Note: Please read “How to smash through Plateaus in Standardized Tests” first (6 minute read—this is a continuation)
*Disclaimer: the timings discussed are standard for the ACT. If you qualify for extra time, please adjust accordingly.
In math particularly, instinct tells the student to solve a problem and use one method (the method he is most familiar with). I am a big believer in this system for learning mathematics as a subject in all its glory, however, this is not the most effective strategy for maximizing your score in the standardized test environment. This becomes especially important when you consider one of the ACT’s most challenging factors: time management.
Let’s take our example student, Jeff (sorry for giving you a hard time) again. Jeff has been moving along the test-prep learning curve steadily, but not as quickly as he would have liked in math. The problem? He does not know that there are certain questions that cause him to, quite simply, hemorrhage time (e.g. 2 min per “circle” question). Likewise, there are questions wherein he usually excels, but he makes silly mistakes and actually could afford to spend more time on the question (e.g. quadratics: Jeff takes 20 seconds, but he frequently makes mistakes and should be allotting a bit more time here).
Let’s focus on the latter point regarding silly mistakes. Students often view using multiple methods to answer a question as a waste of time. “Shouldn’t I be using that time focusing on getting to the end?” Frankly, no. Think about it this way: Jeff has answered the quadratic question in 20 seconds but got it wrong. With an extra five seconds, he can double-check whether his answer is correct by substitution. Five seconds for 1 extra mark? I’d take that.
Also, Jeff has not wasted an extra 5 seconds, he has saved 35 seconds AND ensured he got the question correct. We want to view it as net saved time per question, not in terms of the number of methods involved.
The most effective way I have found to progress quickly? Look at the timing from a different perspective. The Status-Bar Method allocates a hand-drawn, 6cm x 1cm bar per question. Each 1 cm represents 10 seconds, and you draw the full outline of the bar. Then, you time yourself for the question and color in (with the appropriate color) how you allocated your time for that question.
Sample Status Bar
I suggest the following colors:
Green for SOLVING the question
Orange for using EDUCATED ANSWER using ELIMINATION/SUBSTITUTION
Red mark for a GUESS
In addition to the usual summary sheet approach, you record those questions you got wrong but shouldn’t have based on your knowledge and general ability level. If you are well outside the time limit for that question:
- Record the question(s) and time spent on that question (usually from longest time spent, descending)
- Another approach may be necessary
- Two/three approaches may be effective
- Discussion on summary sheets and revisiting questions
- Discussion with a mentor about varied/other approaches
The responses I’ve seen from students are amazing, especially as students consistently don’t realize how much time they were spending on certain question types. One can effectively choose which questions to focus on first and then gain extra time/points rapidly.
At this point, we need to talk about how you can implement this technique. The Status Bar method does not have to apply to all questions on the test at the beginning, nor should it be the same throughout your test-prep journey.
Begin by focusing exclusively on the first 30 questions with status bars of 60 seconds each. The questions on which you go over the allotted time most frequently should be your first area of focus, then work backwards from there.Only move on once you have this section down (consistently scoring above 26/30) .
Next, I would aim at reducing the size of the status bars. This usually occurs in 5-10 second chunks (it really depends on your test-prep timeline, and you should discuss with your mentor or decipher for yourself how quickly you should try to progress). Only when you are comfortably within the 50-55 second average and have aced the first 30 questions should you move on to the second half.
This tactic will then enable you to accurately track which questions (or types of questions) are time killers for you even though you may be getting them correct; from this, you can identify strategies to efficiently navigate those question types.
To speed up the process, you can implement the status bar into chunks no longer than 5 questions. Undoubtedly, this will not be as informative as tailored to each question, but it is much more efficient to implement. Simply do the same method, but the status bar is your required question length multiplied by a number of questions. For example, 50 seconds per question, 5 questions = 250 seconds to complete (4 minutes, 10 seconds). Then you can look at each 5 question section to identify areas needing further attention.
At this point, it is worth noting that because we have assigned 60 seconds per question, this is not a hard enforced rule. It means on average we want to answer each question in the allotted minute. But if you have efficient and effective strategies for most of the questions and you find there may be a question that you know you can get correct (e.g. Complex Numbers), but it requires you to invest 90 seconds of your time, that is fine. These questions should be few in number, but you will have banked extra time with this method and can allocate the time to those questions accordingly.
When we boil it down to the fundamentals, it really is about learning a new process of navigating the best route(s) to the correct answer. This tactic is more strategy than mastering the subject of mathematics. I have had students who implemented strategies similar to this and have performed better than students who were better math students. Notably, however, this is useful aid, not a replacement for the time and hard work invested.