Help us hack the ACT test!
September 21, 2009 6:28 AM   Subscribe

I'm interested in starting an after-school ACT test prep program for the high school students that I work with. I'm not an educator, so I don't have a clue where to start. What are the best techniques, from start to finish to organizing and operating a successful group test preparation workshop? How can I help my students acquire the techniques they need to do well on the test?

More info:

I will be meeting with the students two times a week (probably Wednesday & Thursday)

Most of the students are scoring within the 15-18 range, well below the national average.

Hiring a tutor is probably not possible, due to our limited budget. I pitched my idea to the school's teachers, but many of them have their own separate after-school programs.

My plan right now is:
1) Have them take a practice test the first day to find their strengths and weaknesses
2) Next day, we'll troubleshoot the most commonly missed questions as a group and discuss why they got the question wrong, what techniques they can use to get it right next time, etc.

Is this an effective plan? What else should I add? What things are important for them to know? I'm really clueless about these kinds of things. I'm comfortable with the test myself (I got a 30 when I was in high school), but I'm not sure if I'm comfortable with the teaching part; I sometimes find that things make perfect sense in my head, but I have difficulty explaining them to others.
posted by chara to Education (7 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
The more practice tests they take, the less the intimidation element will factor into their scores (usually negatively). There's not a whole lot you can do to teach the material if they don't already know it, although there are some tricks that can help (identifying key words in questions, eliminating obvious answer outliers, etc.) Given the time constraints and your target audience's capabilities, I would concentrate on reducing the negative factors.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 7:02 AM on September 21, 2009

Also, you probably already know this, but as there's no guessing penalty for the ACT, you should emphasize the point that students should never leave questions unanswered. Never, never, never! Students should always leave themselves a minute of buffer time before each test is complete to fill in last-ditch answers. If the clock stops and they've still got empty answers, those are instantly, unequivocally wrong.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 7:11 AM on September 21, 2009

When I was in high school, we took your approach: testing one day, going over most commonly missed problems the next. However, we broke the practice test days into sections: Week 1, day 1, was reading. Week 2, day 1 was science. Or whatever order. If you've got enough prep time, taking the slower approach might give more time for things to sink in. Or you could do two-week rotations: Week 1, day 1 could be math/science and Week 2. day 1 could be reading/English. I think that doing week after week of the entire 3-hour test could be tiring and discouraging to students. Maybe you could try building in a short amount of time after the test to discuss what was most challenging, while it's fresh in students' minds.

As a student who loved reading but didn't understand science, it was a breakthrough to be told that the science questions were, in reality, reading comprehension questions. By carefully reading the problem and the question, you could easily eliminate one or two answers right off the bat.
posted by runningwithscissors at 7:52 AM on September 21, 2009

I'm glad you thought of the diagnostic test. Here are three informative ways to visualize the results:

- a simple bar graph plotting the number of students who answered each question incorrectly (as previously noted, questions should be either right or wrong---tell them right up front to guess wildy). The ACT presents questions in random order with respect to difficulty, so if accuracy drops as you get farther into the section, students may be running out of time. There may be questions that very few people answered correctly, which mark more difficult topics or more subtle presentations or just more confusing wording. In the reading sections, a depression across all the questions associated with a single passage might mean that it discussed a topic unfamiliar to the students.

- a scatterplot with question number on the x-axis and score (either overall or in that subject) of the student on the y-axis. Give incorrect answers one color and correct answers another. This is a more sophisticated way to find difficult questions, as it shows how solving this question correlates to overall score (which, we like to think, correlates somewhat with preparedness or education or maybe even scholastic potential).

- a scatterplot of answer number against score. I've never worked with enough students at once to make this worthwhile, and frankly I've never had enough time to make a separate plot for each question, but in theory this plot lets you pick out what kinds of errors students are making. Every incorrect answer is (or should be) written to take advantage of a specific, common misunderstanding.

The important part of the diagnostic test, in a group setting, is not to tell the students what they don't know but to tell the instructor what he needs to cover in detail and where he can cut a few corners. You should not finalize your curriculum until you see the diagnostic.

Asking students why they answered incorrectly gives mixed results. Sometimes you discover really interesting fallacies and sometimes you just get lots of stares and shrugs. Some students will be eager to vindicate themselves by explaining how they went wrong; some will be too ashamed to volunteer any reply; and many will just shrug.

I don't know how overworked you are, but a shortcut for grading essays is to refuse to grade it unless the student meets some length requirement. One-half to three-quarters of the provided space is reasonable. This sounds terrible, but length actually does correlate with score (this was famously proven for the SAT by a researcher who learned to "grade" essays from across the room; I don't know if the evidence for the ACT is as conclusive).

I've tutored the ACT and SAT for about four years, mostly in individual settings. MeMail me if you like, although I can't guarantee I'll be of any help.
posted by d. z. wang at 11:59 AM on September 21, 2009

I don't know if these kids are low income, but if they are, it might be worthwhile to check in with your local test prep companies.

The one I worked for did test prep for at risk kids pro bono.
posted by k8t at 5:08 PM on September 21, 2009

I'd make sure they understand what an excellent thing it is that depending on the college, their ACT or the SAT score may count just as much as their grades. It is as if you could do extra credit to make up a less than perfect grade... on all fours years of high school. Many people feel that this is unfair and pedagogically invalid and generally ungood -- but to the kids in your class, it's money. Unlike actually learning stuff, standardized tests are objective and therefore hackable.

Try to help your students see the ACT as not a high-pressure negative thing, but a game, and the prize is an awesome academic do-over. Somebody who understands college admissions could give you math pulled from somewhere not so dark, but say for example, I score a 20 on the ACT and I have a 2.5 GPA. If I attend your class, and I boost my score to 25 -- that could affect my admissions prospects as much as if I boosted my overall GPA to 3.06. Level-up!

Me, I like tests. I like the feeling of my brain shifting into fifth gear, whether I know the answers or not. If you can help your students learn to enjoy the adrenalin rush of test-taking, or at least to learn what helps them feel most comfortable and perform their best -- well, not only will they get into college, they'll have a better time once they're there.
posted by Methylviolet at 1:25 AM on September 22, 2009

Response by poster: Thank you everyone! Great answers! I'm starting my class on Wednesday, so we'll see what happens.
posted by chara at 5:49 AM on September 22, 2009

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