errors as some sign that they must not be smart enough, good enough, or hard enough workers. It also contributes to the formation of a lousy work ethic in adulthood. How much more efficient would most businesses be if people stopped burying their mistakes and just dealt with them directly and promptly?

Associating mistakes with feelings of embarassment and inadequacy discourages children from asking questions in class. Thank your students for asking questions. Make sure they know that other people undoubtedly need to know the answer too. You may think that’s so obvious that it doesn’t need saying. But the self-conscious teenager sitting in your classroom does NOT always know that. They may be sitting there genuinely concerned that they are the only person in the class who didn’t ‘get it’ the first time around.

Appropriately questioning authority is a GOOD skill for children to learn. My standard has always been that any student who is being civil and reasonable can point out a potential mistake I may have made, or disagree with a position I hold. This has been depicted to me by other teachers as allowing or condoning ‘dangerous backtalk’. To my kids who ‘backtalked’ to me about something by politely presenting a rational case for their point of view – I love you, I am proud of you and if the only thing you learned from me was to approach disagreements this way, then I did the most important part of my job correctly.

Being honest about where my limits are builds a deeper trust with my students. They know I am willing to double-check my answers, to admit to mistakes, to acknowledge when I am out of my depth and can only offer an educated guess or no answer at all. The result is that they have a tremendous amount of faith that what I do tell them can be trusted.

Laughing is good. When I make a mistake, my students and I laugh together at it.

– Seeing me occasionally make certain types of mistakes reinforces the message to students to really watch out for those slips. For example, I sometimes do lose track of a negative sign. The fact that I am still capable of making such an error reminds them to pay extra attention to those darned negative signs!

– Seeing how and when I figure out that I have made a mistake, and how I determine whether I only need to back up a few steps, or need to restart the entire problem, teaches vital lessons to my students. They learn how to tell early on when something has gone wrong, and how they can effectively decide to fix it.

Finally, please understand that the most frequent source of my minor slips is the fact that unlike most teachers, I do the work cold every time and walk the kids through the steps. I don’t have the answer key in front of me and I don’t pre-write how to do it so I have something to slyly eyeball as I proceed. I talk with them as I work it through and help them really understand the entire process. That isn’t just for them; that is also for ME. It keeps my mind razor-sharp because I ‘exercise’ those math muscles intensely every single day. I can’t convince them to love math if I am not willing to show them that I love it, enough to tumble into it madly every day with enough enthusiasm that I just might make a mistake.

SAT Vocabulary

work in progress, no linking yet please

โ€œLet me try once more,” Milo said in an effort to explain. “In other words–”
“You mean you have other words?” cried the bird happily. “Well, by all means, use them. You’re certainly not doing very well with the ones you have now.โ€
โ€• Norton Juster, The Phantom Tollbooth

Ok, I have been dreadfully remiss about this entry. The very thing that makes it important (the sea of methods and styles available) also makes it difficult to research fully in a timely fashion. What I can say, without any hesitation at all, is that you should be prepared to adapt to your student, both in pacing and in method. No single approach is right for every student, and trying to force a student into a specific approach can actually harm their scores.

In general, I personally do not recommend a strong emphasis on learning word parts, a fast pace of vocab acquisition, or learning new words in thematic groups that include antonyms. I also favour quality over quantity – a word that a student learns to fully understand and use can help them on the sentence completion, on the passages and on their own essay. That one truly mastered word is worth more than three half-learned words that leave a student lost in thought trying to decide if they do or don’t know what it kinda sorta might mean.

Despite all the SAT vs ACT pages, it remains one of the most FAQ. The short answer is if you like Superman better, go ACT. If you like Batman better, go SAT. Ok, I am (mostly) kidding. There is no short answer; you’ll need to do a little research. The table provides a quick overview. The text below it is for students who know the basic differences, but still feel unsure which will be better for them.

English, Reading, Math and Science Writing, Reading and Math
Essay is optional * Essay is mandatory
No penalty for wrong answers 1/4 point penalty for wrong answers
Higher level math but straighforward More conceptual math
Passage types are in predictable order Passage types are not in a set order
Slightly higher time pressure Slightly lower time pressure
Fewer, longer sections Several shorter sections
Colleges may focus on composite score Colleges may focus on area scores

* – ACT essay is optional, however some specific schools do require it. You should go HERE find out if the colleges you are applying to require it BEFORE you take the ACT.

ACT – If you are especially good at math and science, and specifically weak in reading and writing, you may want to go for the ACT – you can excel at 2 out of 4 instead of 1 in 3. The ACT essay topics are often easier to write about, and more latitude is given to the student in how to respond to the prompt.

SAT – If you are especially good at reading and writing, and specifically weak in math you may want to go for the SAT – you can excel at 2 out of 3 instead of 2 in 4. The SAT essay topics are a little dry, and there are stricter guidelines for responding to the prompt.

The best possible way to be sure, though, is to go ahead and try taking a practice test for each one. Many schools offer practice tests. If your school doesn’t, you can find an online or downloadable test, or buy The Real ACT Prep Guide and The Official SAT Study Guide both of which contain actual previous tests. If your ACT score is higher, or the two are about the same but your lower ACT area scores are in things you feel sure you can improve in, go for the ACT. If your SAT score is higher, or the two are about the same but you aren’t sure how much you can improve in the weaker areas, go for the SAT.

Common statements you’ve probably seen that I disagree with:

  • “The SAT has much more vocabulary.” This seems true on the surface, because the SAT has sentence completion questions. But the ACT requires a strong vocabulary to perform well on the Reading, and even on some of the English and Science.

  • “The ACT Math is harder.” This also seems true on the surface, because it does go up to a higher level of math. However, the ACT math questions are more straightforward – SAT math questions are much more conceptual. On the ACT, you may well hit problems you don’t know what to do with – and you’ll probably know that. On the SAT, you are far more likely to think you have correct answers only to realise later you forgot to consider some element of the problem.

  • “Everyone who is good at science should take the ACT instead of the SAT”. Again, seems true on the surface. I know I keep saying that, but so many misconceptions become popular precisely because they are believable on their face. ACT science is not about remembering and using all the detailed equations, terms and processes you learned in your science classes. It is about applying logical, scientific thinking. You won’t need to remember the atomic weight of Ag, or what Ag stands for. If you did well in forensics, psychology or sociology and have a good sense of what goes into a solid experimental design and how to read data, you can do VERY well on the science section even if you didn’t do great in biology, chemistry or physics.

   So why are Superman and Batman in here? Superman is very strong, honest and direct. He also runs around saving the world. So I associate him with the ACT – it tests to a higher level, in a straightforward way, and covers more area. Batman, however, well… World’s Greatest Detective. He patrols a smaller area, but more than makes up for not being superhuman by using his intellect to think things through and make them work to his advantage. If you want something you can punch through, go ACT. If you want something you can out-think, go SAT.

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How Doth the Little Crocodile

How doth the little crocodile Improve his shining tail, And pour the waters of the Nile On every golden scale! How cheerfully he seems to grin, How neatly spreads his claws, And welcomes little fishes in With gently smiling jaws! – Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

There are tips for selecting an individual tutor here. However, so many people still had questions about selecting a large company, that it seems to merit its own entry.


Places that do not use real SAT tests to measure your child’s initial scores and improvement. Anyone who doesn’t take a baseline isn’t really willing to measure your child’s improvement. Anyone who uses their own tests to measure improvement can easily mislead you. Think about it – I could write a subtly harder test for your kid’s first one, and then write an easier one to ‘measure their progress’ – wow, they went up! ๐Ÿ™„ Also, make sure your kid times themself on each section – shortchanging a kid on time (or giving them extra for a progress test) is another sleazy way to inflate improvements.

Places that make jaw-dropping claims like ‘We can get any kid to a 2400’ or ‘Our average student score is 2300’ or ‘Our average score gain is over 300 points!’. Noone is THAT good with every single student and even if they were, not every student can get that much out of tutoring. I could easily claim to have an average of 300 points gained. I could LIE. Or I could choose not to include students who didn’t ‘complete their program’ and then just not do the last session with any kid I don’t think will make 300 (that way I don’t have to include them in the average). I could walk them through the exact test I plan to use to ‘measure their progress’, getting them a 300 point gain based on the fact that we JUST went over that whole test together. I could also just turn down any kid I don’t think can get a 300 point gain (and thereby turn down a ton of kids who really need help).

Places that are not willing to refund any of your remaining money if you bought a package and then decide to discontinue tutoring. Again, noone is right for every student. Honest people and companies know that, and will refund some of your money if you decide to opt out. Please note, this is not about getting a refund on tutoring you received; it is about getting ‘unused’ money back on a package deal you chose not to complete. Likewise, rule out any place with a ridiculously long advance notice clause for calling out (over 48 hours).

Places that put a heavy emphasis on ‘tips and tricks’, especially those claiming that every student should always answer every question, that there are predictably easier and harder test dates, or that all colleges superscore . There certainly are tips and tricks to test prep, but a place that is pushing that element is essentially saying to you “I can’t help your kid learn much about how to actually do the problems, but I can say some cool-sounding things that will falsely inflate their confidence!”. And all of the specific ones listed are untrue – any company that is serious about test prep knows that and will not mislead yoru child just to create a false feeling of knowing some inside secret.

I RECOMMEND (meaning there may well be exceptions to some of these):

One on one tutoring over any group or class situation. That said, if you are going for a class, save yourself a ton of money and check out classes at your local library or community colleges. They are almost as good as “big name” classes at a fraction of the cost. If you read that and think ‘it’s worth much more money to me to get even a slightly better result’ then just get the 1 on 1 tutoring, which offers the best possible results. Big name + group setting = not worth it.

Asking for specific details on how the program might be fine-tuned to make it especially useful for your child as an individual.

Consistency in tutors – you want your child to be dealing consistently with a few people, not meeting someone new every session.


Your child is increasingly uninterested in going. I don’t care how much they hate the added burden of test prep, you should be seeing some signs that they are getting used to it and getting something out of it.

Your child has taken a few progress tests and the scores aren’t going up.

Your child says ‘I don’t understand (or can’t do it) the way my teacher explained it and they told me there is no other way.’ There is NOTHING on those tests that can’t be handled in different ways and a quality tutor will be able to deliver.

Your child has a tutor they don’t get along with, and you are being told there is noone else for them to be placed with. A large company should have a decent staff size and be able to provide you with other options. My one caveat to this is ACT Science – this is an area almost all test prep companies are chronically short-staffed on and there may really be only one qualified instructor per location.

You are being told that your child’s lack of progress is because they aren’t doing their homework. Sure, doing the HW will get an even greater improvement BUT the bulk of your kid’s improvement should be coming from their direct instruction. Places that are promoting themselves offering classes to ‘debug’ your kid’s self-completed work are usually very over-priced for what you are getting from them and often quite ready to blame your kid if there isn’t a lot of progress.


Don’t expect anyone to make an outright guarantee. We know you want one. But there are a lot of variables that go into the final results and we aren’t psychic. As for places that do offer guarantees, that almost always boils down to one of three things – your provider will offer more free classes if the goal isn’t met (more of whatever failed probably won’t have much value to you and your kid is probably running out of time), your provider has clauses that will put the blame on the student to avoid making good on the guarantee (don’t put your kid through this) or your online provider is taking advantage of the fact that you will not be able to track them down or force any sort of accountability. A solid smile and a hearty promise may feel better than an explanation about being realistic but believe me, you want the company whose director is willing to be honest and risk losing your business rather than lying to get you in the door.

Don’t immediately panic if an *early* progress test doesn’t show much change. Many kids focus so hard on trying to get one area or strategy right that they slip a little elsewhere. Once those kids get the hang on doing the right things more naturally and combining it with the skills they already have, they often really explode into a great score gain.

Don’t reject information about how your child is not performing the needed work during the session, or is not applying what they’ve learned to their progress tests.

Don’t balk at a reasonable advance notice clause for calling out (48 hours or less). That person or company already lost the ability to put another student in that time slot, and in situations with little or no notice, the tutor may well have made a long commute, only to find out they’ve come in for nothing. It is absolutely reasonable to be charged a call-out fee.

Don’t insist your child only ever have one tutor. Most places have different teachers who excel in different areas, so that rotation may mean they want your kid with the best possible reading tutor, math tutor and writing tutor on different days. Tutors who truly excel at all areas of both tests are few and far between ๐Ÿ˜Ž

‘Negative reinforcement’ has to be one of the most frequently misused terms ever. I hear professional adults, including teachers, use it incorrectly all the time. Even movies and TV shows that normally make a great effort toward fact-checking get it wrong.

Negative in behavioural terms just means removing something. Subtracting it, so to speak.
Reinforcement means I wish to encourage more of a behaviour.

So, negative reinforcement means that I remove something unpleasant or limiting and want the effect to be that you will do something again or more often.


  • You get an A and I lift your curfew.
  • You show me you understand how to be careful on the internet and I remove the filters and let you surf wherever you want to.
  • You demonstrate perfect use of a vocabulary word and I let you stop reviewing that vocab card.

Hey wait ๐Ÿ˜ฎ – you somehow brought this back to vocab! This isn’t one of your SAT entries. No, it isn’t. But it does fit nicely into a point I made here in the SAT essay Don’t Panic blog entry. If you aren’t sure you are using a word or phrase correctly, use something else instead.

SAT and ACT Resources and Links


The Official SAT Website     The Official SAT Study Guide

Official SAT Raw Scores to Scaled      Official SAT Scores to Percentiles

SAT College Search   Official Sample SAT Questions

The Official ACT Website     The Real ACT Prep Guide

Official ACT Raw Scores to Scaled     Official ACT Scores to Percentiles

Which Colleges require the ACT Essay?  Official Sample ACT Questions


Gotham Tutoring’s Blog

Excellence For College’s Blog

SelectPrep’s Facebook Page

Sheldon the Word Nerd’s Website

Lennox Tutoring (MCAT)


Why don’t you offer more detailed advice? I provide general information (and try to correct dangerous misinformation) about SATs. ACTs, and college admissions. I am not here to provide free in-depth test prep advice.

I don’t know whether to take the SAT or the ACT or both! I do not recommend trying to prep for both at the exact same time. They are very different tests. To get a better idea which one might be right for you, please check out my Superman vs Batman blog entry.

Why don’t you have more big company books on here? Most aren’t a good match to the actual content, and even ones with decent content often have questionable advice and explanations. If you want to self-prep, I strongly advise that you stick with the real thing.

Ok, but aren’t there less known books that have great information? I am sure there are. I’ve been using a combination of official books and my own materials for many years now and have not had any real reason to seek additional resources. That said, if you think your book is just amazing, you are welcome to send me one and I will review it in detail and help promote it if it’s really, really good.

If I paypal you the money, can you tutor me online? Sorry, I am old-fashioned and strongly prefer to only tutor students I can meet with face to face.

SAT versus ACT (not ready for linking)

I couldn’t change the link to its correct title. you can find the new entry here here. It did say it wasn’t ready for linking ๐Ÿ˜‰

  You’re worried about the essay on your upcoming SATs. Maybe you haven’t done well with class essays. Maybe you write great essays, but only when you have plenty of time to do them right. Maybe you’re worried about being able to come up with great examples, or using enough high level vocabulary words. I hope that I can reassure you that the SAT essay isn’t as big of a deal as you think it is.

   First and foremost, understand this. Your essay is not being judged primarily on what is great about it. It is being judged primarily on what is wrong with it. This is not the time to take risks trying to really wow anyone (save that for your college app essay!). This is the time to crank out a solid, well-structured essay and make sure you doublecheck for things like grammar errors and redundancy (if your essay prompt was about whether or not we need to be competitive to succeed, make sure you didn’t use the word competitive 18 times). And always keep in mind that the essay is only worth about 30% of your writing score – most of your score comes from the multiple choice. You *could* bomb the essay completely and still get an above average score on the writing overall if you did well on the MC questions.

   Commit to a position. You are going to want to waffle, because they ask questions where both sides have obvious merit and darnit, you want them to know you are smart enough to realise that! DON’T. It’s a trap. The assignment is to pick a side and defend it – just do it. You don’t even have to pick the side you agree with personally. If the other POV seems easier to write about quickly, do that.

   Using higher level vocab words is a good idea, but only use ones you are completely sure you are using correctly. If you feel uncertain, stick with a medium level word you feel more confident about. Ex: You’d like to use the word sanguine. You know it means something like confident, optimistic or comfortable. So you write “I felt sanguine the next day.” But sanguine isn’t generally used without referencing what you feel sanguine about. If you know that, make sure you apply it and write a sentence like “I felt sanguine about taking my SATs.” If you don’t, you are better off saying “I felt optimistic the next day”.

   Don’t get too stressed about coming up with 3 great supports (don’t get me wrong, if you can do it, go for it!). The college board has provided examples of essays in the 10-12 range that didn’t have 5 paragraphs and 3 supports. But there is a balance of quantity and quality – if you are going to use 2, make sure those 2 are the crown jewels of examples.

Is that all there is to it? Not by a long shot. This entry isn’t about all the wonderful things you can do to really master the SAT essay. But I do hope it has been enough to show you that you don’t need to panic ๐Ÿ˜‰