Complex exams like the SAT & ACT are often compared to sports or skills, in large part because mastering any of these tasks takes a lot of time. You can’t cram for the SAT any more than you can cram for the World Series or opening night at Carnegie Hall. But why does preparation and mastery require so much time for what is substantially an academic challenge? Of course, a quick study might be able to encode most of the grammar and math rules tested in a day or two, but that content, as broad and deep as it is, only represents a fraction of what the exams challenge.
An important reason why so many sports, skills, and standardized tests take a long time to master involves the idea of retrieval. Consider how many complex rules, routines, strategies, and factual frameworks an expert must not just remember but also recall at just the right moment. Learning is one thing; learning so that you can retrieve the right piece of information at the right time is quite another.
Ready retrieval depends very much on what athletes call practice or musicians call rehearsal, an ongoing sequence of simulated practice academia refers to as low-stakes testing. However you look at it, retrieval practice requires you to independently–no notes or coaches’ prompts–recall and apply information you’ve learned in the past, anywhere from minutes to days later. Whether you’re ripping through a stack of flashcards, tackling the SAT Question of the Day, or plowing through a pop quiz in school, you are engaging in the kind of low stakes testing that facilitates transfer of learning and long-term retention of knowledge. The Learning Scientists blog depicts the power of retrieval practice in a beautiful concept map:
In a 2010 study titled Repeated Testing Produces Superior Transfer of Learning Relative to Repeated Studying, researcher Andrew Butler conducted four experiments examining how repeated testing and repeated studying affected retention and transfer of facts and concepts. What did he learn?
Repeated testing produced superior retention and transfer on the final test relative to repeated studying. This finding indicates that the mnemonic benefits of test-enhanced learning are not limited to the retention of the specific response tested during initial learning but rather extend to the transfer of knowledge in a variety of contexts.
Much like Aristotle before him, Butler concluded that testing may promote transfer of learning by increasing the retention of information and perhaps also by improving understanding that facilitates better execution. As long-time champions of test-enhanced learning, we see this operate in our students studying for high stakes tests on three distinct levels:
1. RETRIEVAL OF SUBJECT MATTER
The more practice SATs and ACTs you take, the more often you have to recall specific grammar rules, math formulas, and vocabulary words. Interleaving low stakes testing with individualized test review provides critical feedback loops that help students finally learn elusive concepts.
2. RETRIEVAL OF TEST STRUCTURE
Recognition in the moment of components of test structure like number of questions and length of each section definitely contributes to a smoother and more successful testing experience. Even more important is the ability to identify common question types and retrieve specific strategies for tackling them.
3. RETRIEVAL OF PRIOR EXPERIENCE
Runners who follow a familiar route gradually develop a mental map of places they typically feel tired or bored, which consequently arms them against such trials. Those preparing for high stakes exams can learn the same lessons through low stakes practice. Learning over time where you might lose focus, feel weary, or run out of time allows you to develop a strategy to maintain a winning state of mind throughout.
The research, scientific and anecdotal alike, supporting the amazing efficacy of retrieval practice cannot be denied. You cannot learn everything needed for your best test scores in a single week any more than you can lock in your best concert or golf game in that span of time. Commit to our prescription of superior test prep supported by high quality proctored practice tests and reviews over a period of several months to really lock in learning you can use when you need it. As anyone familiar with the testing effect can assure you, testing is learning!