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New ACT Writing Prompts

So, the ACT writing test has been redesigned as of September 2015, and the prompts now ask students to analyze an issue from multiple perspectives. I’m working with a student who is prepping for this test, and I haven’t been able to find many prompts. ACT has released two, which can be found here and here. Also, the site Magoosh has one here.

I’ve also made a couple more for my student. They’re not perfect, definitely¬†too controversial for the ACT, but if you’re looking for more prompts you’re welcome to try them out:

Vaccinations

Internet Neutrality

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For Parents: Math Facts and Weird New Ways of Solving Problems

At my favorite coffee shop this week the barista asked me if I had any advice for helping her daughter with her math homework, and helping her daughter with her math facts. I sort of talked her ear off until she had to help the next person. Today it occurred to me that other people might have the same question, and also I had a lot more to say about that.

Math Facts

So many students come to me in 7th or 8th grade struggling because they don’t know their math facts well. If they don’t know their math facts (ie 7×7=49) then when they’re trying to do things like long division or multiplication or even algebra things like foiling, every time they run into something they need to multiply they have to stop and figure it out by counting on their fingers or adding up a whole list of 6’s, and it completely distracts them from the problem they’re working on. Lots of times it looks like they’re struggling with what they’re learning, but really it’s just that they haven’t memorized their math facts well enough.

However, I also meet students in high school who hate math (and therefore science and most of the really profitable careers) because someone tried to force them to learn their math facts in a way that made them feel really ashamed and frustrated and bitter.

So, it’s a tight rope, and it needs to be done, but it needs to be done carefully. Ideally, learning math facts can be fun.

A great place to start is with computer games like In Search of Spot or Number Munchers.

Flash cards can be great, if you can make it fun. (i.e. positive. Praise them for getting facts correct, don’t say anything if they get it incorrect. Say things like ‘whoa that was fast!’ when they answer a fact more quickly than usual.) 5-10 minutes each day is ideal, don’t make it too long or it stops being fun.

I like these flash cards.

You can also get infinitely many free math drills here.

Weird New Ways of Solving Problems

A lot of time students come in with a familiar type of problem, but their teacher is having them solve it in a way I’ve never seen before. Long division methods change all the time. So do factoring methods. This is really hard, because you want to help and explain things, and the way you’ve always done things is so familiar. But, learning multiple methods is really confusing for kids. It’s almost always better to try to teach them the method they’re learning in class. Because their teacher will build off that later.

This, of course, means that if you’re going to help them with their homework you have to first try to understand this new method yourself. The first thing you need to know is that it’s probably more similar than it looks at first, and if you think about it for a while and look at slides/notes from the teacher you can usually figure it out. There are also lots of online resources that will explain these new methods. My two favorites are Khan Academy and Purple Math.

Also, if you run into something you’re stuck on, post a comment here or email me and I can try to help.

In general, especially for younger students, the absolute most important thing is that it’s fun for them, and that they start to feel like math is something they can be good at. That idea will get them through many future math classes and will help them be successful eventually, no matter how hard it is.

It’s the habits that keep you safe

I was in a car accident Friday night, the first time I’d every been in any kind of accident, and the thing that struck me about it was the sheer amount of force involved. I was stopped at a light, had been stopped for a while, when this girl ran into me from behind.

She couldn’t have been going very fast, because traffic was bad and we’d been inching forward for about 20 minutes. I didn’t see it coming.

The first thing was the huge bang, and being flung forward. My foot came off the brake and my car was pushed forward. In that weird time-slows-down mind state I saw the car in front of us, realized we were going to hit them, slammed on my brakes.

At first I was like, whoa that was close, I almost hit someone. I thought that maybe I should have had my foot more firmly on the brake, because then we wouldn’t have moved forward like that and almost hit someone. Really, though, that’s wrong, because the fact that some of the energy propelled us forward actually protected us. The more we went forward the less impact had to be absorbed by the car and our bodies. Of course, if the car had crumpled we might not have been thrust back and forward again, which has hurt my neck pretty bad.

I’m thinking of it as a conservation of momentum problem. In the aftermath I realized that if I had only looked at my speedometer as we were pushed forward I could have used the masses of our cars to calculate how fast she was going.

It doesn’t really matter how fast she was going, but I’m curious. I don’t really understand how it happened. Because, she hit us pretty hard, and I don’t know how she got going so fast.

The masses of our cars were about the same, which is lucky, again from a conservation of momentum perspective. My car is little, and if hers had been a big truck the damage would have been a lot worse. Much more kinetic energy to be absorbed.

The thing that struck me was just how little control I had over the situation. I didn’t see it coming, but even if I had there wouldn’t have been anything I could do about it. There wasn’t any place for me to move my car to. There also just wasn’t any time to react. I had time for exactly one action, which was braking. Even then, the only thing that gave me the time to do that was the fact that I had stopped well before the car in front of me. I can remember times when I didn’t do that. When I stopped pretty close to the car in front of me.

Because there wasn’t any time, no time to think or plan, the things that kept me safe were the things I did out of habit. Driving with my hands on the wheel. Keeping my foot on the brake. Braking when I see someone in front of me. Stopping several feet before the next car. Keeping my insurance up to date.

I didn’t know whether my insurance would cover it. She doesn’t have insurance. She doesn’t have insurance, which means that if I didn’t have uninsured motorist coverage I would be out of luck. I would be stuck paying 3k in car repairs, and who knows how much in medical bills.

I never appreciated car insurance before this. When I bought my car I bought insurance through the same company my parents used, just because I was familiar with it. They gave me some options and I picked some things, never thinking it would apply to me because I’d never been in an accident and I’m a very careful driver. I didn’t remember whether I had opted for the personal injury protection (yes) or the uninsured motorist (yes.) Those decisions seemed so random and not very important, and it’s weird how incredibly important they have now become. I feel incredibly lucky to have insurance. I also feel incredibly angry that another driver would drive an uninsured car, and then be paying so little attention to her driving that she would plow into a parked car. I’m sure she never planned on getting in an accident, either. I can even see how, if you didn’t have much money but you needed to get to work you might drive a car without insurance, thinking that you’ll only be hurting yourself. But, it doesn’t just hurt you. My uninsured motorist insurance is not as good as what it would be if you hit me and had insurance. My premiums won’t go up, because it’s been ruled not my fault, but I’ve filed a claim which means I lose the safe driving record bonus.

Once you get in an accident you can’t go back and fix things, and it happens too fast for any decision you make to greatly affect the outcome. Think about your habits, think about the safety mechanisms in place, think about the harm you can do to other people.

(If you’re in the 84% of washington drivers who have insurance this isn’t for you.)

Which SAT Book You Should Use, Based on Your Starting Score and Goal

In this post, I’m going to list out the best SAT Prep materials, and show you which ones you should use depending on where you start and what your goals are.

First off, why should you take my advice about this?

  • I was a National Merit Scholar in High School
  • I scored an 800 math, 720 verbal (this was in the days before the writing section.)
  • I’ve been teaching test prep successfully for 8 years

I know my site is supposed to be all about physics, but some of my students come to me after using books that don’t work at all, and I hate to see people waste that effort, so I’m writing a post about it.

SAT Materials

SAT Starting Score: <1500 Total, Goal: 1600-1800

I would recommend you get two books:

The Official SAT Study Guide (the blue book)

McGraw Hill’s SAT (the orange book)

And work off of this vocab list.

Start by working through the math, reading, essay, and grammar chapters in the McGraw Hill book. Then work through the practice tests in the back. Make sure that for every question you miss, you read the explanation and understand why you missed it.

Next, time yourself taking full-length practice tests from The Official SAT Study Guide. This is the only book with real actual old SAT’s, so it’s the most important. You can score these using their score tables. Keep taking full practice tests until you’re at your goal score. (Make sure you use the bubble sheet, take the test in a quiet place with no food, don’t talk aloud to yourself. ie treat it like the real thing.)

SAT Starting Score: <1600 Total, Goal: 2000+

Firstly, this is really, really, really hard. You’ll probably need at least 6 months of prep. You’ll need to be extremely diligent, paying attention to every question you miss, why you miss it, and learn from it. I’ve had several students succeed at this, but it takes a really long time. Also, I admire you for aiming high, but also know that you can get into lots of great schools with less than a 2000. Sometimes people think of the SAT as like a status symbol or a measure of intelligence, but it isn’t. It’s just a measure of how well you take a specific test.

Also, before you set out on such a long endeavor, try taking a practice ACT test to see if you like that one better. My best friend scored a lot higher on her ACT than her SAT without even studying.

That being said, if you came to me with these goals, here is what I would recommend.

McGraw Hill’s SAT

The Official SAT Study Guide

SAT Grammar by Erica Meltzer

SAT Grammar Workbook by Erica Meltzer

Barron’s SAT

Princeton Review’s 11 Practice Tests

PWN the SAT Math by Mike Mclenathan

Start by working through SAT Grammar by Erica Meltzer, then work through her workbook. At the same time, work through PWN the SAT Math. Then, start with McGraw Hill’s SAT. Take two or three practice sections per day (like, do two grammar and a math, or a grammar and a math each day.) Then, work through the math, reading, and writing chapters in the McGraw Hill book.

Once you’ve done that, start taking a full-length practice test from the Official SAT Study Guide every week or two. Make sure you make this test as much like the real thing as possible (go to a quiet place, sit up straight, don’t eat or drink, time yourself, don’t talk aloud, use the bubble sheets.) Grade your practice test.

Keep taking a full practice test every weekend if you can. On the weekdays, keep doing practice sections out of the McGraw Hill Book. When you run out of tests from there, move on the the Princeton Review. Then move on to the Barron’s book.

A Note: Only the Official Guide has real tests in it. The other books are made by test prep companies, and sometimes their test questions are substantially different from the real SAT. The only reason I recommend them here is that the college board doesn’t release many official practice tests, so in order to have enough practice material you need to use some of the lower-quality ones. See the end of this post for more notes about each of the books I recommend.

While you’re doing the above, you also need to be studying vocab. I recommend this list.

Starting Score: Any, Goal: Raise your score about 100 points

Work out of this book:

The Official SAT Study Guide (the blue book)

Study this vocab list.

Time yourself taking full-length practice tests from The Official SAT Study Guide. This is the only book with real actual old SAT’s, so it’s the most important. You can score these using their score tables. Keep taking full practice tests until you’re at your goal score. (Make sure you use the bubble sheet, take the test in a quiet place with no food, don’t talk aloud to yourself. ie treat it like the real thing.) *For every question you miss, make sure you understand WHY*

Starting Score: 1600-1800, Goal: 2000+

I would recommend you get these books:

SAT Grammar by Erica Meltzer

SAT Grammar Workbook by Erika Meltzer

PWN the SAT Math by Mike Clenathan

The Official SAT Study Guide

McGraw Hill’s SAT

Start by working through SAT Grammar by Erica Meltzer, then work through her workbook. At the same time, work through PWN the SAT Math. Then, start with McGraw Hill’s SAT. Take two or three practice sections per day (like, do two grammar and a math, or a grammar and a math each day.) Then, work through the math, reading, and writing chapters in the McGraw Hill book.

Once you’ve done that, start taking a full-length practice test from the Official SAT Study Guide every week or two. Make sure you make this test as much like the real thing as possible (go to a quiet place, sit up straight, don’t eat or drink, time yourself, don’t talk aloud, use the bubble sheets.) Grade your practice test.

Keep taking a full practice test every weekend if you can. On the weekdays, keep doing practice sections out of the McGraw Hill Book.

A Note: Only the Official Guide has real tests in it. The other books are made by test prep companies, and sometimes their test questions are substantially different from the real SAT. The only reason I recommend them here is that the college board doesn’t release many official practice tests, so in order to have enough practice material you need to use some of the lower-quality ones. See the end of this post for more notes about each of the books I recommend.

Starting Score: 1800+, Goal: 2100+

SAT Grammar by Erica Meltzer

SAT Grammar Workbook by Erika Meltzer

PWN the SAT Math by Mike Clenathan

The Official SAT Study Guide

McGraw Hill’s SAT

Princeton Review’s 11 Practice Tests

Barron’s SAT

Start by working through SAT Grammar by Erica Meltzer, then work through her workbook. At the same time, work through PWN the SAT Math. Then, start with McGraw Hill’s SAT. Take two or three timed practice sections per day (like, do two grammar and a math, or a grammar and a math each day.) Then, work through the math, reading, and writing chapters in the McGraw Hill book.

Once you’ve done that, start taking a full-length practice test from the Official SAT Study Guide every week or two. Make sure you make this test as much like the real thing as possible (go to a quiet place, sit up straight, don’t eat or drink, time yourself, don’t talk aloud, use the bubble sheets.) Grade your practice test.

Keep taking a full practice test every weekend if you can. On the weekdays, keep doing practice sections out of the McGraw Hill Book. When you run out of tests from there, move on the the Princeton Review. Then move on the the Barron’s book.

A Note: Only the Official Guide has real tests in it. The other books are made by test prep companies, and sometimes their test questions are substantially different from the real SAT. The only reason I recommend them here is that the college board doesn’t release many official practice tests, so in order to have enough practice material you need to use some of the lower-quality ones. See the end of this post for more notes about each of the books I recommend.

While you’re doing the above, you also need to be studying vocab. I recommend this list.

Starting Score: 2000+, Goal: 2200+

SAT Grammar by Erica Meltzer

SAT Grammar Workbook by Erika Meltzer

PWN the SAT Math by Mike Clenathan

The Official SAT Study Guide

Princeton Review’s 11 Practice Tests

Vocab

Start by working through both the Meltzer books. Then work through PWN the SAT Math. Then, take full length practice tests from the official guide. Take one per week, make sure you treat it as much like the real test as possible,¬†(go to a quiet place, sit up straight, don’t eat or drink, time yourself, don’t talk aloud, use the bubble sheets.) Grade your practice test. Go over every question you miss and write out an explanation of why you missed it.

During the week, do practice sections from the Princeton Review book.

Make sure you learn at least 400 new vocab words.

Book List and Some Notes

  • SAT Grammar by Erica Meltzer:
    • This is the best SAT Grammar book I’ve ever come across. It explains all the rules clearly and has tons of great practice.
  • SAT Grammar Workbook by Erica Meltzer:
    • Has questions very similar to the real SAT. Great for practicing incorporating knowledge of the grammar rules into your test-taking.
  • PWN the SAT Math by Mike Clenathan
    • Great book. Goes through all the tricks and tactics.
  • McGraw Hill’s SAT
    • A good basic intro. A little easier than the real test. Has good math chapters and explanations. Also has good grammar chapters. An all around good place to start.
  • The Princeton Review’s 11 Practice Tests
    • Many of the questions in here are pretty different from the real SAT. However, I’ve noticed that when my students work out of this book they do better than when I’ve had them work out of other books. So, it does help, and it’s a good source for lots of practice questions.
  • Barron’s SAT
    • The questions in this book are quite a bit harder than what’s on the real SAT. I only use it later on for students to practice harder questions.
  • The Official SAT Study Guide
    • The best book. The only guide with actual old SAT tests. Only downside is they don’t have explanations for the questions.
  • Kaplan books:
    • Tend to be very different from the real SAT. I wouldn’t recommend.
  • The Perfect Score Project
    • A really interesting book for parents, written by a parent helping her son with his SAT Prep

Magnetism for the Non-Mathematically Inclined

A few weeks ago I came across Magnetism: A Very Short Introduction¬†while looking at other books in the same category as mine. It’s written by a physics professor at Oxford, and it’s completely fascinating and entertaining. Not what I expected at all. I was expecting something pretty dry, and focused on the physics. Instead, Stephen Blundell, the author, gives a whole historical background complete with descriptions of how people used to think magnets could heal them of psychic illnesses.

He also tells the stories of the physicists who discovered these phenomena. I loved seeing them as human beings, with personalities, rivalries, getting passed up for jobs/promotions, and being embarrassed that they weren’t very good at math.

It doesn’t have any equations or math in, it’s all about the concepts and the history.

Looking for Beta Readers

I’ve just finished a draft of my next book – Conservation of Energy- and I would really like some feedback on it before I publish it.¬†

I’m starting to think of my books as low-cost, problem-solving based, visual textbooks, and I want to make sure that anyone reading them learns what they were hoping to learn, and that it’s fun for them. As part of that, this month I’m going through each of my old books and adding in summaries of the material covered, as well as hundreds more practice problems and answers. I think I may even add printable flashcards here on my website.

In order to make these as helpful as possible, I really need feedback on what’s working and what isn’t.

If you would like to read my newest book, send me an email at SarahAllenPhysics at gmail dot com. I would be very grateful for feedback, and you can help make these books even better for other readers!

Or, another way you could help is by commenting below and letting me know what you were looking for when you came to my website, and what you’re looking for out of a ¬†physics book.

Thanks!