Teenagers’ Dread: The final of all finals

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By Mike O’Hern, Center Director of Mathnasium of West Knoxville


When I was in school I used to dread final exams.  Why did my grade rest so heavily upon my performance on one day?  I remember my Statics course at UTK where the mid-term accounted for 40% of the grade, and the final for 60%!

The final exam is intended to determine if the student has digested the material for the entire course – a cumulative exam covers concepts from the very first day of the class.  But what if there was a final exam for everything the student has learned since beginning school?  Oh, wait.  I can think of two: the SAT and the ACT.  Yes, these college entrance exams cover material that the student likely hasn’t seen or worked on for years!
At least in the math portion.  I’m no expert in the other parts of the ACT/SAT, but I can tell you that the math portion of these exams is no walk in the park for most students.  The ACT covers pre-algebra, algebra I (and a little of algebra II), coordinate geometry, plane geometry, and even some trigonometry.  But the questions in the ACT are not always like the ones that confronted the student in the class, because many of the problems on the ACT are combinations, like a combination of geometry and algebra.  That is, they are testing to see if the student understands the math, not just be able to repeat a mathematical process.
So what can a student do to be prepared?  Here are a few suggestions.

Start preparing early.

Start preparation for the ACT by taking a practice test five to six months before the exam is to be taken.  This will give plenty of time if there is a lot of brushing up to do, but it won’t hurt if there’s not!

Take an orderly approach.

Use the practice test to determine what types of problems need work.  Then when working on the issues, work on the most basic types first, then work up the chain.  If there are problems with proportions, for example (pre-algebra material), work on those before trying to work on quadratics (algebra level material).


“But what if there was a final exam for everything the student has learned since beginning school?… the SAT and the ACT college entrance exams cover material that the student likely hasn’t seen or worked on for years!”


Think about test-taking and time-management skills

When taking the ACT or SAT, your student can maximize her score with this simple technique.  Go through the math section problems one-by-one, answering the ones that are fairly easy for her, putting a “T” (for Time) by the ones that she can work but will take some time, and putting an “H” (for Hard) by the ones that may or may not be doable.  After going through the whole math section, start again working on the “T” problems.  If she gets though them all, start again to work on the “H” problems.  At any point in the process if time gets down to just a couple of minutes left, she can go through and guess at whatever is left.
This method helps with momentum (doing the easy ones first builds confidence), and assures that all of the easier problems are addressed without running out of time.

A note about “guessing penalties”

There are no guessing penalties in the ACT, but there are for the SAT.  So even though we’d prefer to work every problem, feel free to make some guesses on the ACT.  And even for the SAT, educated guessing will always be rewarded!  If the student can eliminate one or more of the answers as unreasonable, then making a guess will improve the overall score, despite the “penalty.”


Mike O’Hern, Center Director of Mathnasium of West Knoxville, earned his Bachelor’s Degree in Metallurgical Engineering at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville in 1988. He pursued graduate studies in Materials Science & Engineering while on the Research Staff at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Mike has had a life-long love of mathematics and teaching, and feels that math is not about learning to be ready for the next math class – it’s about learning to think.

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