I find myself hearing certain talking points frequently in the world of advocacy, and I think I have some pretty reasonable responses. Since I can’t be in every single one of your meetings or discussions, perhaps it would help if I shared. Let’s try one…
The issue is a legitimate one, which is the importance of serving gifted kids’ “social-emotional” (which is what educators use instead of “psychological”) needs.
This applies to adults, too, by the way. There is a lot of kerfuffle in the world about whether gifted adults exist (we do!) and whether we also might have psychological needs (yep!). So please don’t assume I’m only talking about kids. It’s just that in advocacy situations, it typically is a bunch of grownups arguing about how to deal with kids, and it’s easier for me to use that language.
I’m very sensitive to implied frames (if you want to read more about that, try the writings of George Lakoff or Drew Westen), and this one is important. The metaphor is that of a seesaw — academic-intellectual needs are on one side, social-emotional needs are on the other. But a seesaw is a zero-sum game: the more you serve one type of need, the less you serve the other. That is, we cannot meet a kid’s academic-intellectual needs without sacrificing their social-emotional needs, and we cannot meet a kid’s social-emotional needs without sacrificing their academic-intellectual needs.
If you accept this metaphor, you will always lose. Face it, you’ve accepted being in the position of saying, essentially, “I don’t care about my kid’s psychological well-being. I just want him to win a Nobel Prize.” You are playing right into the image of the crazed Kumon parent (anyone besides me notice that the kid face in their logo looks distinctly miserable?). You are convincing the educators that they are right, that they need to save your vulnerable child from your demanding, and perhaps abusive, parenting. Even if you acknowledge that some academic needs might need to be sacrificed so that the kid doesn’t commit suicide before proving the Goldbach Conjecture or curing cancer, you’re still accepting the frame that the one of these can exist only at the expense of the other.
Side note: while I would be the first to agree that some parents do take things way too far and do push their kids too hard, the overwhelming majority of the time when I’m sitting with parents and educators considering this problem, folks are actually going too far in the other direction in their attempts to avoid it.
By becoming aware of our implicit frames, we can step outside of them. I don’t agree with the seesaw. Except at the extremes, social-emotional needs and academic-intellectual needs are not a zero-sum game. They are tied together. We meet them at the same time, by doing the same things.
One of the most important social-emotional needs of every human is to experience and overcome meaningful challenge. Every human. Gifted humans included. It’s just that school often does not provide meaningful challenge for gifted kids the way it routinely does for kids closer to the middle of the curve. Wouldn’t you agree that an appropriate curriculum would be one that would enable a kid to develop self-efficacy, which is the fundamental building block of self-esteem? You wouldn’t want to deny a kid the opportunity to develop self-esteem, would you? I sure wouldn’t. Glad we can agree on that.
Another one of the most important social-emotional needs of every human is to connect with real peers, people who can get your jokes, who can understand what it’s like to be you, who share similar experiences, who can support you and you can support them. Gifted kids are just like everyone else in that regard, too. For typical kids, though, if you randomly pick a bunch of other kids with a similar manufacture date (thanks to Ken Robinson for that phrase), you’ll stand a pretty good chance of finding similarity of experience and interest. Go outside the realm of the typical in any way, and manufacture date is no longer your best bet for finding real peers. We take it as given that people who have a particular disease, or who are in a particular cultural minority, or who have a particular gender or sexual identity, might want to flock with other birds of a feather without being accused of looking down on everyone else. We tell heartwarming stories about those connections (particularly when they’re things like summer camps for kids with disabilities). No one is rejecting the notion that it’s good to interact with a wide variety of people. Of course it is. But it’s not normal to give kids access to only one or two other likely friends (usually of the cootie-bearing gender, as gifted kids are spread around most thinly and “fairly” in most schools). We normally give typical kids in school a lot of possible friends. Why wouldn’t we do that for gifted kids, too?
Let’s think about what experiences friends in school often share. Um… the experience of being in school? Doing that work, having that teacher, you name it. But if twenty-nine kids experience, “sweet teacher who gives tricky work that I can work hard on and do it pretty well,” and one kid experiences, “teacher who doesn’t know that much about genetics and has never heard of Doctor Who and whose work is trivially easy and who thinks everything I do is awesome even when I know for a fact that it’s terrible,” (more on that and the development of pathological narcissism in another post) that’s not a shared experience. Does that kid ever call a friend to work on the homework together (one of the major bonding experiences of school-bound people)? No, they just get called when someone needs them to act in loco educatoris (more on that and social isolation in another post, too).
So get off the seesaw. One of the most important social-emotional needs for gifted children is, just like everyone else, to have real peers with whom they share real serious academic-intellectual challenge. Now that we all agree, let’s talk about how to meet that need.
I hear a lot, particularly around late fall / early winter, about students who have a particular difficulty with multiple-choice exams, like the SAT, ACT, GRE, and so on. I personally think bubble tests are nearly always worthless in terms of telling us anything we actually want to know about a kid (it is possible to create a really good multiple-choice exam to explore real understanding of content and mastery of higher-order thinking skills… but it is extremely rarely actually done). Unfortunately, they are a fact of life for students.
Sometimes, bright kids are like me — I cordially despise these tests, but I’m very good at them. Always have been. Even when I haven’t actually learned the content (in fact, especially so, since I have a terrible memory for the kind of isolated facts these tests so often rely upon). I consider them something of a competitive sport. But very often, “bubble tests” are a bright-to-gifted kid’s personal nemesis — “I understand it all, but I just can’t get things right on the stupid test! I can’t remember the nitty little details and I can’t decide what answer they think I’m supposed to give and it’s all just awful!”
Neither the research literature nor the professional lore would support the idea that some people should be diagnosed with 315.9 Learning Disorder, Not Otherwise Specified, Cannot Take Multiple-Choice Exams. Typically, if a kid (or adult) has persistent problems with bubble tests, one or more of several things is going on…
Test anxiety: These tests tend to push an already-slightly-anxious person’s buttons. The pace tends to be very rapid (in the realm of one minute or less per question), the stakes tend to be perceived as high (will you get into such-and-such program?), there are more wrong answers than right answers but they’re all pulling at you… eek! According to the inverted-U hypothesis (aka the Yerkes-Dodson law), overly-high levels of arousal tend to decrease performance. Moderate levels of arousal are good (see below under EF/ADHD), but if you get too buzzy, you end up crossing the line into freaked-out, and no one can concentrate well or do their best when they’re freaked out.
Lack of test savvy: While I don’t think there’s any value to the kinds of apocryphal loree. kids like to rely on (“if you’re not sure, choose C”), it is worth recognizing that these tests are written by human beings. Your goal is not actually to get the right answer. Your goal is to think like the writer of the test questions, to see the underlying question they’re trying to ask, to spot the trick they’re trying to lead you into, and to choose the answer they want you to choose. This is absolutely a learned and learnable skill.
Executive functioning problems (including ADHD): Most often, the kids with ADHD are impulsively choosing the first “pretty-good” answer they see, or they drift off before reading the question thoroughly and carefully considering all possibilities. Many of them have a hard time keeping their arousal level high enough to stay focused, keeping their focus on the task, and maintaining a working tempo that will let them finish in time. Note also that kids who aren’t getting enough sleep will also typically struggle with these things. Coffee can sometimes help… but it’s not as good as having the brain properly rested in the first place.
Issues with speed and pace: This is properly a subset of “executive functioning” above, but it’s something that a lot of folks have trouble with specifically on this kind of test, even when they don’t have trouble with it in real life. Timed test-taking is itself a skill. It is difficult to maintain the pace and rhythm needed to get the whole thing done. People often get bogged down in a few hard questions and then can’t pick up the pace after they extricate themselves from the bog (too much mud on the boots, if you will). Also, many kids have a hard time maintaining the required effort over the long period of time the tests take (the high-stakes tests such as the SAT are often several hours long). Staying focused that long without reorienting cues is something we don’t practice that much these days.
Language comprehension problems (including Asperger’s): Test questions are often quite finicky in terms of language — they’re highly specific in their meaning, and if you don’t read really carefully and focus on (1) exactly what they’re saying and (2) exactly what they meant (yes, I know those might sometimes seem like opposites… that’s part of the game!), you will trip up. The wrong answer choices are almost always based upon the typical misreadings of the questions — these “attractor” answers are the reason that some kids actually do worse than chance when they guess. Kids who have trouble in this domain often also have subtle weaknesses in the rest of the “real world” in terms of reading comprehension, analytical writing, and oral direction-following.
Overthinking: I’ve often seen bright-to-gifted kids overthink these stupid multiple-choice questions, choose the second-best answer on a technicality because, “Well, it could be that,” etc. Sometimes they’re getting all proud of themselves for coming up with a technicality, like, “Lookit me, I’m smarter than the test, ha, ha!” But in school, teachers only rarely grant credit retroactively for coming up with a clever justification, and on those high-stakes tests, you’re almost never going to get credit this way. The goal is not to get the right answer. The goal is to get the answer the test writer wanted you to get. Personally, when I was taking the tests for my high school teaching credential in science, while I pegged the upper reaches of the scores, I found it interesting that I had a relative weakness in the areas of science I knew the best (courtesy of ten years of training as a molecular biologist). Why? Because I got stuck saying things like, “Okay, B is the actual right answer. However, the overwhelming majority of the population thinks it’s C, and lots of textbooks say it’s C, too. Did the person who wrote the test know about B, such that C is the attractor answer, or am I supposed to say C because that’s probably what the person who wrote the test thought the answer was?”
So, what to do?
What I generally recommend in terms of intervention, regardless of the cause, is to provide explicit instruction and guided practice in the specific skills involved.
Numero uno, the most likely area of weakness. Make it a habit. Always. Read the question carefully. Read all of the choices. Think through what each choice means and why it would be a good or bad choice. Then (and only then) choose the best one.
Practice solving items by thinking out loud with a test-savvy tutor. When mistakes are made, go over the explanations for the answers and use these as learning opportunities to understand better how test-writers think.
If there are specific high-stakes tests at issue then get the Big Thick Book of Real Practice Tests from the local bookstore and study the test itself. Learn to identify common question types. In fact, it’s often worth it to practice rapidly identifying question type as a separate skill. When you’re good at knowing the general kinds of questions, your study can then focus on strategies which fit each type — that makes your work a lot more efficient. It’s better to practice a whole bunch of questions of the same type and master the skill, saving the mixed practice for when you’re reviewing skills you’ve already mastered.
As with any sport or musical instrument, regular practice, on items that are difficult enough to be challenging, is what you need to improve. Massed practice (“cramming”) might feel like, “Ooh, I’m doing something heroic, this has gotta work.” But it doesn’t work anywhere near as well as regular practice. I know, I know. You think it does. Everyone thinks it does. Sorry. It doesn’t. You’re not special.
Frankly, I generally don’t recommend the courses from test-prep companies unless you’re a kid who honestly won’t do the Big Thick Book technique reliably. The courses tend to be basically just the same thing as the books, only there’s a grownup standing at the front of the room keeping you on task. If that’s the only way you’ll reliably study, well, okay, fine. But if you’re trying to take a high-stakes test that will get you into, oh, say, college, where, did anyone mention, no one reminds you to get out of bed or do your homework, perhaps this would be a good time to learn to get yourself to do the stuff you don’t like to do.
Particularly if anxiety or drifting-off is an issue, practice, practice, practice, under the most realistic conditions you can muster up. Try out different techniques for reducing your anxiety or getting yourself woken up to the right level, and figure out what works best for you and is legal under test conditions (that is, if you do best with music, sorry, you will almost never be allowed to have an mp3 player on a standardized test, so you need to come up with something else). If the unfamiliar location of a high-stakes test is a problem, try taking practice tests in different locations (public libraries are good). Take them timed. No food. No potty. No breaks. No standing up.
For timing or pace issues, practice with a loop timer, gradually decreasing the time per item, to work on tempo. Set a tempo that will get you finished in approximately 80% of the time allotted — that leaves time to work on the really hard questions that will take more thought.
Practice a strategy that will maximize the number of items answered probably-correctly. A lot of people get stuck on hard items and won’t move on until they’ve figured out the answer. It’s much more advantageous to look at each question, and if you know or can quickly figure out the right answer, do it, and if you don’t, circle the item number and move on. That both ensures that you get to all the easy ones (which have the same point value as the hard ones!) and puts the content of the hard ones into your head where it can cook. Once you’ve done that, go back and do all of the moderately-hard ones, the ones you can get with some serious thought. Cross off the circles as you answer them, so that you can easily scan for the not-yet-done ones on later passes. The very-hard ones should not get time wasted on them until you’ve done the moderately-hard ones.
Yes, I know, if you’re taking a computer-adaptive test (where it insists that you answer each question because it’s adjusting the difficulty level of the next question based on whether you got this one right), you may not be able to use this strategy, but if you can, it is a huge benefit. Note, by the way, that on some computer-administered tests, you can skip forward and go back as you wish. If so, then use the scratch paper to keep track of the item numbers you have skipped and cross them off as you get them dealt with.
Know the scoring rules of the test. If there is no penalty for guessing, you should make sure to answer every question even if all you’re doing is bubbling randomly in the last minute. If there is a penalty for guessing (typically -1/(n-1) where n is the number of choices, such that a purely random guessing pattern would result in a score of zero), you need to get a bit more strategic. Some people are good guessers — they guess above chance. If you’re one of those people who guesses at or above chance, again, you should always guess on every item.
However, some people are not good guessers, and actually guess below chance, typically because they’re getting caught up by those attractor answers. The usual advice to guess if you can eliminate even one answer as definitely correct is wrong, or at least oversimplified. If you can eliminate one or even two out of four choices as definitely wrong, but then choose the wrong answer of the remaining choices often enough that your guesses are below chance overall (that is, if you work your way down from four choices to two but then still pick the wrong answer more than 3/4 of the time), then you’re still guessing below chance. “Almost right” or, “It was my second choice,” doesn’t count (this is, as the proverb says, neither horseshoes nor hand grenades). You need to gather data on your own guessing patterns to know whether guessing is an advantageous strategy for you. This is a great use for the Big Thick Book.
Furthermore, if you’re a bad guesser, or even if you’re a decent one, study what is tripping you up when you guess wrong. What are the traps you’re getting caught in? Can you create specific rules and checklists for yourself to make sure you don’t forget about them? For example, when I’m doing quantitative comparisons, I always check to see what happens if the variables have values of 0, 1, -1, some other negative number, and a fraction between 0 and 1, trying to find a situation where the obvious answer is wrong. When I do reading comprehension tests, I always read the questions first, and then read the passage with a pencil in hand so I can mark it up. Stuff like that.
What are the specific skills or content areas that they seem to always throw at you and you always forget? How can you make sure you get it into your head long enough to write it on the scratch paper as soon as the test starts? I’m a hawk when it comes to cheating, but even I don’t think it’s cheating if you write a “cheatsheet” out of your head during the test. I knew one dyslexic young man who could not for the life of him memorize the quadratic formula, but he was a great conceptual thinker and could remember easily how to derive it. He got to the point where he could rederive that thing in thirty seconds flat on the scratch paper (and he went on to major in mathematics in college).
Anyone have any special tried-and-true techniques that work for them for studying for bubble tests? Inspirational stories on how you destroyed a stupid test that had been making you miserable? Post them below!
- game on! (using games to teach habits of mind and build connections in gifted families)
- let’s get off the seesaw (false dichotomies)
- hello excuse me, can you tell me where I am? (introducing yourself or your child)
- really actually not dead, and might even be able to blog again
- testing, testing, one, two, three
- coming up for air