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Math Effect: 6 Things You Should Know About the ACT, the SAT, Calculators, Math, and You

  By Steve Leech

(Test Preparation (ACT/SAT/SSAT), English Literature, English Builder tutor at The Edge Learning Center)

For many students, the mathematics sections of standardized tests are like a skinny guy at a sumo competition: no big deal and nothing to really worry about. As YouTube teaches us (watch here), though, you can’t trust a skinny sumo wrestler. Here are six things you should know when approaching the math sections of the SAT, ACT, SSAT, and more.

Read more on Steve’s previous blog “Reading Dead Redemption”

1. Know Your Situation

Calculator_MathEach test is different. They all test slightly different topics in slightly different ways with slightly different rules. The ACT, for example, lets you use a calculator on the entire math portion, but the SAT only allows calculators on one math section, and the SSAT doesn’t allow calculators at all (the jerks!). Similarly, the SAT, warns in its official documentation that it tests standard deviation, but it has yet to use the formula. It’s only been testing the general concept, so memorizing and practicing the algebra isn’t the best use of prep time. Knowing what you can and cannot do lets you plan better. Learning how to use your overclocked TI-9000 to solve polynomial division is great until you get to your desk on test day and discover that it’s not allowed. Rules and guidelines for the ACT are here and for the SAT here.

2. Know how to use your calculator

Okay, so your calculator’s on the approved list (good old TI-85!), but if you don’t know how to use it properly, it’s about as useful as a chocolate teapot. Many calculators, even simple scientific models, have powers beyond what their poor users know. Often, students don’t realize that they can use their calculator to find sin-1 or to multiply the dread matrices. Take time to get comfortable with how to operate your machine quickly and effectively. User manuals and guidebooks are freely available online from manufacturers, and the internet has plenty of hacks and tricks from calculator cowboys. HOWEVER! Make sure to leave your calculator in factory condition! Modified calculators or downloaded apps and programs may be considered cheating, which leads to trouble nobody wants.

3. Know how not to use your calculator

That said, even the greatest calculator ever built can’t do everything, even if you’re allowed to use it. At any rate, the meat computer in your head is far more powerful than the silicon one in your hand. Practicing without a calculator exercises your brain’s math skills (when did you last review your multiplication tables? Prime numbers?) and also helps you understand when using the calculator might actually slow you down. Being able to solve any and all problems with raw mathematic brawn is awesome, but it might be slow and it’s certainly exhausting, especially under test conditions. Knowing when not to use your calculator means recognizing when you don’t need to actually crunch the numbers. How? Well….

 4. Know that there are patterns

Multiplication_Table_MathFinding multiples of ten is easy: if it ends in a zero, it’s a multiple of ten. Fives are pretty easy, too, and then so are twos. This is probably written so deeply in your brain that you can’t remember if you were taught it or just always kinda-sorta knew. Seeing these patterns means you don’t have to go through the whole process of actual calculation, which is where simple mistakes creep in. There are way more of these patterns than you might realize, too. Some of them are general math ideas, like how raising any number to the power of 2 gives up a positive number, and others are more related to the specific ways certain tests approach certain concepts (if only there were somewhere you could go for that kind of expertise…). Similarly, a lot of ideas in math are related to other ideas, so if we can’t exactly find the “right” method, we can often figure out another way using a slightly different area of math. We can, for example, use our knowledge of functions to find the solutions to a system of equations Practice with both general math and your specific test is one of the best ways to start seeing these kinds of patterns.

5. Watch for simple mistakes

Ah, simple mistakes, the enemy of math-magicians everywhere. We’ve all missed points in math class because we missed a negative sign or made a simple calculation error. Even the best of the best of the best of math students make these simple mistakes, but there are things we can do to help prevent them. The first thing is to go back to the top of this list and read it all again. Everything here can help prevent simple mistakes and so does writing down all of your work. None of the tests we’re talking about offers style points for not showing your work, and trying to do a bunch of mental arithmetic in the stressful, timed conditions of test day leads to more and more simple mistakes. Sure, you might catch the errors in time, but how many minutes does that cost, and how many minutes do you have? This brings us nicely to our last point….

6. Know that test prep math isn’t exactly the same as classroom math

The goal in the classroom is knowledge. The teacher wants you to understand the ideas in the lesson. The goal on test day is the score. This subtle difference can greatly influence how you approach to test preparation. Your emphasis should be on efficiency, and your study plan should look at the best way to get points based on individual strengths and weaknesses. Now if only there were somewhere to go for that kind of expertise…. The Edge Learning Center.

Read more about Calculator Etiquette and Other Tips

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