After reviewing tens of thousands of SAT & ACT Reading passages with students over the years, I can share one interesting and entirely intuitive observation: test takers score better on passages that interest them. When a reader engages with a passage, she reads faster and comprehends more deeply, which leads to improved accuracy. On the other hand, when the first paragraph elicits an audible “Ugh,” you can bet that tortured, distracted, plodding reading will ensue. Readers that do not engage fully with a passage rarely understand it well enough to pull the majority of points.
Unsurprisingly, this observation extends to every section of a test and, further, to every kind of test or activity. Author, motivational speaker and organizational consultant Simon Sinek phrased the distinction perfectly:
Working hard for something we don’t care about is called stress; working hard for something we love is called passion.
You can see the truth of this statement play out in your own life and every other. Pick out three very different people, and you’ll find three very different conceptions of fun. One may spend hours at a time solving math problems, another will devote that same span to shooting hoops, and the third will pass the time practicing guitar. Chances are that the trio will contain exactly one great mathematician, athlete, and musician (though double and triple threats certainly exist.) After all, greatness results from deliberate practice sustained over enough time to see incremental gains compound into elite performance.
Self-Determination Theory holds that most significant gains in learning can be attributed to intrinsic motivation and internalized forms of extrinsic motivation. Basically, learners have a innate tendency to explore their environments, to grow, and develop based on what interests and motivates them. Thus, if you want a superior test score, you have to want to read, to solve math problems, to learn grammar rules, and to take timed practice tests under simulated conditions. Profound disinterest in the intermediate steps will make the end goal harder or perhaps impossible to achieve.
Sports coaches know all too well the difference between wanting to win and wanting to prepare to win. We test prep teachers see this distinction play out just as often. Going back to the point about reading passages, test takers faced with what they consider boring topics would do well to at least pretend to be interested. The “fake it ’til you make it” approach can, when applied successfully, sustain enthusiasm for the 8-10 minutes needed to read a passage and answer its questions. On the larger level, though, test takers should dig deep to find the internal reasons they really want to excel. High schoolers who ace the SAT & ACT may not care about the tests themselves, but they care very much about the process, implications, and outcomes of testing. If you want to win at anything, you have to care.