“Are you psychic? Or do you have a hidden camera here?”

After a student completes a practice test, I always try to guess how he/she did – how many questions he/she answered correctly, which questions he/she answered incorrectly, and which wrong answers he/she selected. I do this because I want to test my understanding of the student’s progress, of his/her current performance level. And I do this whether the student is meeting with me in person or via Skype (or phone).

Lately I’ve been working with more and more students via Skype, most of whom I have never met in person. Here’s a conversation I had via Skype with an 8th grader last fall after he completed the reading section of a practice SSAT on his own at home:

SSJ: “Let me guess…did you get 35 right out of 40?”

Student (looking slightly surprised): “Um.…yes.”

SSJ: “Which question numbers did you get wrong in this section?”

Student: “3, 11, 18, 29, and 32.”

SSJ: “OK. Let’s start by taking a look at number 32. Hmm.…did you originally select answer choice (D)?”

Student: “Whoa. How did you know?”

SSJ: “Well, I know that when you’re not sure which answer is correct on a passage-based reading question, you tend to gravitate toward the answer choice that sounds most formal and most complex. (D) fit that description. Is that the reason you chose (D)?”

Student: “You got me.”

After discussing why the correct answer was correct and why the answer the student selected was wrong, we tackled the next question.

SSJ: “OK. Let’s move on to number 29. For that one, did you pick”—pausing to scan the answer choices—“answer choice (B)?”

Student (regarding me quizzically, one eyebrow raised): “Yeeeesss….”

SSJ: “Did you pick (B) because you noticed that the word “stimuli” appeared in lines 6-10, which the question referred to, as well as in answer choice (B)?”

Student: [nods his head, slowly and a bit ruefully]

SSJ: “Remember, you shouldn’t play ‘bingo’ when you’re answering reading comprehension questions.”

We reviewed a couple more questions in this way. Then:

Student (looking increasingly perplexed): “Are you psychic or something? Or”—looking around his room, focusing on the ceiling above him—“do you have a hidden camera installed here?”

SSJ: “No, I just know you well, and I understand how your mind works.”

Student: “You know me WAY too well.”

SSJ: “That’s a good thing, believe me.”

And so it goes. I can usually figure out which wrong answer choice a particular student selected for each question that he/she answered incorrectly. After I’ve had two or three Skype (or in-person) sessions with a student, I have a good sense of how that student’s mind works and what his or her strengths and development needs are in reading, vocabulary, math, grammar, and writing. For example, I know which answer choices that student finds most tempting on reading comprehension questions and why. I also understand what kinds of careless errors the student typically makes on math questions, and how the student tends to compensate on or react to math questions involving concepts he or she knows less well.

(A note on word choice: Ever the optimist, I prefer the McKinsey performance-evaluation term “development need” to the word “weakness,” which can suggest to a student that he or she has an innate, permanent deficit of some sort. Until proven otherwise, I believe that every person is capable of strengthening his/her skills in any area, and it is critically important to convey that belief to students who are still in the process of figuring out the breadth and depth of their abilities.)

With each student I work with, whether individually or in my small-group classes, I develop ever-greater insights into how that student operates, including but not limited to the following:

  • how the student tends to approach a given type of question on a given section of a test;
  • how perceptive the student is, and how thorough and attentive to detail;
  • how readily the student absorbs feedback and internalizes guidance;
  • what the student thinks of his/her own abilities in a given area and how that level of confidence (or lack thereof) affects his/her test performance;
  • how the student approaches the test as a whole; and
  • how well the student manages time and deals with stress.

So, I don’t possess powers of extrasensory perception, and I don’t spy on my students with hidden cameras or other nifty gadgets. But I do make it my business to understand, as deeply as possible, how and why my kids do what they do, so that I can in turn help them notice the specific habits, actions, and tendencies that prevent them from demonstrating their full potential on tests—or in any other situation, whether in school or out of school, in which they are called upon to show what they can really do. (This is a point I will reiterate frequently in this blog: that when students learn how to show more of their true abilities on tests, they also develop skills and habits that will empower them to perform better in the other areas of their lives. As my mother used to say, “Learning one thing helps you learn another thing.”  The attitudes, habits, and skill gaps that depress a student’s test scores also tend to hold him/her back in other areas.)

If we become more aware of the decisions we make and the lines of reasoning that we follow, and more cognizant of what works well and what we need to do differently, we will perform better. We will be able to recognize and resist unhelpful tendencies, to develop positive new habits that replace destructive old habits, and to consciously adhere to good processes and sound ways of thinking.

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