Math = EvilThe ACT math section is a beast. At 60 minutes, this math marathon is a full 15 minutes longer than English and 25 minutes more than the sprint-length Reading or Science sections. 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). The students with whom I work generally despise and/or fear it, and 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 (or “MAT” as it is technically referred to) is like a different language. Herein lies the frustration – but also the cure, part of which I’ll share below. 

It’s a cumulative exam.

No one likes a cumulative exam. The most common question on day one of any college course has always been, “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?) Last week I touched on this notion that the ACT forces you to relearn essential concepts, and this is especially true for MAT. Students in Advanced Algebra are focused on this year’s content, not the Geometry they learned last year, or the easier algebraic concepts from 8th or 9th grade. But time after time I see low scores in the MAT 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. I assign a systematic review of 100 essential math concepts and formulas, most of which they’ve learned but 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 what the formula for the area of a circle is (A = ∏r²). You have to have it down cold so you can focus on the real work to be done.

It’s 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 (poor sentence), but most math work in schools and at home is done without time limits. Think: practice problems during class and homework. This speaks to the problem of “studying” for the ACT versus “preparing” for it, and is a subject for next week’s post. Suffice it to say that kids aren’t prepared for the rigor of 60 problems in 60 minutes, in the context of a four-hour exam early on a Saturday. That’s a formula for disappointment.

The order is all mixed up.

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 multi-tasking. Nuff said.

It 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 I’d care to admit, I witness good students struggle to perform simple calculations in their head or with just a pencil and paper. And the ACT is notorious for asking types of questions which are foreign or certainly less common than what is found in textbooks. So 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.

How to fight back against the MAT beast

I don’t have a quick fix, but I can help in a number of ways.

  1. Don’t treat MAT like math homework. That approach doesn’t work. Everything you do – everything? – yes, everything needs to be timed and you need to take a cumulative exam approach.
  2. Reinstall your math brain software. 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.
  3. Find a professional who understands the complexities of the MAT section and whose coaching style fits the learning style and goals of your student. Yes, of course I do this for a living and would love to help you raise that MAT score as part of an overall 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 family.
  4. Come hear me speak and get in a little MAT practice yourself at my next Dream Bank event: Winning Strategies for Boosting Your ACT Score. This FREE event is part of my monthly college planning series sponsored by American Family Insurance, and it would be a great way to learn some practical strategies for all four sections as well as the overall exam. (Parents: be prepared to do a little test prep alongside your kids. Students: cut Mom some slack on the slope-intercept formula.)
  5. Stay tuned next week for more ideas on how to conquer MAT.