Three Strategies Behind Students’ Rising ACT Scores

Jim Uncategorized Leave a Comment

1.  Michael Cerro’s “For Love of ACT Science” Workbook
2.  Breathing Techniques
3.  A New Strategy for Reading Passages

My students’ ACT Scores have risen 8.2 points on average so far this year – equivalent to about 300 points on the 1600-scale SAT.

Last year (the first year I began tracking scores in depth), they rose 6.1 points, or roughly 230 points on the 1600-scale SAT.

My highest riser was 13 points, while my lowest has been 4 points (she is taking the test one last time in October, though, and I suspect she may do significantly better this time!).

So:  jumping from 6.1 points to 8.2 points in a year – what has made the difference?

1.    Michael Cerro’s “For Love of ACT Science” workbook, for one thing.

Cerro breaks down the ACT Science Section as well as Erica Meltzer does the ACT English Section, and his book is positively a hack into the Section.  Last year my students rose 6.6 points in Science – this year they have risen 10.0 points.

Cerro makes plain why you should never start a Science Passage by reading the paragraphs or scanning the charts and graphs.

Instead, jump to the questions and focus on a code in each Science question that Cerro spells out:  certain words tell you what to go back and find in the Passage, and other words tell you where to go find them.

Thank you, Michael Cerro!

2.    Breathing techniques.  Current students who are reading this, you can commence rolling your eyes.  Yes, I am talking about breathing again!  But the science and test-taking experiences of both myself and my students are testaments.

Here is the logic:  when you take a test, you are stressed; when you stress, you tighten and your body under-breathes.  Meanwhile, your brain uses up to 25% of the oxygen you take into your lungs.

So during the time their heads most need oxygen, testtakers are supplying it with less without realizing it.  No wonder they often underperform, descending into anxiety, confusion, and fatigue.

What is the solution?  A single deep breath at the beginning of every question – this is the simplest and most powerful of the breathing techniques I teach.  (See how to take a proper deep breath here).

I piloted it myself when I took last year’s April and June ACTs and the May SAT as well, and I was shocked at how calm, focused, and energized I was throughout these five-hour tests.  For the first time in my life, I left the test center with barely any fatigue.

I learned that deep breathing creates calm, focus, energy, and better decision-making.  No wonder U.S. Navy Seals and world record holders like Wim Hof swear by breathing techniques to raise their games.

How does this work?

Among other effects, oxygen intake stimulates circulation of cerebral fluid in the skull, which washes out waste products excreted by hardworking brain cells during, say, an SAT or ACT exam.  By picking up the cellular garbage, cerebral fluid cleans your brain cells and enables them to keep working effectively.

So I brought breathing to my students, and most of them have found it to be a difference-maker.

One struggled fiercely with test anxiety until she tried my breathing techniques on her June ACT.

“This was the first time I have ever felt calm while taking an ACT!” she told me afterwards.  She did so well that upon receiving her score a week later, she called me to have me log into her account and verify that the score was real and actually hers!

Another said breathing was the single most effective technique he had used to raise his score from 20 to 32.  “It’s almost annoying how simple yet effective it is,” he said.

3.    A new ACT Reading strategy.

My students rose 6.6 points on ACT Reading last year and are up 8.2 points this year, and I would hazard this rise took place because of a new approach to the Section, thanks to one of my students.

He had struggled for months to raise his ACT Reading score above the mid-to-low 20s.  He diligently applied the techniques I had taught him, but his score wasn’t budging yet.

The student had the good fortune of having a Dad who cared more about how to do ACT problems than any parent I have worked with – diligently attempting Passages himself and discussing different approaches with his son – and he seemed to do so in a way that the kid didn’t resent, amazingly!

Together, son and father tried some new techniques that, frankly, I felt embarrassed not to have thought of myself.  One day a few weeks before his ACT, the student – who had regularly scored in the low-to-mid 20s on practice Sections – scored a 32!

Another high-20s score emerged, followed by a low-30s score.

A breakthrough had occurred.

What did the student and his father realize?  That by close-reading the introduction, topic sentences of each paragraph, and conclusion, and skimming the rest of the text simply to get an idea of where certain topics were discussed, he could get through the Passages quicker and answer questions more accurately.

By contrast, I used to emphasize techniques that spent more time and energy understanding the Passage in the first place before answering the questions.

On this student’s actual ACT, he scored a 29, and 11-point jump from the 18 he began with.  My man!

Tail between my legs, I asked them to show me how they had arrived at the breakthrough, and since then I have showed the technique to every one of my students, calling it the “ISF” or “Important Sentences First” strategy (close-read first the parts of the Passage that are more likely to be important, skim the rest, then get to the questions).

Most of my students have liked it, while some have found that still other strategies, or some hybrid of this strategy with others, work best for them.

An 8.2-point average rise has been very gratifying to see!  If you or a friend have any interest in learning more, do reach out.

Meanwhile, I will keep my eye out for this year’s best workbooks and technique upgrades that will lead to an even greater rise in scores next year.

If you know of any good ones, let me know!

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