Tom Brady and Patterns

I don't get compared to Tom Brady a lot.

Surprised? I didn't think so. Even though we're about the same age, he's headed to his seventh Superbowl to play for his fifth championship. I don't think I've won five of anything - not even in Little League.

So unsurprisingly, I'd perform worse than Brady on the football field. A lot lot worse. But other than his experience, confidence, athleticism, competitive spirit, and stunning good looks, what does Brady have going for him that I don't?

Well, for one thing, football pattern recognition. Can you imagine having a football snapped to you in the middle of an NFL game? Eleven huge people on the opposite team would love nothing better than to hit you as hard as legally possible. People are running all over the place. The crowd is deafeningly loud. You have the ball. What's your next move?

Well, if you're Tom Brady, you've learned to see patterns. If the defense is aligned a certain way, he knows it's zone coverage instead of man to man, and he'll have more short yardage throws available. If they're blitzing, he knows his wide receivers will be more open. (Sidenote: this is mediocre football talk at best. I'm a fan, not an expert.)

My point is that Brady can react quickly and accurately since he has learned patterns from playing in and watching video from hundreds of games.

When I'm teaching the ACT or the SAT, I see patterns, too. After all, I've seen dozens of these tests, and they're always very similar (after all, they're standardized tests). So how do I teach a student to recognize the same patterns that I do?

The biggest way is to learn in retrospect through analysis. When we talk through a question, we're always looking for:

    1. What concepts and skills are involved
    2. The ideal method to use on the question
    3. What we can learn for the future - the takeaway


#3 is the big one. Since the same kind of question will inevitably happen again, we want to react in the appropriate way when we see it. To help with this, I like having students make flashcards. On the front, they write,

"When I see..." (whatever the trigger is to indicate the question type).

And on the back,

"I will...." (what they'll do for that question type).

By making cards like this, the student can identify what a question is testing more quickly and react with the ideal method more quickly. Once someone goes through all (yes, all) the questions in a section like this -- whether they were answered correctly or not -- he or she will be much more prepared to spot similarities on the next section of that type.

This can demystify sections like SAT Writing and Language, where students need to move from what sounds right to knowing what rules are being tested. It's invaluable for sections like ACT Science, where students need to identify what type of question is in front of them in the midst of an experiment about something they've never seen before.

The Bottom Line

Painstakingly analyzing questions in this way isn't usually fun, and it takes time and effort. It's a lot easier to just do another practice test. But students willing to invest time in pattern recognition will find it to be a more effective way to prepare for what's coming on test day*.

*Just thank god it's not a 6'6", 350-pound defensive lineman.

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