The Tao of Test-Taking

About a year ago, I took my first class in Krav Maga. I’d never learned a martial art before, and I was curious about what it’d be like to learn one. As I took more and more classes, I was surprised and impressed by how much the instructors stressed mastering the fundamentals. For example, in our white belt classes, we’d spend the first quarter of every class simply repeating the most basic kicks and jabs. (Even the much higher-belted students who sometimes joined us would be asked to do the same exercises.) For the remainder of each class, we’d drill on other fundamental “combos” and would rarely be taught material beyond our belt-level.  The point, of course, was for us to master the basic moves before learning any material that would build upon them. 

The more I teach the ACT and SAT, the more I see the overlap between learning a martial art (or any technique/skill-based activity, for that matter) and learning how to take standardized tests. For example, on the Math section of the ACT, there are certain concepts and skills (e.g., Pythagorean Theorem, attention to detail) that are more frequently tested than others. What’s more, the advanced questions on the Math section often test several of these things at once. When working with my students, I prioritize their mastery of such fundamentals so that — just like a basketball player shooting a free-throw — they can apply them effortlessly on test-day. Often, I’ll begin lessons with students by quizzing them on essential math formulas and equations that they may have forgotten in the past, as well as on any new material we may have reviewed in previous weeks. When it’s clear to me that a student has all of the “white belt” skills down, we move on to the next “belt” of content and skills, and so on, until he or she has mastered the test inside and out. 

Conceptualizing the test in this way has helped me become a better instructor to my students. For example, when I first began tutoring privately four years ago, I was often tempted to review every question a student had missed on his or her practice tests. Looking back, I realize that this often wasn’t the most effective approach. Rather than focusing on quality, I was concerned with quantity — and, as a result, I found that my students would sometimes repeat the same errors on later tests. That happens much less often now. 

Finally, I think it can help (and be healthier for) students to think of standardized tests in a similar way — that is, as tests of content-knowledge and learned-skills rather than as tests of pure innate abilities. For example, students often get down on themselves because they’ve not mastered a wide variety of material or because they’ve missed a complex and involved question. When I see that, I think of a beginner or intermediate guitar player who thinks lesser of his or herself because they didn’t quite nail a complex Carlos Santana song. As Bruce Lee might have said if he were to teach standardized tests: “I fear not the student who has practiced 10,000 math problems once, but I fear the student who has practiced the Pythagorean Theorem 10,000 times.”