Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Wednesday, October 03, 2018

Test Prep

My oldest daughter is gearing up to take the PSAT at the local high school next week, so it's been a time of review. When I registered her, I was handed a test prep booklet and a SAT practice test, which has formed the basis of our review. I say "our", because she and I are going right back to Algebra I.

Looking over the booklets, I find I can answer the literature/reading comprehension/writing questions at the speed of reading. This is not difficult at all for me -- it's the kind of thing I do every day. The math was... the math was harder. I have, literally, a high school math education, as do many liberal arts majors who never had to take a math class in college. As I look at the questions, both in the test booklet and on Khan Academy's prep site, I remember doing these kind of equations as a teenager -- pages and pages of equations, hours and hours worth of work each week. I just don't remember how they were done. Some things I recall. Balance the sides of equation. Consolidate terms. Cross-multiply and divide for percentages. But there are many concepts and processes that I have to relearn -- linear and quadratic equations, polynomials, trigonometry. These things are not instinctive for me.

On the other hand, there certain kinds of percentage word problems and graph reading that I do find more instinctive. Perhaps these are the kinds of things I have occasion to do nowadays, or the kind of analytic reading that one needs dealing with stats in the newspaper, etc. I can interpret charts in the science articles fairly easily, and when the problems are cast in concrete terms (According to the chart, how does the price of gas change from 1972-1985? If Annie bought 73 pieces of fruit and 23% of them are apples and the rest are oranges, and the next day she bought 104 pieces of fruit but the percentage of oranges stayed the same, so how many oranges were there on the second day?), I find them laborious but not impossible to solve. Some of these problems also can be answered by going with the common-sense solution, and my daughter and I have both found that to serve us pretty well in practice questions.


This isn't the only humbling learning experience I've had lately. The same daughter is taking an online biology course, which requires reading and essay questions and lab work. I have tried to read her biology textbook, and it has taught me something: about myself, not about biology.  I'm sad to learn that in terms of biology, I'm the counterpart of those obnoxious people who are so proud of the fact that they think the Odyssey is stupid, and they've lived a perfectly fine life, thank you very much, without ever having read some dead Greek writers.

Cell structures, molecules, mitochondria, endoplasmic reticulum, aquaporins: I read about these things, I look at sentences, sentences made of words which individually I understand, and yet these words put together into a concept of biology slide right off my brain. If I look at them long and enough and read them aloud, I can memorize them for a moment, but when I look away from a sentence, I am unable to tell you what it was explaining. I feel like I have biology dyslexia.

My daughter, fortunately, understands what she is reading, and can explain it convincingly (though not in a way that really takes root in my memory). Her main struggle is with the quintessential homeschool maturation process, in which you learn that yes, in a class you really do need to write out the answers and turn them in, even if you feel like you understand the material perfectly, and that your grade is going to be affected if you don't. And thus I put in far more effort superintending a student studying something that I cannot directly help her learn than I do actually teaching other children material I know well.

This biology illiteracy has served to give me much more sympathy with my 8yo daughter, who has difficulty reading. I have always read almost effortlessly, but for my daughter, who has dyslexic symptoms, the words just seem to slide off her brain. Rules such as "when two vowels go walking, the first one does the talking" have to be retaught almost every time. It helps me to be patient with her when I think of my inability to make any sense of the diagrams in the biology textbook and how anything I picked up has been through dint of sheer memorization. I don't understand my daughter's particular struggle -- I have never in my life had difficulty reading -- but my weaknesses elsewhere inform my ability to help her learn.


The PSAT is next Wednesday. Whether we'll have enough time to get through all our review, I don't know. My daughter also doesn't particularly remember how she did a lot of Algebra II, but it's easier for her than for me,and she's younger and more mentally malleable than I am. The benefit of age and experience is increased perspective and a vast mental library, but boy, is it humbling how hard it is to pick this stuff up again.


Son Mom said...

Humbling is certainly the right word! And you definitely feel the age difference - I can feel how much more slowly my brain takes in more information than when I was a high school and college student. It was also depressing how quickly your brain can forget things - I had to take a year of college calculus and still found it hard to help my kids with SAT math! Since I was a biochem major, I was relieved to find that I was at least still competent in high school biology, though I always had to review the reading first. It did make me amazed all over again at my dad, who seemed to have nearly perfect recall of anything he’d ever learned. He could help me with any math problem through calculus without even looking at my textbook.

You might explore the ACT - all the colleges pretty much take either SAT or ACT and they are slightly different. After she takes her PSAT, you can have her take a practice ACT, and compare which she performs better on. My daughter was humanities-focused, and found the math portion of the ACT a little easier than the SAT math.

Sally Thomas said...

I had one child who did better on the SAT (a less-mathy child, though that may just be coincidental), and one who did so well on the ACT that he never bothered with the SAT. I do think some people just naturally do better on one than the other, though I couldn't tell you why!

For math learning and review: I like WAY better than I like Khan. My 14yo and I are working through their algebra 1 now. The thing I like is that the video lessons themselves are interactive -- there's no way you can sit there and glaze over while somebody talks and demonstrates. You have to work problems (after some initial instruction, and with hints) to get through a lesson. Their review sections get progressively harder as you work through them. They don't do word problems, so you still have to have a resource for that kind of thing. But for learning the basic concepts and practicing them, it's very good. We have been cracking the whole graphing thing lately -- slope-intercept form, point-slope form, finding slopes, etc. I'm fairly sure I never really learned any of that, despite my physical presence in an actual institutional high-school algebra class. But I can explain it now, by golly!

mrsdarwin said...

Sally, thank you! We pulled this up today and she's already gotten a lot of review in on some basic linear equation stuff (and doing well, so that's nice). We were able to skip ahead to what we needed to look at, and she seems to like it well.

I myself took the ACT and got a 32 -- my perfect reading score was dragged down by my math, and my math was dragged down not only by my inaptitude but by the fact that I was hauled out of the math section by the police because someone had reported that I'd nicked a car in the parking lot. (I had scratched the car, tbh, and had been planning to leave a note after the test was over because I was running late, but the police weren't really buying that. I was under 18 and had to go to court, where the judge threw the whole thing out.)