Canceled test dates? Keep your standardized testing skills on point

Urban traffic congestion sign saying Major DelaysYou’ve spent months studying for the ACT, SAT, or subject tests, only to see your planned test dates vanish from the calendar.  What should you do?  Continue the tutoring that you thought was coming to an end?  Take a break and risk having your test-taking skills get a little dull by the time you sit for the test?  Anyone who has come to my workshops has heard me mention what I call the “Treisman Method,” an approach to studying that grew out of research that Uri Treisman did at Cal Berkeley in the late 1970s.  Treisman’s work reinforced, among other things, the importance of the socialization of learning.  Combine that with what we know about high-utility cognitive processing strategies and we have a protocol that you can follow to stay sharp for your postponed testing date.

Let’s start with cognitive processing techniques that we know help you anchor information in your long term memory (LTM) and access it later.  It turns out that many of the things that our teachers have recommended over the years—like highlighting, summarizing, or re-reading—stand out as what educational psychologists would consider “low-utility” strategies.  You don’t get a lot out of them as learning techniques.  Some people might, of course, as no single rule applies to everyone; however, generally speaking, if you want to use a high-utility learning technique you should turn to two specific strategies:  practice testing and “distributed practice.”

Practice testing does not need a lot of explanation.  You can implement it in a variety of different ways, like self-quizzing with flashcards, doing practice problems from textbooks or workbooks, and more.  Coupling practice testing with feedback makes it even more effective than just doing it on your own.  Distributed practice means what it sounds like.  Instead of cramming all your studying into one long study session, divide that same amount of time into smaller chunks over multiple sittings.  Using both of these techniques together should give you powerful results.

Now let’s turn to the Treisman method.  Uri Treisman taught calculus at Cal Berkeley in the 1970s.  He noticed that particular groups of students in his class consistently outpaced others.  This continuing disparity perplexed Treisman, so he investigated.  He found that, while many students studied the recommended eight hours for exams, those who performed at the top took extra steps to socialize their learning.  They discussed problem sets over meals, consulted with older students who had already taken the course, checked each others’ answers, and edited each others’ solutions.  In short, as Treisman later wrote, “they learned from each other.”  Treisman adapted elements of this approach in a program that he designed.  With the same strategies at everybody’s disposal, the previous performance disparities disappeared.

To stay fresh for your delayed ACT, SAT, and subject tests, I recommend that you combine practice testing, distributed practice, and the Treisman model into one protocol:

  1. Identify a study partner or form a small study group with peers preparing for the same test.
  2. Each week, before you get together with your partner or group, complete one section of a practice test or section from a review book.
  3. Then get together via FaceTime, Zoom, or Snapchat and help each other get unstuck on any questions or problems that presented a challenge.
  4. Every 2-3 weeks, get together with your partner or group virtually for an extra session, this time with a tutor or an older student, who can give you feedback on areas that are persistently tripping any of you up.
  5. Finally, once every four to six weeks, take a full-length mock test to stay limber—and of course use steps 1-4 above to go over your results.

Steps 1 and 3 give you the opportunity to learn from each other, a key element of Treisman’s program.  Steps 2 and 3 help you distribute your practice.  Steps 3 and 4 give you feedback (which enhances the benefits of practice testing).  Step 5 bolsters your practice testing regimen.

Honestly, I wish I could convince my students to study this way for their standardized tests even without the inconvenience of testing delays.  Results would shoot through the roof.  I am hoping that the social distancing that the current public health crisis has imposed on us has made you hungry for an opportunity to learn together.  Set aside just a little bit of time each day to engage in this approach and not only will you stay fresh for your delayed exams, but you will enjoy the much needed interaction with your peers.

Please feel free to contact me for an individual consultation if you feel that I can support you in this or any other aspect of your college process.