Math Hack – Recognizing the Hard Part
Not knowing which part of a task is supposed to be difficult can cause problems. If you’re told that mile 4 of a 5-mile race is the hardest, and you’re struggling going up a mountain on mile 2, you’re more likely to get discouraged, because if you’re struggling now, what’s going to happen on the really hard part? But if you knew that the mountain on mile 2 was the hardest part of the race, you might push through, because everything gets easier from there.
In this same way, misunderstanding the hard part is what sinks a lot of students on math questions on standardized tests.
Stick with me.
There are two aspects of solving a math question:
1. Figuring out what to do
2. Doing it
On most school tests, students do questions they’ve seen before, so figuring out what to do is easy. The hard part is doing it. On standardized tests, though, they’re seeing questions they’ve never seen before, some of which are purposefully confusing. The hard part is figuring out what to do. That’s the mountain.
Not knowing this causes a lot of students give up on questions they could solve, because they think that figuring out what to do should be easy. They think they’re struggling on the easy part, and doing the actual work must then be impossible, so better to move on. But this is wrong. On most standardized test math questions, doing the actual work is easy.
This is a good time to go over the purpose of standardized tests, which is to separate students along a spectrum. It’s not to measure intelligence. To separate students, especially to separate the great from the merely good, test makers need good students to miss questions. The problem for test makers is that they’re limited in what they can ask, which on most tests is arithmetic, algebra and geometry. No general standardized test (SAT, ACT, SHSAT, ISEE, SHSAT) has calculus or any higher math. So what do test makers do? They disguise problems to seem harder than they are. They create questions that are tricky to understand: questions for which it’s difficult to figure out what to do. Once you figure out what to do, though, you’re set.
Push through the insecurity of “I’ve never seen this before” and “this looks difficult!” Most of the time, it’s not. Recognize that figuring out what to do is the hard part of most math questions on a standardized test and put your energy and attention there. Your score will go up, and it will be a lot more pleasant, besides.
To your success!