teacher and students

All too frequently, high school teachers who don’t have test prep experience find themselves suddenly tasked with teaching a standardized test prep course. This can be intimidating and overwhelming, especially if it’s been a while since you had to take the ACT or SAT.

Taking into consideration the position of these teachers, Piqosity wanted to create an easy-to-follow (and implement) guide to teaching a standardized test prep course. In fact, we’ve been able to boil the undertaking down to a relatively simple process that can be summarized in four steps, which you can jump to by clicking on the links below:

  1. Ensure students understand the benefits of college.
  2. Explain to students what the ACT and SAT are.
  3. Assign weekly practice.
  4. Review practice in class.

Our guide also answers questions that your students are likely to ask during class so that you can have the responses you need right at your fingertips.

Now, instead of having to wonder, “What do SAT prep courses teach?” or “What is the best way to prepare for the ACT test?” you can follow the strategies in this helpful guide and feel more confident that you’re offering the best standardized test prep class that you can!

Before You Begin Teaching a Standardized Test Prep Class: Setting Expectations

One thing many teachers find overwhelming about teaching a standardized test prep class is the sheer quantity of material tested by the ACT and SAT, so it’s important to address this now: the purpose of a standardized test prep course is not to teach students all of the material covered on the test.

Rather, your primary job is to help students develop their test-taking skills and to find the resources they need to improve their content knowledge on their own. Remember, this is not an English/Math/Science class, it’s a Test Prep class.

If you’re lucky, you may be able to enlist the help of one or more of your school’s English/Math/Science teachers for some class sessions focused on reviewing key concepts. Or you yourself may be able to teach some of those sessions, depending on your experience.

But you can still lead a very successful ACT/SAT Prep class without this—so long as you can encourage students to take advantage of the many helpful resources you show them!

1. Ensure students understand the benefits of college.

At some point while you’re teaching standardized test prep, one of your students will inevitably ask, “What’s the point of this class?” This is why it’s important to begin by establishing a baseline understanding of the value of higher education and, by extension, the value of preparing for the tests which help determine college placement.

Take the time to go over the following information with your class.

  • It’s well-documented that a reliable indicator of someone’s future wealth is their education level:
  • American workers with a college education make, on average, nearly 75% more than those with only a high school degree.
  • Even students who start, but don’t finish, an undergraduate degree are better off than those who don’t.
  • According to the Brookings Institute, for every year of college a student is enrolled, they can expect to earn 10% more than their non-enrolled peers.
  • It’s not all about money, either; college-educated students are also typically better socially adjusted and tend to experience greater overall well-being.

If you can, discuss your student’s goals with them, and point out where a college education can help them reach and exceed these goals.

Doing so is an excellent first step towards helping students develop their intrinsic motivation to learn, which will be essential to their continued academic success. Where relevant, you can even share some of your own positive college experiences!

For more tips on getting students pumped for test prep and test-taking, check out our guide to How to Motivate Students for Standardized Tests. You might also want to consult our article on Managing Test-Taking Anxiety since this is a common concern of students.

2. Explain to students what the ACT and SAT are.

Once you’ve emphasized the importance of college education, it’s time to introduce the two most popular admissions tests for applying to college in the United States: the ACT and SAT.

Stellar SAT or ACT scores are one of the best ways to attract the attention of college admissions and are the ultimate goal of standardized test prep. Moreover, scoring highly on these tests is a common way students often qualify for some academic scholarships.

To begin, walk your students through a general overview of each test, including:

  1. Sections
  2. Types of questions
  3. Timing (including seconds per question)

A brief overview of this information is shown in the charts below.

SAT overview

Note that starting in 2021, the SAT has removed the optional essay portion of its test. The ACT still includes the optional Writing section.

ACT overview

Student FAQ: What’s the difference between the ACT and SAT?

Both the SAT and the ACT test core concepts from Math, English, and Data Analysis. They are also both peer-normed tests, meaning students are scored in comparison to their classmates.

Broadly speaking, the difference between the tests can be summarized thus: versus the SAT, the ACT generally presents questions in a less complex manner, but it requires students to know more advanced concepts and work more quickly.

The chart below offers a helpful overview of the differences between the ACT and SAT:

act sat comparison

Since the SAT was redesigned in 2016, the ACT and SAT have become incredibly similar; the overwhelming majority of students will score equivalently. Moreover, our experience working with thousands of students over the last 17 years has shown that fewer than 5% of students will have significantly different scores on the SAT vs. the ACT.

For more, check out our detailed guide to The Differences Between the ACT and SAT.

Student FAQ: Should you take the ACT or the SAT?

Top colleges like Harvard, Princeton, and Stanford couldn’t care less which test students take, so long as students do well on them; both tests are nearly universally accepted at US colleges.

That said, if students can, we recommend that they take both the ACT and the SAT. When students start to get serious about their ACT/ SAT prep—hopefully early in their junior year in high school—they should start by taking a practice test of both the ACT and the SAT under timed conditions. 

During the pandemic, students can practice for ACT or SAT for FREE with Piqosity!

In your standardized test prep course, encourage students to focus their energy on the test that they scored better on or—in the likely event they scored equivalently—focus on the test they felt more comfortable with. When it comes time to take an actual ACT or SAT, encourage students to take them both if their time and budget allow.

Preparing for one test will almost equally prepare your student for the other. And doing any preparation at all will also likely help your students out in core academic classes in school like Math, English, and Science.

Student FAQ: How do you sign up to take the ACT or SAT?

Both the ACT and the SAT are offered multiple times a year (there is usually a test date for each every one-to-two months) and signing up for a test is easy. Simply visit the ACT or SAT registration website and follow the instructions.

In some states, the ACT and/or SAT are offered for free to every high school junior. If you live in one of these states, check with your school to see when and where the test will be administered, and what you need to do to register.

If you don’t live in one of those states, your students will need to pay to take the ACT or SAT:

  • ACT (no Writing): $55.00
  • ACT (with Writing): $70.00
  • SAT: $52.00

Prices too steep? Both the ACT and the SAT offer fee waiver programs, which can help to offset the costs of taking these tests. A student’s financial situation does not need to stand in the way of their academic success.

3. Assign weekly practice.

When it comes to standardized test prep, the best way to learn is by doing—the more experience your students have working through the kinds of questions they will encounter on the ACT and SAT, the better prepared they will be when it’s time to take the test for real.

There are many resources you can use to assign practice problems to your students; though we’re admittedly biased, we recommend using Piqosity. Piqosity is a uniquely designed platform that allows for both general and personalized practice. Plus, Piqosity comes with dozens of content tutorials and helpful analytics which you can use to guide your students’ practice assignments.

With Piqosity, teachers can quickly see the status of all of their students (including last login date and time) and directly access the student’s account to review their work. Piqosity’s interface also allows teachers to organize students by classes or groups, allowing them to quickly give all students the same assignments and view statistics in aggregate.

Best of all, during the pandemic, Piqosity’s entire suite of ACT and SAT prep materials is available for FREE.

To begin, work on one section per week.

At the beginning of your standardized test prep class, it’s important to expose students to the full range of content and question styles covered by the ACT and SAT. To that end, we recommend assigning one practice section (of either test) to the entire class every week. These practice sections will serve as a useful diagnostic tool, providing each student with a baseline score from which to measure improvement and a quick overview of their relative strengths and weaknesses.

Piqosity offers 10 full-length practice tests for both the ACT and SAT, more than enough to get you started!

Later, encourage personalized practice.

After students have been exposed to all of the different standardized test sections, you can begin assigning more targeted standardized test practice for homework. One of Piqosity’s most helpful features is that it categorizes each question based on the general content needed to correctly answer it; each student’s scores can thus easily be scanned to see where their individual weaknesses are.

Let’s imagine that a student is struggling with the ACT Math section. Although you could simply assign more practice ACT Math tests, it would be more efficient (and effective) to focus their energies on the specific subtopics they are having trouble with. Perhaps this student’s scores reveal that they have no problems correctly answering Algebra and Geometry questions, but they are consistently flubbing questions about Statistics & Probability.

One of the many useful features of Piqosity is the way it makes it easy for teachers to assign homework. Teachers can create three types of assignments—adaptive, by topic, or pick and choose. These personalization options allow a teacher to assign questions in specific content areas, ensuring that each student’s assignment is best tailored to their needs.

4. Review practice in class.

As important as all of the practice your students are doing is, it’s worth a whole lot more if it’s supplemented by an in-class review. Begin every class by going over the assigned homework questions, sharing the correct answers, and explaining why each answer is the correct choice.

Not confident in a particular subject area? Again, no problem. You don’t have to know how to find the answer off the top of your head—Piqosity provides detailed answer explanations for every practice question!

These explanations are vital—the point of all this standardized test prep is not to just help students get the correct answer to a particular set of questions but to help them understand how to apply the underlying principles to unknown, similar questions.

Another in-class focus: Review test-taking strategies.

In addition to going through the assigned material, it’s important to spend time in class reviewing reliable test-taking strategies. While it’s vital to know the test content cold, it’s also highly valuable to have an arsenal of tips and tricks that you can deploy for the maximum strategic advantage.

If you have students asking things like, “Why is my ACT score not improving?”, that’s a good indication it’s time for a review of these strategies.

Looking for a good place to start? Why not begin with our series of ACT strategy guides, which offer an in-depth look at preparing for all five ACT sections:

You’re On Your Way to Teaching a Successful Standardized Test Prep Class! 

Congratulations! If you’ve made it through our guide, you’re well on the way to teaching an awesome standardized test prep class! With the resources we’ve provided, you should be able to hit the ground running, knowing you have a tried-and-true curriculum strategy and all the answers to students’ most common questions.

And remember, you don’t have to do it alone—Piqosity is here to help! In addition to our blog, which is regularly updated with news, analysis, and all kinds of test-prep advice, remember that the Piqosity for Educators homepage has all the information about how to get started using our fantastic software.

We offer a Branded Learning Management System (LMS) for everyone—you don’t have to be a big school district to enjoy advanced student & educator management with customized learning portals. Sign up in 3 easy steps!

Check out this demonstration video to learn more!