Approach Standardized Tests Like Competitive Sports: Don’t Study, Train

In News by Mason Schecter

I’ve mentioned that standardized tests are weird. How weird are they? So weird that I encourage my students to approach test prep not like studying for an exam, but like training for a competitive sport.

Last week one of my basketball players was frustrated that he hadn’t been making progress more rapidly, even though he understood both what he was doing wrong and the techniques he should have been applying instead. He was inconsistent, and so was his performance.

I told him that he was judging himself too harshly. Yes he knew what to do, but so what? If he expected to do the right thing, consistently, over and over again, throughout an entire multi-hour exam, then he was going to need more practice.

He gave me another disappointed look, so I shifted the discussion to something more familiar: free throws (foul shots). For readers who aren’t familiar, in basketball a free throw is an unopposed shot from the foul line. The free throw is a great example of a task that is “simple but not easy.” It’s simple (i.e., not complex) in that the entire process has only a few steps. You step to the line, set yourself, aim and shoot. The shot is always from the same location on the court. There is no defender in front of you. You can take your time.

Free throws are simple, but definitely not easy. As Dave Hopla, one of the finest shooters in history said: “If you want to be the greatest shooter in the world, there are two things you have to do… shoot the ball correctly with correct shooting form… [and] shoot it more times than anybody else the correct way.” In other words, you have to get the right form, and then practice it, over and over again.

Our conversation went something like this:

Me: What‘s your free throw percentage?

Student: About 80 percent.

Me: How good were you when started playing basketball?

Student: Terrible.

Me: How many free throws have you shot?

Student: I don’t know. A lot.

Me: Hundreds? Thousands? Tens of thousands?

Student: Definitely thousands.

Me: Ok. So, how long have you been in test prep?

Student: Six weeks.

Me: And how many full practice tests have you taken?

Student: Six.

Me: Imagine if we turned the tables and you were to teach me to shoot free throws. I understand free throws, but that doesn’t mean I can make them. With a good coach and plenty of practice, I’m sure I would improve dramatically. Whether I would improve slowly or quickly I can’t say, but I would certainly improve if I put in the time and effort.

Student: That makes sense.

Me: By the way, could I cram for free throws like a test in school?

Student: Uh, no way.

Me: Exactly. There’s a difference between having high standards and having unrealistic expectations. Don’t get this twisted. You’re not slacking and you’ve never been stupid. It takes as long as it takes. The good news is if you’re willing to practice, then you’ll get to where you want to be.



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