Category: Psychology

In this post, I explain why blind guessing on the SAT is a bad idea. Now we will talk about why guessing is a bad idea even if you have eliminated one answer. Technically, you should have a slight mathematical advantage by then – and yet, almost every student who applies this finds themselves still losing points. There are a few key reasons why this happens.

1. The calculations are based on ignoring the rounding effect. They treat getting 1 right and 3 wrong as a quarter point gain. In reality, an outcome of 1 right and 3 wrong is NOT a gain of a quarter point because your score will be rounded down. This is another situation where your most likely outcome (at about 42%) is no harm and your next most likely outcome (at about 31%) is getting all 4 wrong and harming your score.

2. If you can only eliminate one, that probably means the question is very hard for you. Which means the possibility that you will eliminate the correct answer just went up (since obviously that’s more likely to occur on a difficult question). Once that has happened, you have 0% chance of getting the question right, 100% guarantee of a lost quarter point, and any additional time spent on that question is wasted.

3. Even if you correctly eliminate one wrong answer, you don’t have a true 1 in 4 chance of guessing the right answer. To understand this part, consider the street game 3 Card Monty (we will modify it slightly to fit our scenario of guessing with 4 answers left). A dealer shows you four cards, one of which is a Joker and 3 of which are pip cards (numbered cards). They offer to bet with you. If you can select the Joker card after they place all 4 face down and shuffle them briefly, you will win a fantastic payoff worth far more than your wager! You rub your hands together greedily, knowing the payoff is worth more than you are betting, and confident that with a 1 in 4 chance you can win enough to make this game worthwhile. The dealer shuffles, you watch the cards and pick, confident you saw where that Joker landed. WHAT?!? You stare in amazement; the card you picked is NOT the Joker. You demand to see the cards turned over, sure that the dealer must have slipped the Joker off the table or into a sleeve. But no, it’s right there on the table, just not where you thought it was. Hmm, well that payoff is still good, good enough to risk another bet and you are going to pay *real* close attention this time. The dealer shuffles… and sure enough, you lose again. You keep guessing wrong, all the while losing confidence, time and money, while that smug bastard laughs at you.

Now let’s look at why you didn’t win 1 in 4 times, or anything close to it. The dealer doesn’t need to cheat – it is his extensive experience at shuffling deceptively, distracting you and knowing how people react to his game that gives him a strong advantage. He makes a living doing this – you are just wandering by. You are, no matter how smart and no matter how well trained, a teenager being sent into a battle of wits in very specific areas with people who have advanced degrees and years of experience in the fine art of making you guess wrong. If you can only eliminate one answer, the chances that one of those trap answers will suck you in rises to a point where your real odds are no longer 1 in 4.

Finally, let’s consider the big picture. Even if you ignore the rounding effect, and feel 100% sure you won’t eliminate the right answer and will guess without being even slightly affected by any of the 3 remaining trap answers, it still won’t work out overall. Think about it realistically – will you really say ‘ok, I got rid of one, I’ll guess now and move on.‘? Of course not. You know eliminating more would improve your odds further, so you will sit there staring at the remaining ones hoping to find a reason to get rid of more. Meanwhile the clock is ticking, other questions never get tried because time ran out and the Joker is just sitting there, grinning at you evilly.

Don’t let him get away with it. Be strong enough and smart enough to refuse to play his game until the odds really are in your favour. Walk away from those harder ones and go knock out some easier questions instead!


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 it’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

“Let 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.”
― 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.

‘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 😮 – 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.