Deliberate Practice

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As your mother always told you, “If you put in the time and effort, you will see results.” And, this is the philosophy many of us tell our children today. Unfortunately, it’s not quite that simple! Current research shows that your mother was wrong: BETTER practice, as opposed to MORE practice, leads to success. You can practice something over and over again, but if you practice the task in the wrong manner or without introspection, you will probably NOT improve.

I recently read a blog written by Eric Barker that summarizes this idea of deliberate practice vs. regular practice. Barker explores in his blog the popular, “10,000 hour rule” (the idea that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to achieve mastery), originally theorized by Anders Ericsson and discussed in Malcolm Gladwell’s bestseller, Outliers. Recently Ericsson has qualified his 10,000 hour rule and Barker shares these new findings and insights. These new findings should be applied by our children when engaging in test prep in order for them to reach their testing potential.

The KEY is deliberate practice, a highly engaging activity with the intended goal of improving performance. Deliberate practice entails focus, application, and analysis. Scores will NOT improve dramatically simply by taking weekly SATs or ACTs for 6 months or mindlessly answering the WilsonDailyPrep SAT/ACT online questions for 9 months. Instead, students MUST do the following when completing tests and their online questions:

#1 Find a Mentor/Tutor/Coach

Barker writes: In order to understand how to improve you must FIND A MENTOR, someone whom you respect and will listen to. This person should have the skills you wish to emulate and be able to help you visualize and reach your goals. It’s hard to get better at something if you don’t have an example or instruction to guide and educate you.

How this relates to test prep: This first step is the reason you should hire a tutor and/or sign up for the WilsonDailyPrep program. Tutors and coaches provide strategies, knowledge, tips, and guidance that allow students to learn new material, build skills, recognize weak areas to improve upon, and engage in guided practice. Students must trust their tutors/coaches and be open to their instruction. Students need to engage in active learning – asking questions and sharing with their teachers/coaches areas that they do not fully understand. Ideally, students need to visualize the strategies they learn. Constantly ask themselves, “What answer would my teacher pick and why?” Or, “How would my teacher go about solving this problem?” Use your tutors as a model to copy.

#2 It’s Not “Try Harder;” It’s “Try Different”

Barker writes: Albert Einstein once said, “Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” This quote is the basis of point #2. In order to improve, you must get out of your comfort zone. Repetition is not what makes you an expert. Rather, it’s the ability to push yourself and try something new as you engage in repetition that produces the expert.

How this relates to test prep: Many students think that simply answering questions for three, six, or even nine months will ensure a higher score. This is not necessarily true. Many students take the easy way out by deciding not to utilize any strategies. Instead, they continue to do one problem after another in the same way that they have been doing since they started. This “lazy” effort is counterproductive because it is instilling bad habits. Students will become frustrated that they are not improving and will begin to think that they CAN’T improve. Yet, they haven’t given themselves a proper chance. Unless students engage in deliberate practice – UTILIZING the strategies taught, evaluating WHY they are getting questions incorrect, and THINKING about how to try something new – then students will not reach their true testing potential.

In many ways, tutoring – online questions, group classes, and private lessons – can be a passive experience. Students complete the homework and read answer explanations or simply listen to their tutors’ explanations. Instead, students need to evaluate and ask questions. An active student tries all strategies taught and analyzes what works best for him/her.

#3 It’s About Doing, Not Knowing

Barker writes: You can have all the knowledge about a subject and still not have any practical skill in that area. For example, you may watch every single ice hockey game on television, yet have no idea how to skate. The only way to develop skills is by physically practicing them and then by building upon them. Receiving feedback about your performance and then practicing enables you to improve upon your mistakes.

How this relates to test prep: After learning all the tricks and strategies, many students feel as though they are done preparing for the exams. They think that they can go into test day and just regurgitate what they have learned and achieve a high score. This is not the case! Knowing the strategies is not enough. Instead, students must be like athletes. Athletes do not show up once a week and expect to win the big game. The diligently practice every day the skills and techniques they’ve learned over the course of the season. Well, many consider the SAT and ACT to be the biggest game of junior year. So, students must practice daily! Most students can’t practice two hours a day (and I don’t recommend this), but they can and should be able to fit in 10 to 20 minutes of practice per day. (This is where the WilsonDailyPrep comes in.) The more students practice the skills correctly, the better off they will be. The goal is for the strategies to become second nature. Completing homework once a week in one sitting is not enough!

#4 Study the Past to Have a Better Future

Barker writes: Don’t allow past work to stay in the past. Use it to your advantage. Looking at examples of past work (completed by yourself and others) is an effective way to get feedback and to learn.

How this relates to test prep: This skill practice is especially important in the week prior to an exam. A great strategy is for students to go through all their previous mistakes in their workbooks, DailyPreps, exams, and worksheets. These questions are students’ weaknesses. Students should see if they are now able to understand and correct their mistakes. This “relooking” and “reanalyzing” is KEY to deliberate practice and KEY to a high test score.

The above four steps are imperative to general skill building success as well as SAT/ACT success. They are also the cornerstone of the WilsonPrep method. Constantly evaluating, trying new strategies, and engaging in directed practice are key. Please share these strategies with your children to help them succeed on standardized tests and beyond.

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