24 Oct 2019

Meticulous methods: ace tests like a scientist

Dr. Monica Lewin, Neuroscientist, Learning Specialist

When I first started working in research labs, I noticed something rather interesting. Despite being surrounded by cutting edge technology, every scientist I worked with would diligently inscribe notes into simple, black and white, college ruled composition books. They logged the details of every daily task in these notebooks: from tracking each step completed in an experiment, to the quantities of each chemical used in the day’s solutions. Every process and its result were recorded.

Personally, I thought this was excessive. We were scientists; clearly we were smart enough to know what we were doing around the lab. Was it really necessary to be this meticulous?

It didn’t take me long to find out it was. When things went wrong—when experiments failed for unknown reasons, or when I simply got distracted and forgot which step in my protocol was up next—my paper trail was there, in my black and white lab notebook. When I was exhausted, and running the same experiment on autopilot for the thirteenth time, seeing my own careless errors written plainly on paper allowed me to identify the problem and correct my mistakes.

I started to find this practice was useful even outside the lab. I took extra scratch paper with me to my exams, showing all my work and recording my thought process for each question. Mental math became the enemy—I didn’t trust it! I marked up my test booklets, underlining the key words in each question, eliminating answers and jotting down why to systematically track my answering strategy. To study, I took practice tests and made copious notes on the types of questions I got wrong. What did I miss while reading the question? Did I calculate using the wrong unit? Did I forget to carry the 1? Later, I could review those notes and focus my energy on eliminating my most common sticking points.

When preparing for a standardized exam such as the SAT or ACT, it is of course important to focus on building the academic skills it assesses. Thus, it’s unsurprising that most prep programs market their ability to cover the most content in the least amount of time. There is, however, another very important aspect to scoring well that students tend to gloss over: minimizing careless mistakes. Here at Sentia, we have found that up to a third of a student’s lost points are due to careless errors, not because of poor understanding. Students tend to brush these kinds of errors off during review because they feel their tutor has prepared them well on the content. They are, and rightfully so, confident that they know what they are doing. However, at Sentia, we consistently reinforce the fact that all incorrect answers cost you the same number of points. Students should view careless errors with the same seriousness as they view content gaps. Sentia’s tutors emphasize these “meticulous methods” to teach students how to hold on to those valuable points.

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