The ACT math section is a beast.
Without the right ACT Test Prep approach, it’s the bane of many students’ existence. At 60 minutes, this ACT math marathon is a full 15 minutes longer than English and 25 minutes more than the sprint-length Reading or Science sections of the ACT exam. Worst of all, it’s 100% math, the subject most hated by young minds since the invention of finger counting (and toes for advanced math).
When we work with students for ACT Test Prep, many students generally despise or fear the math section. The most common post-exam text I receive is, “I thought it went well, but the math seemed really hard (frowny-face emoticon)”. Why is that? Aren’t we teaching math well enough in the schools? Actually, it’s not the fault of our schools or our students. And don’t blame it on calculators. (I’ll come back to that point.) It’s more of a translation or transference issue. ACT Math is like a different language. Herein lies the frustration, but also the cure. Interested? Read on.
First let’s start with the reasons students hate the ACT Math Section.
The ACT is a cumulative exam.
No one likes a cumulative exam. The most common question teachers get pounded with is probably, “Is the final exam cumulative?” As a society of learners, we’re better at short-term recall than long-term mastery. (Quick: Who was Gerald Ford’s vice president?) The ACT exam forces you to relearn essential concepts, and this is especially true for the ACT Math section.
Students in Advanced Algebra are focused on this year’s content, not the Geometry they learned last year, or easier Algebra from 8th or 9th grade. Time after time, I see low scores in the Math sub-section of Pre- and Elementary Algebra. Yes, they’re missing the “easy questions”. And since all questions count for exactly one point each, those pieces of low-hanging fruit are just as valuable as the Trig on question #57. During ACT Test Prep, I assign a systematic review of 100 essential math concepts and formulas, most of which they’ve learned, but have since forgotten. “We’re reinstalling some brain software,” I tell them. When you’re working on a problem that involves subtracting the area of one circle from another, you can’t be scrambling to remember the formula for the area of a circle. You have to have it down cold, so you can focus on the real work to be done.
The ACT Math Section is timed.
Set a timer, and then attempt something difficult. Go ahead, I’ll wait. Not much fun, is it? Students take timed quizzes and exams all the time, but most math work in schools and at home is done without time limits. They’re used to practice problems during class and homework. During ACT Test Prep, we don’t “study” for the ACT as much as we “prepare” for it using specific strategies designed for ACT Test Prep. It’s a unique test which requires a unique approach. Suffice it to say that kids aren’t initially prepared for the rigor of 60 problems in 60 minutes, in the context of a four-hour exam early on a Saturday. That can be a recipe for disappointment.
The order is all mixed up on the ACT Math Section.
Math is the only ACT section in which the difficulty level of questions increases from start to finish. You don’t, however, simply move from Pre-Algebra to Elementary Algebra to Coordinate Geometry to Intermediate Algebra to Trig. The content is scrambled, and that conflicts with standard operating procedure for learning math. EX: Learn a new concept based on a similar concept from the day before, watch the teacher do some sample problems, and then work on a batch of related questions for homework. The problems alone are difficult enough without adding the seemingly random order of it all. The adolescent brain isn’t great at multitasking.
The ACT Math section speaks a foreign language.
Okay, here’s a mini-rant on the use of calculators, which you may have anticipated from the beginning. For many good reasons, kids are taught how to use available technology. In this case, that means plugging the right numbers into calculators to get the right answers. That’s a valuable skill, and the ACT allows the use of most calculators during the exam. (Be sure to put in fresh batteries, and make sure your calculator doesn’t get bumped and go into a Spanish default mode. True story.) But more often than not, I witness good students struggle to perform simple calculations in their head or with just a pencil and paper. The ACT is notorious for asking the types of questions which are foreign or certainly less common than what is found in textbooks. What do you do when you don’t know what the question is asking, and that expensive piece of technology won’t help? You think on your feet and problem-solve. That makes kids uncomfortable, but it’s actually one of the positives of this standardized exam. And practice during ACT Test Prep can help with this.
3 Steps to Loving The ACT Math Section You Now Hate
How can we fight the ACT Math beast? When we meet with students for ACT Test Prep, we focus on doing math “by any means necessary”. We prepare for the timing and rigor of the ACT Math section by “practicing how we play”, by tapping into the power of our brains and our pencils and by pushing back when the ACT pushes us to our limits.
I don’t have a quick fix, but these three key steps can help a lot.
Step 1: Don’t wait for “more math”.
I hear it all the time. “I couldn’t do well on the Math section because I haven’t had that yet in school.” The ACT is far less advanced math or trig than most people think. With the right ACT Test Prep, most students can achieve their math goals by nailing the questions they DO know how to do.
Don’t “wait until you’ve had more math” to tackle your first official ACT. Often, students wait too long to prepare for and take the ACT because they believe more advanced math classes will help them. The truth is that by spring semester of sophomore year most students have already been taught 90% of the math content on the ACT. While we end up covering content, we are much more focused on strategies when it comes to beating the ACT.
Overall, the advantage of tackling the ACT exam early (and being done with it by the end of your junior year) far outweighs the small handful of questions that another semester of advanced math would help you answer.
Step 2: Tackle the ACT Math section like preparing for an event, not like math homework.
Doing practice math problems at home alone won’t work. This isn’t homework. It’s preparing to perform in a unique 60-minute event. Everything you do to prep for the ACT needs to be timed, and you need to take a cumulative exam approach. This is why we “practice how we play” using real ACT exams and a real watch to make sure we pace ourselves correctly.
Step 3: Reinstall your math brain software.
Because it’s a cumulative exam, preparing for the ACT Math section will require investing time to remember stuff you KNOW and HAVE LEARNED, but haven’t used in awhile. This is one of the very few times I would support the use of online study aids for the ACT, and only to relearn essential formulas and concepts. Preparing for the ACT will require preparation for the biggest cumulative exam of your life, and that’s especially true of the Math section.
Reinstalling your math brain software also means using your brain and your pencil. We talk about this a lot and we practice this repeatedly during ACT Test Prep. We coach kids on pushing back at ACT Math problems and using their brain and their pencil. Honestly, this isn’t something our tech-savvy students are used to doing, but it’s table stakes for crushing the ACT. Best of all, we find that when students prove to themselves what they’re capable of with their brain, their pencil and some common sense, confidence soars.
It’s surprising and inspiring to see how many math-hating students can learn to love (or at least not hate) Math once they take these three steps and learn to beat the ACT Math section.
Most importantly, to learn to love math more, ask for help.
Find an ACT Test Prep professional who understands the complexities of the ACT Math section and whose coaching style fits your student’s learning style and goals. Yes, I do this for a living and would love to help you raise that Math score as part of our overall ACT Test Prep program. But my style doesn’t work for everyone, so if your child is Johnny/Jenny Technology and wants to do all their prep on a Samsung Galaxy Note-thingy while Insta-Chat-o-Gramming, then they may not warm-up to an old school, back-to-basics approach. Find what works for your student and your family.